2020 Olympic Trials W1500 Preview: Elle Purrier Is Your Winner, But Who Else Makes the Team?

By Jonathan Gault
June 16, 2021

The women’s 1500 meters was already going to be one of the most interesting events at this year’s US Olympic Trials, and that’s before the news broke on Monday that two-time defending US champion Shelby Houlihan will not be running after testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone. Houlihan’s absence throws an event with two “sure things” into disarray. The one remaining lock for the team, Elle Purrier, is now the unquestioned favorite to win her first US title, while the other two spots are completely up for grabs. The women’s 1500 at the last Trials was one of the best races of the meet; here’s to hoping for more of the same in 2021.

Before you read the preview, make sure you enter our prediction contest: LRC $200,021 LRC Running Warehouse Trials Prediction Contest is Here!

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Schedule/entries * TV/streaming information * LRC Trials coverage hub

Notable entrants *Full entries

Athletes with 4:04.20 Olympic standard in bold *Athletes who would get in to the Olympics via World Rankings quota in italics

Name Affiliation SB Note
Elle Purrier New Balance 3:58.36 US indoor mile record holder
Shannon Osika NIKE 4:00.73
Never higher than 4th at NCAAs. Comes from running family. Can she make it?
Elise Cranny 4:02.62 Entered in 5k/10k and will likely only run this in an emergency
Dani Jones New Balance 4:04.26 Former NCAA star but still a ways shy of 4:00
Helen Schlachtenhaufen Saucony 4:04.36 Former Dartmouth star
Heather MacLean New Balance Boston 4:04.85 Has gone sub-2:00 this year
Cory McGee New Balance 4:05.00 Made Worlds in 2013
Grace Barnett 4:05.05 PB entering year was just 4:11
Danielle Aragon Empire Elite TC 4:05.46 Heading into the year, she was the 2nd fastest sister in her family
Sarah Lancaster 4:05.55 33-year-old played tennis & basketball in college but not track
Nikki Hiltz adidas 4:05.84
Ran 4:01 in 2019 and made Worlds final but not running as well this year with different coach
Alli Cash 4:05.90 Has gone from 4:14 to 4:05 in ’21
Sinclaire Johnson Nike Bowerman 4:05.91 2019 NCAA champ is running slower than in 2019 (4:03.72) in 1500 but has broken 2:00 in 800
Jenny Simpson New Balance 4:06.18
Best US 1500m runner ever. Crazy she’s only 18th on US list in 2021. Is she done or timing her peak?
Anna Camp Brigham Young 4:08.58 NCAA champ
Alexa Efraimson Nike NT Has Olympic standard but not in good form

Purrier’s win at Millrose propelled her into another level of stardom (Phil Bond photo)

Elle Purrier is going to win this race. Let’s just get that out of the way. Purrier made the ’19 World Championship team in the 5k, then really hit her stride with her stunning 4:16 American mile record at Millrose in ’20 and has not relented since. She ran a mostly solo 3:58 at Mt. SAC back on May 9 and seems comfortable enough her strength to simply drop everyone else if she so desires. That might not be such a bad strategy. Only two other athletes in the field have run within five seconds of Purrier this year, and one of them, Elise Cranny, may not even run the 1500 as she’s also entered in the 5k and 10k.

Barring a Uceny-like fall, Purrier will be on the team. Where this race becomes truly fascinating is the battle for the remaining two spots. After the top three seeds based on sb — Purrier, Shannon Osika (4:00.73), and Cranny — there are 10 women who have run 4:04 or 4:05 this year, and 34-year-old Jenny Simpson, who has made every US team since 2007 (every 1500 team since 2011), is not one of them. Good luck sorting that mess out.

Wait, what’s that you’re telling me? have to sort that mess out? Okay, here goes.

Cranny will likely focus on the more natural 5k/10k double, though she has a strong chance in all three events — she’s the #3 seed in the 1500 by SB, has run 14:48 for 5k (#2 within the ranking period), and is the third-fastest American ever in the 10k (30:47). So why do the 5k/10k? Well those events are longer, which means more time for the best athletes to separate and less chance of having the top 3 determined by the vagaries of a kick. If Cranny does end up starting, she has a decent shot to make the team.

On paper, Osika is the strongest candidate for the second spot. She was 6th at USAs in 2019 and now, at 28, is enjoying a career year, running a pb of 4:00 at Mt. SAC and 2:00 for 800 at the Music City Track Carnival. In that race, she beat 800 specialists Sabrina Southerland and Chanelle Price, who were coming off 1:58 and 1:59 performances in Portland.

But Osika does not have the best 800 speed in the field; Heather MacLean of New Balance Boston and Sinclaire Johnson of the Bowerman Track Club both ran 1:59 at Mt. SAC. MacLean was only 4th in her last Trials tuneup at the Platinum PT Qualifier, however. And while Johnson has been great in the 800 this year, she has struggled mightily in the 1500, finishing 14th and 10th in her last two races. Those results are hard to square given her 800 success, but it’s worth noting she peaked very well for championship season in 2019, breaking the meet record to win NCAAs and taking 4th at USAs as a 21-year-old. But then her coach was Oklahoma State’s Dave Smith, not Jerry Schumacher.

Simpson has won four US 1500 titles

Let’s talk about Jenny Simpson. She has raced just twice in the last 16 months. The first, at the USATF Grand Prix on April 24, was an unmitigated disaster: 10th in 4:10.07. The second was an improvement: 4:06.18 for second at the Music City Track Carnival on June 6.

So what’s going on with Simpson? Her coach, Mark Wetmore, has a saying: it’s never just one thing, unless you get hit by a truck. And then it’s just one thing.

Simpson initially considered moving up to the 5k — remember, she ran 14:58 to hit the Olympic standard in February 2020.

“I have been so prepared, in a way, for age to play a factor, that I was really considering, okay, what’s the future in the longer distances?” Simpson says. “And then [I] woke up one morning and realized, the 1500 is what I’m good at and that’s what I should be doing.”

When Simpson resumed training this year, she dealt with some minor injuries and said she was sick going into the race where she ran 4:10.

“There are some things I pushed through that I probably shouldn’t have, that I should have taken a step back and said let’s get 100% healthy,” Simpson says.

So where does that leave the greatest female miler in US history? Well in Nashville, Simpson lost to Dani Aragon and closed that race in 62.32 for her last lap; for reference, in 2019 she closed her last lap of USAs in 60.95 (in a 4:03 race) to make the team. That is evidence that work remains to be done. But given Simpson’s improvement from race #1 to race #2, her skill as a racer — no one is better at maximizing their potential — and the sudden absence of Houlihan freeing up a spot, is it really that shocking to expect Simpson to contend for a spot on the team, even if she is only the 18th-fastest American on the year?

Who else could factor? Well in addition to Purrier, Osika, Cranny, Simpson, and Johnson, there are three other athletes with the Olympic standard: Alexa EfraimsonNikki Hiltz, and Cory McGee. Efraimson has been awful in 2021 (2:04/4:11) — her first under Pete Julian after leaving longtime coach Mike Hickey in January — and will not make the team. Hiltz has been a little better (2:01/4:05), but they have raced a number of these women already this year and their record isn’t great: they haven’t finished higher than 5th in four races. Of the trio, McGee has the best chance to make the team. Her most recent 1500 was poor (10th at Mt. SAC), but she followed that up with a 1:59 800 pb at the Portland Track Festival, beating World Championship silver medalist Raevyn Rogers in the process.

Jones winning NCAA XC in 2018 (Ben Jones photo)

McGee’s Team Boss training partner Dani Jones quietly enters the Trials on the strength of back-to-back pbs (you may have forgotten the most recent 4:04 as she was smoked by Cranny in that race). Jones won four NCAA titles at Colorado and was 5th at USAs as a 21-year-old in 2018, so she has the talent to make the team (and is ranked highly enough by World Athletics that she is qualified for entry).

Helen Schlachtenhaufen beat many of the women in this field at the USATF Grand Prix on April 24 but her last few races have not gone as well.

And then there’s a quartet of women who have made humongous progress in 2021 — all fit the bill of your classic Trials dark horse who was not even a contender at the beginning of the year but somehow kicked their way onto the team in third. The “Christian Smith,” if you will. Among Grace BarnettDani AragonSarah Lancaster, and Alli Cash, only Aragon had broken 4:10 prior to this year, and even she had only run 4:09. Now all four have run 4:05. All would need to PR again at the Trials and hit the 4:04.20 Olympic standard to make the team, but if one of them does, expect to hear a lot about the underdog who claimed the third spot on Team USA. Lancaster’s backstory is the craziest: she played tennis and basketball in college at Texas, but didn’t start running until 2014, at age 26. Until last month, she didn’t know what the backstretch was. Now 33, Lancaster may not even run the 1500 here (she’s also entered in the 5k), but even making it to the final would be an unlikely triumph.

JG prediction: 1) Purrier 2) Osika 3) Simpson

Purrier wins. I told you that already. If Cranny runs, she’s on the team as well but I don’t think she’s running this.

Second and third could shake out a dozen different ways (assuming Cranny’s not running). When you have so many women that close in ability in a 1500, it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen. But Osika is really fit right now, and 4:00.73 is some serious running: only 12 Americans have ever run faster.

So then it comes down to the third spot. Let’s see. Do I want to bet on the woman with the impeccable championship record, who always makes teams and regularly outperforms expectations on the biggest stage? Um, yes please.

Simpson may have just been outkicked by Dani Aragon, but she has also accomplished things in this sport most of the women in this field could only dream of. I’ve counted Simpson out in the past on the global stage and she’s made me look foolish. So part of this pick is out of fear. If someone else kicks by Simpson and makes the team, I can deal with that. But if Simpson does it again, I’ll immediately call myself an idiot for betting against her. She’ll be on the plane to Tokyo and her fourth Olympics.

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