Elle Purrier Is The New Queen of the US 1500 Scene as Jenny Simpson Fails To Make US Team For 1st Time Since 2005

By Jonathan Gault
June 21, 2021

EUGENE, Ore. — Over the course of just under four minutes this evening, Elle Purrier ushered in a new era of American women’s 1500-meter running and slammed the door on the old one. Shelby Houlihan is banned for four years; 34-year-old Jenny Simpson will be watching the Olympics from home for the first time since high school. On a hot, sunny day at Hayward Field, the 26-year-old Purrier ran 3:58.03, a USA meet record, to move to #6 on the all-time US list and win the women’s 1500 title at the 2020 US Olympic Track and Field Trials. After tonight, there can be no doubt: Elle Purrier owns this event in America moving forward.

Purrier entered as the only American under 4:00 this year, and after being shoved to the infield on the opening straightaway — Purrier took four steps inside the rail before stepping back onto the track — she decided to turn this race into a pure fitness test, taking out the first lap in 64.79 and leading wire-to-wire. At the bell, only Cory McGee, running in her first US final in six years, was with her, with the rest of the field strung out in her wake. With 100 to go, Purrier finally shook off McGee to earn the win and her first US title thanks to a 61.7 last lap.

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What followed was a string of personal bests. McGee, running the race of her life, clocked a three-second pb of 4:00.67 for second. Heather MacLean, who finished sixth in her prelim and only advanced to the final after a protest, ran 4:02.09 (two-second pb) to shockingly claim the final spot on Team USA, moving from fifth to third on the final lap and hold off a desperate Shannon Osika by just .09 of a second. 

That result gave New Balance — which sponsors a number of top American female distance runners but almost no American men — a 1-2-3 finish, including 1-3 for coach Mark Coogan’s New Balance Boston squad.

“I’ve been picturing this moment for months and months and months now,” MacLean said. “Me and Elle have talked about it in secrecy and just said, Hey, how amazing would it be if we both made that team?

In all, six of the top eight finishers set or tied their personal bests, including a five-second pb of 4:04.84 for sixth-placer Julia Heymach of Stanford. Heymach fell in her prelim and did not even make the final at NCAAs, but ran a pb of 4:09.65 in her semi on Saturday before chopping off an enormous amount in today’s final.

It wasn’t all glory. For new stars to be born, old ones must fade, and for the past decade, the biggest star in American 1500-meter running has been Jenny Simpson. Seeking to make her 11th (!) straight US team and fourth Olympic squad, Simpson simply did not have the requisite fitness today and finished 10th in 4:07.76. With a fast pace stringing out the field and nullifying Simpson’s greatest skill — her incredible racing brain — there was nothing she could have done to extend her streak tonight.

“It’s hard to believe,” Simpson said. “I truly thought I was going to make the team today. I just needed to be in 4:00 shape and that was proven today by the three amazing women today who made the team. The sport goes on without you.”

*Results

Quick Take: A statement victory by Elle Purrier, but her medal chances in Tokyo hinge on who is in the field

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It must be stressed how impressive Purrier’s run was tonight. It is one thing to be miles better than a field on paper; it is quite another to prove it on a 90+ degree day on one of the biggest stages of the sport. Purrier went out there, dared the rest of America to hang with her for 1500 meters, and no one could. In a Diamond League race like Florence, it’s not hard to imagine her running a few seconds faster — indeed, her coach Mark Coogan told LetsRun back in April he believes Purrier can run 3:55.

As fast as Purrier ran tonight, medalling in Tokyo will be no easy task. Even if Sifan Hassan — the reigning world champ and world leader at 3:53 — opts for the 5k/10k, that leaves Olympic champ Faith Kipyegon (3:53 this year), Gudaf Tsegay (3:53 indoor WR, 3:54 last weekend), and Laura Muir (3:55) as three total studs whom Purrier would have to overcome. But if Tsegay, who ran the 5k at the Ethiopian trials, only runs the longer event in Tokyo (the Ethiopian federation doesn’t like athletes doubling)…well, Purrier would suddenly be in a very good position.  

Quick Take: What a year for Cory McGee

If you had taken bets at the start of the year on who would be the first US Olympian for Team Boss, Emma Coburn would have been about a -1000 choice. Coburn will likely make her third US team on Thursday, but the first American to clinch an Olympic berth from her training group is Cory McGee, who made Worlds as a 21-year-old collegian in 2013 but had gone six years without making a US final until this year, when she ran a two-second pb to finish second, giving Purrier all she could handle through 1400 meters.

Even though she hadn’t been in a US final since 2015, McGee has been a fixture on the US pro scene for the past decade. But it wasn’t until 2020, her second year with coach Joe Bosshard in Boulder, that she finally felt she was starting to reach her potential (interestingly, she had been training partners with Purrier and MacLean under Mark Coogan in Boston before then).

“For many years, I believed that I was working my hardest, and it wasn’t until joining this team that I’m on now…that I really understood what hard work really is as a middle-distance/distance runner,” McGee said. “When I was in college, I tried my best, but I wasn’t training my hardest…I was training in Boston for four years and I was for the first time understanding what it meant to be a distance runner but hadn’t put all the pieces together. 

“Really Joe Bosshard is the first coach that I’ve had that’s understood me as an athlete…I’m just doing my best in everything in practice and I know if Joe says I’m ready to do something in a race, then it’s 100% bulletproof….I think he’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest distance coaches of all time.”

That’s high praise indeed. And while the GOAT talk is a little premature, Bosshard deserves serious props for what he’s built in Boulder. Many in the sport raised eyebrows when Emma Coburn left longtime coach Mark Wetmore after earning an Olympic bronze in 2016 to be coached by her husband Bosshard. Coburn then won the world title in her first year under Bosshard, and they have steadily added talent around her to form one of the country’s top training groups, including recent NCAA champions Dani Jones and Morgan McDonald of Australia. To build a group of that quality from scratch with no backing sponsor is a tremendous feat.

Quick Take: Heather MacLean caught some breaks and ran her best race ever when it mattered most

The depth in American track & field is such that any incident at the Trials can create a butterfly effect, and you never know who it will touch. Back in 2016, Charles Jock only advanced from his first-round 800m heat because Duane Solomon let up at the line. He eventually made the Olympic team.

Heather MacLean is the Charles Jock of 2016 as a couple of things broke her way this week. First, Shelby Houlihan was suspended for a positive drug test. You can quibble about whether that counts as a “break” — if Houlihan truly is a drug cheat, then she shouldn’t be in the sport — but it undoubtedly increased MacLean’s chances to make the team. 

The second thing certainly counts as a break. At the end of Saturday’s semifinals, MacLean was in a pitched battle with Oiselle’s Rebecca Mehra for the final automatic qualifying spot in heat 1. MacLean was tying up, and as she did so, made contact with Mehra on her outside. None of the NBC replays provided a definitive look at who initiated contact or whether MacLean merely lost balance due to her own exhaustion. USATF ruled that there was no foul, merely that MacLean suffered “incidental contact, [through] no fault of her own.” It seemed like a questionable decision to advance her, at best.

Regardless of how MacLean got to this final, she had to deliver on the day. And boy, did she deliver. In a super fast race, MacLean measured her effort perfectly, moving from 5th to 3rd over the final 200 and holding off Osika in the home straight, who made MacLean work for it all the way to the line. Running a nearly three-second pb in a US final is quite a way to make a team.

It was also the capper on what has been an incredible career journey. Mostly an 800 runner in college at UMass, MacLean didn’t make NCAA outdoors until her senior year, and even then she didn’t make the final. Her pbs coming out of college were 2:03/4:19 — not enough to get a full contract immediately, but enough for some money from New Balance (she still had to work a side job while training, though).

As a pro, she shifted focus to the 1500, running 4:05 in 2019 and taking 7th at USAs and improving to 1:59/4:04 this year before yet another breakthrough today.

Quick Take: Jenny Simpson’s streak is over, and her competitors pay tribute

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Simpson said she entered today’s race truly believing she could make the team, but acknowledged after the race that she simply was not good enough. The super-consistent Jenny Simpson we have come to know over the past decade has not been present in 2021, and though she looked spirited through the rounds, her weaknesses were exposed in the final.

“I just wasn’t ready,” Simpson said. “I think I’ve shown that over the last month or so that I’ve been fighting for every bit along the way.”

Simpson couldn’t pinpoint one reason for that. But the COVID delay certainly didn’t help her — Simpson said she was in terrific shape in the winter of 2020, but developed an injury last summer. Since then, she has not been able to get back to her previous level — tough to do when you turn 35 years old in August.

Simpson says she wants to continue racing this year. Beyond that, who knows, but we’d be quite surprised if Simpson isn’t back in 2022.

That said, tonight’s result brought an end to a truly insane streak of making every US World/Olympic team since 2007, her second year at the University of Colorado. She is a four-time global medalist and a legend in every sense of the word, and her competitors paid tribute after the race.

“Jenny is a huge role model to me,” Purrier said. “I look up to her immensely…It’s amazing that somebody I’ve looked up to for so long, I get to run with her.”

“I remember the day that Jenny signed pro,” McGee said. “I was in high school and my dad called me into his office and said this woman has just signed the first six-figure contract ever as a middle-distance runner. So not only did she take American middle distance running further than it’s ever been pushed just in regards to contracts and representation, but then just medaling. Standing in the family room in the home I grew up in and watching a woman from the United States medal on the world stage makes that possibility seems real…Once someone actually achieves those things, you start to think, maybe I can do that.”

Quick Take: Simpson on Shelby Houlihan: “I just want to distance myself from any sense that I’m an expert on either end of those decisions”

Simpson was the runner-up in the 1500 behind Houlihan at USAs in 2018 and 2019 and is one of the most respected voices in the sport, so we wanted to hear what she had to say about Houlihan’s four-year suspension. She said that, while aware of the case, she hasn’t followed all the details closely and left it to those assigned to the case to determine Houlihan’s innocence or guilt. She believes a dispassionate system like that is what’s best for the sport.

“I’m grateful I don’t have to make the decisions on who makes the teams, whose lab results are suspicious or not.” Simpson said. “I’m not the judge of this and I’m grateful that I’m not. But I also want to say none of these things are a popularity contest either. That’s why we have a Trials here when the top three win and that’s why we have drug testing where the lab gets to make the determination on what is in your blood.”

Simpson also noted that both the Athletics Integrity Unit and Houlihan had experts on their side to make a determination on this case — and that she, Simpson, certainly was not one of them.

“I just want to distance myself from any sense that I’m an expert on either end of those decisions,” Simpsons said.


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