By Jonathan Gault
October 3, 2019
DOHA, Qatar — On Wednesday morning, Craig Engels and Jenny Simpson were sitting at the breakfast table at the Team USA hotel, discussing which animals they thought they could kill if they encountered them in the wild. One of those silly conversations to calm the race-week nerves that naturally arise during the World Championships.
Later that day, Simpson made several comments critical of Alberto Salazar, who had just been handed a four-year ban for anti-doping violations by USADA, as well as the group Salazar coaches, the Nike Oregon Project. Simpson also had no sympathy for NOP athletes who may now face questions about their own accomplishments — even though athletes like Engels, Donavan Brazier, and Jessica Hull are coached by NOP assistant Pete Julian and joined the group after USADA charged Salazar.
“I’m not going to be the judge and jury of who is cheating but if you’re closely affiliated with somebody who is serving a four-year ban and someone points a finger at you and says ‘maybe you’re cheating,’ I don’t feel sorry for you,” Simpson said. “Maybe you are cheating.”
One day after his breakfast debate with Simpson, Engels went on Instagram and saw a clip of her interview. He was taken aback.
“[We had] the most casual conversation,” Engels said. “And then all of a sudden, she’s trashing everyone. I’m like, Jesus Christ, Jenny! What do you have against me and Jessica Hull? Donavan [Brazier] and her just joined [NOP]. Jenny’s just brutal. The more people she says is dirty, it’s like, are you saying that they’re not capable of running what you are because you’re clean? When she gets in front of the camera, she gets on her high horse and all that stuff. And I love Jenny as a person and she’s been a great role model, but she needs to chill in front of the cameras.”
To be clear: Simpson did not accuse any athlete of being dirty, nor did she mention any NOP athlete by name. But Engels was nevertheless hurt by her comments.
“She’s just trashing every single person, and it hurts,” Engels said. “When I see that, I try to be a good person, I try to do the right thing my whole life, and she’s literally just tarnishing everyone’s reputation who’s done the same thing in our group.”
It was then put to Engels that Salazar, not Simpson, was the one tarnishing the group’s reputation by getting banned. Engels agreed that was fair — if Salazar’s suspension holds up. But while Salazar is appealing, Engels is standing by him.
“I trust Alberto, for sure,” Engels said.
When informed of Engels’ comments after tonight’s 1500 semifinal (Simpson advanced to the final by winning her heat), Simpson said that she understood that Salazar’s suspension is a tense situation for Engels, who, as a member of NOP, is closer to it than she is. She said she would be happy to have a conversation with Engels, but she made it clear: she stands by everything she said yesterday.
“What I would say is there’s a difference between having a cloud of suspicion and having a conviction,” Simpson said. “And that’s where we stand today. This isn’t me speculating and me saying, oh, I wonder if somebody’s dirty. USADA has a very thorough and long process and I trust them as they go through that system of determining that somebody deserves a ban. My understanding is it’s pretty hard to convict somebody and get a ban. So if they’ve reached that point, I trust that they’ve reached that point, I trust that they’ve reached it with an incredible amount of evidence. So I’m not on a high horse in the sense of pointing fingers and making a determination on my own.
“Where we are today is a physical contest. It’s not a chemistry lab. And so you take the joy out of seeing who’s the best when you cheat.”
It has been an interesting week for Engels. His first World Outdoor Championships comes at the end of a career year that has seen him win his first two national titles (indoor mile, outdoor 1500) and establish himself as one of the best 1500-meter runners in the world, a bona fide medal contender in Doha. In his preliminary heat on Thursday — yes, there was a race today as well — he found himself boxed in entering the home straight but found his way out of it, going wide to grab the fifth of six automatic qualifiers to Friday’s semifinals. There was no panic; Engels is fit, and he knows it.
“I just knew I had two more gears,” Engels said.
But Engels, just like anyone with ties to the Oregon Project in Doha, has been swept up in the biggest story of the track season, which broke during the biggest week of his professional life.
The happy-go-lucky Engels isn’t letting it affect him. He may be part of the storm right now, but he believes that, at least for him, it will pass. He’s just glad there is some resolution — though again, he is backing Salazar until his appeal is complete.
“It’s good that there’s finally something happening,” Engels said.
Engels took everything thrown at him on Thursday, answering every question from reporters in a nearly 10-minute interview in the mixed zone (almost unheard of after a prelim) and then apologizing for not being able to answer more. It was a notably different approach from the one taken by his NOP teammate Sifan Hassan — who did not stop in the mixed zone for the second consecutive day — and former NOP member Matthew Centrowitz, who said he would wait to discuss Salazar until after the World Championships.
Engels doesn’t mind being candid because he says he has nothing to hide. Engels pointed out that the violations Salazar was convicted of came before he was a professional runner — even before he was a collegiate runner, “literally partying every day” during his freshman year.
“I think the thing that Jenny doesn’t understand is that people have a moral compass besides her,” Engels said. “I have a moral compass. I’m not going to do anything bad for myself or anyone else.”
One of the biggest questions this week is how close Salazar is to the athletes he doesn’t directly coach, such as Engels and Brazier. Engels could not deny that he and Salazar’s athletes are part of the same team — “we can’t completely disassociate ourselves” — and added he enjoys training with Clayton Murphy (one of Salazar’s athletes). But he also said that the two groups “make a lot of different decisions.” He knows that Julian and Salazar talked to each other about training, but said he doesn’t know the specifics.
“I don’t know what the limit of their advice to each other is,” Engels said. “They’re basically co-coaches, so I don’t really know on that front.”
Engels joined NOP in 2017 — two years after USADA’s investigation began — and said that he sought assurances from Julian that he was not involved in any of the alleged incidents.
“When I joined, I asked, and [Pete] was like, nope, I had nothing to do with anything,” Engels said.
Engels said that he first learned about the charges against Salazar in January, but has been repeatedly reassured by Julian that there was nothing to worry about — that the verdict would come out in favor of the Oregon Project.
When he heard that Salazar conducted experiments on his sons, rubbing with them testosterone in order to determine how much would trigger a positive test — something Salazar said (and USADA believed) was done in order to prevent his athletes from being sabotaged — he was skeptical.
“I’m like, how can that possibly not be guilty?” Engels said. “Does sound sketchy to me too.”
But he spoke with NOP physical therapist/strength coach David McHenry, who convinced him that the allegations at the time were not a case of Salazar trying to cheat — even though the question of why Salazar felt as if he needed to take it upon himself to experiment on his own sons with his own supply of testosterone has never been answered satisfactorily.
“I don’t know why he would experiment that and not just give it to USADA,” Engels said. “…Alberto’s obviously trying to be on the cutting edge of everything. Sometimes that’s going to cut your hand. And I guess it has now.”
Full Craig Engels interview
Full Jenny Simpson interview
Discussion: Craig Engels Advances, Fires Back At Simpson: “Jenny is just brutal … when she gets in front of a camera, she gets on a high horse.” Simpson replies “It’s a physical contest, not a chemistry lab. [cheaters] take the joy out of seeing who is the best when you cheat’ Full interview here”