Throwback Thursday #15
By Jonathan Gault
July 16, 2020
Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. With limited live events during the coronavirus quarantine, I’m plumbing the depths of YouTube and watching/sharing my thoughts about one classic race per week. If you missed any of the first 14 installments, click here.
I was in a McDonald’s in rural New Hampshire when I found out Jenny Simpson was a world champion.
I was en route to campus from my favorite week of the year, the Dartmouth College cross country team’s pre-season training trip to the Second College Grant. One of the beauties of the Grant is that there’s no cell reception — it’s just you and your buddies catching up and testing each other’s fitness after a long summer of training.
But in 2011, the Grant trip happened to coincide with the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Which meant I spent much of the drive back trying to load LetsRun.com on my BlackBerry and find out what I missed. When I finally succeeded in that McDonald’s, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
The college kid, Matthew Centrowitz, had medalled in the 1500? And JENNY FREAKING SIMPSON is the world champion?!?!
I bet a bunch of you have similar stories — the women’s 1500 final that year was run at 7:55 a.m. ET on a Thursday morning. (If you’re a West Coaster who got up live to watch the race at 4:55, I want to hear from you).
It’s hard to understate how unlikely this was at the time. Entering the 2011 Worlds, it had been 27 years since an American woman had won a world or Olympic distance title — Joan Benoit Samuelson in the 1984 Olympic marathon. There was some optimism the drought could end in the women’s 1500, but not because of Simpson: US champ Morgan Uceny had won Diamond Leagues in Lausanne and Birmingham and had run a big 800 pb of 1:58.37 in July.
Simpson was a big talent — she had run a stunning 3:59 1500 as a senior at Colorado in 2009. But she had missed most of the 2010 season due to injury and took a risk in 2011 by abandoning the steeplechase — where she had set the American record and finished 6th (later elevated to 5th) at Worlds in 2009 — for the 1500.
Simpson had shown nothing in 2011 to suggest she’d be a threat to win in Daegu. Her 4:03.54 season’s best ranked her just 21st in the world that year. In her most recent race before Worlds, in Monaco on July 22, she finished a well-beaten 5th, three seconds behind race winner and two-time defending world champ Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain.
Things began to change once the racing started in Daegu, however. The 1500 field wasn’t great to begin with — no one broke 4:00 in all of 2011, as women like Genzebe Dibaba, Sifan Hassan, and Faith Kipyegon had yet to fully emerge. Then several big names — including Olympic champ Nancy Langat, 2008 World Indoor champ Gelete Burka, and Russian champ Ekaterina Martynova — failed to make it out of the semifinals. And while Simpson hadn’t been in a great position in her semi — she was last at the bell — she closed very well and wound up cruising through to the final. By the time she got onto the bus to the stadium on the night of the final, Simpson thought, why couldn’t she medal?
So that’s where we were at heading into this race. There’s plenty to discuss, from Simpson’s come-from-behind victory to Morgan Uceny’s ill-fated fall with 450 meters to go. So let’s go back to September 1, 2011, in Daegu, South Korea, and press play…
0:00 Here are your first eight finalists. Rodriguez, you may recall, crossed the line first at the 2009 Worlds but was DQ’d for fouling Geleta Burka during the race. Obiri would go on to run 3:57 and become a two-time world champ at 5,000, but back in 2011 she was 21 and mostly an unknown quantity. Uceny, as mentioned above, was the US champ and had won two Diamond Leagues that summer.
0:18 Your last four finalists. Gezahegne, the World Indoor champ, was among the biggest medal threats. Jamal, the two-time defending champ, had been up-and-down in 2011 but was regarded as the favorite for gold: she entered as the world leader and had beaten most of the major players in Monaco, the last DL 1500 before Worlds.
1:11 Simpson doesn’t get off the line well and is in second-to-last after 100m, but once she realizes the pace isn’t going to be fast, she uses a quick move around the first turn to move onto the shoulder of leader Jamal.
Also 2011 was the weird transition year where Jenny’s bib at Worlds read “Barringer Simpson” for some reason. She was already going by Jenny Simpson at this point (she had married Jason Simpson in October 2010) but I guess it took a year for her bib to fully catch up to her new last name. Frankly, I’m surprised “Barringer Simpson” all fit on one line.
1:38 Simpson has carved out a well-deserved reputation as an excellent tactician, but she’s been a bit uneven on the first lap. The move she made on the first turn is immediately wasted as several women pass her on the second turn, shuffling Simpson back to eighth place (though she smartly tucks in at this point to avoid running extra distance).
Bahrain’s Mimi Belete leads Jamal and Obiri through 400 in 68.78 – that’s only 4:17 pace.
2:45 Not much changes over the second 400. It’s still Belete, Jamal, Obiri, and Norway’s Ingvill Makestad Bovim up front, and while the pace has picked up (they went 65.16 for their second lap), they haven’t run fast enough to drop anyone yet. Simpson (7th) and Uceny (9th) are in the middle of the pack.
3:05 Rodriguez of Spain, who was 11th at 800, makes a big move on the outside on the back straight to move toward the front at the 900m mark.
3:07 Gezahegne of Ethiopia follows Rodriguez. Everyone’s trying to position themselves as best as possible for when the kicking really starts, and the result is a very densely-packed front group…
3:14 …and down go Obiri and Uceny!
Uceny unfortunately developed a reputation for falling in her biggest races — she’d fall again in the 2012 Olympic final and the 2014 USA final — but I’ve examined the footage of this fall like the Zapruder film and there’s really not anything she could have done here.
As mentioned above, this whole thing starts with Rodriguez’s move on the back straight. Gezahegne follows Rodriguez, and as they pass 600 to go, Gezahegne tries to go by Obiri and Jamal on the outside and move up into third. Jamal immediately tries to fight her off, but in so doing, appears to cut off Obiri, who is running in between Gezahegne and Jamal. Obiri goes down as a result, in the process wiping out the woman directly behind her: Uceny.
Does Uceny deserve any of the blame here? No. With 600 to go in a tactical championship 1500, the pack is tight enough that if the runner directly in front of you goes down, you’re not going to have enough time to dodge them. Hence, the old adage is that the best way to avoid getting caught up in a fall is to be at the very front or the very back. And while those positions may reduce risk, they’re not immune to danger. If you’re in first, you can still be clipped from behind. And if you’re last — well, the longer you stay in last, the harder it is to win the race.
3:19 With Uceny and Obiri out of it and Ukraine’s Nataliya Tobias struggling to hold on, the pack has thinned out slightly, but this remains a wide-open race with just over 500m to run. Belete continues to lead, with Rodriguez on her shoulder. Simpson has been content to ride the rail and run the shortest distance while others are out on the edge of lane 1 and well into lane 2.
3:39 We hit the bell at 3:03.47 and Rodriguez has just edged ahead of Belete for the lead.
3:46 Rewatching it, I’m still surprised Simpson won this race. As I mentioned, she’s done an excellent job of running the minimum required distance on the rail for the last two laps. But the problem for her now is she’s in 8th place and badly boxed in with 340m to run, but my boss Robert Johnson used to always tell his runners when he was coaching, “Don’t worry, it always opens up.”
3:56 They hit 1200 in 3:18.89 after a 64.95 400 split and Simpson goes wide. She’s full of run but knows she still needs to pass a bunch of people.
4:08 200 to go and Simpson is still in sixth place. Jamal, the two-time defending champ, has been dropped completely and is a nonfactor.
Directly behind Simpson is Great Britain’s Hannah England, who would wind up getting the silver. It’s pretty fascinating that the two women who wound up going 1-2 were in sixth and seventh with 200 to go.
4:23 Rodriguez continues to lead around the turn, but hasn’t gained much separation. Simpson has run almost the entire turn in lane 2, running more distance than anyone — but she’s also running faster than anyone, and as a result is now up to fourth.
4:25 At this point, the smart money would be on Rodriguez, who has run the shortest distance around the turn and is starting to open a small gap on Gezahegne. Simpson’s form still looks great, but does she have anything left for the final straight?
4:30 Simpson doesn’t make much ground up on Rodriguez at the start of the home straight, but suddenly she’s flying with 50 to go and clearly moving way faster than Rodriguez and the fading Gezahegne and Btissam Lakhouad of Morocco.
The only threat to Simpson at this point is England, who is coming on like a freight train on the outside. England has actually run an incredible race — she has stayed on the rail basically the whole way, including the entire final turn. The problem with that, of course, is that when she is finally ready to kick, she has nowhere to go and has to swing way wide — which is why she’s out in lane 4 right now.
Looking back, I wonder if England regrets not following Simpson wide on the final turn. In retrospect, it was clear that she and Simpson were way better than everyone else over the final 200, and the difference between gold and silver was that Simpson was able to put some ground between herself and England on the final turn — a gap England could never overcome. The problem with that line of thinking, however, is that England didn’t know how much everyone else had left. She may have been feeling good, but what if others in front of her were too?
The bottom line: Simpson’s and England’s approaches each carried their own risks. Both risks paid off — but Simpson’s paid off more.
4:38 There you have it. Simpson is your champ in 4:05.40, with a 61.3 final lap (30.9 final 100). That doesn’t sound crazy fast in a 4:05 race, after all Sifan Hassan did close her 3:51 Worlds win last year with a 59.34 (Shelby Houlihan ran 61.82 in running 3:54.99), but Simpson did run pretty much all of the final turn in lane 2. England, who was only 8th in the European champs the previous year, takes a surprise silver, with Rodriguez holding on for bronze.
Simpson’s first reaction upon seeing the scoreboard is not what you’d expect. She looks like someone just told her her dog died, not someone who won the world title.
(By the way, I’ve changed to this video feed. I used the first one because it had the entire race in English, but it was the British feed and totally focused on Hannah England. Thus, there were no reaction shots of Simpson — whom the play-by-play guy misidentified as Uceny for the entire last lap.)
Simpson’s expression turns to something resembling disbelief…
…before settling on joy.
Finally, it sinks in: Jenny Simpson is the world champion.
Simpson is literally jumping for joy now.
Finally, Simpson is joined for a hug by coach Juli Benson (remember, Benson, not Wetmore, coached Simpson from 2010-12). I’m impressed Benson managed to make it onto the track — usually they don’t let coaches down there for victory laps.
Looking back on this race almost nine years later, I’m struck most by how strange it is that Simpson won her only world title in 2011, of all years. Simpson has been world-class for over a decade now, so it would be wrong to call this win a fluke. But she was unquestionably a better 1500 runner in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, and I’d take the Simpson of 2013, 2018, and 2019 (and maybe even 2009) over the 2011 version as well. Simpson wasn’t all that great in the leadup to the 2011 Worlds, didn’t run a great tactical race in the final, and got smoked in her next two 1500’s after Worlds (9th in Rieti, 12th in the Diamond League final in Brussels). Yet somehow, 2011 was one year in which Simpson won global gold.
There are a few reasons for that. First, Simpson timed her peak perfectly in 2011. She was at her fittest on the day of the final in Daegu and rose to the occasion beautifully. And, as mentioned earlier, the competition was also weak in 2011, with most of the women who would come to dominate the 2010s yet to emerge. Add in a fall that took out the world #1 that year in Uceny, and Simpson is your winner.
But drop 2017 Jenny Simpson into this race and she crushes everyone.
Read LRC’s coverage of Simpson’s win here: LRC Daegu 2011: Jenny Simpson Pulls Shocker, Wins World 1,500m Title
That’s it for this week. Check back next Thursday for the next installment.
*TBT #14: I Was Bored, So I Watched the Greatest Marathon Ever — 2002 London
*TBT #13: I Was Bored, So I Watched Lynn Jennings Win 1992 World XC on Home Soil
*TBT #12: I Was Bored, So I Watched the Crazy 2004 Men’s Olympic Marathon