Native Iowan Simpson gets bronze, makes U.S. history in 1,500

Joe Rexrode

RIO DE JANEIRO — She has pulled the curtain back this week, letting everyone in on her fears and her motivations, the way past setbacks have affected her — even letting fly with a suggestive zinger on doping and one of her rivals.

Jennifer Simpson of the United States celebrates with the American flag after winning the bronze medal Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, in the women's 1,500-meter final during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

Iowan and three-time Olympian Jenny Simpson also smiled and asked reporters, in those few moments of bluntness after the 1,500 women’s semifinal, to root for her in the final. There was an apparent confidence in the 29-year-old from Webster City, after executing her plan in the semifinal and — unlike four years ago in London — advancing.

Back then, she was one of the favorites, the defending world champion. She lined up Tuesday with modest outside expectations. She would try to chase world record-holder Genzebe Dibaba, whose coach was arrested recently in Spain on suspicion of possessing performance-enhancing drugs.

Simpson wouldn’t quite catch Dibaba, as it turns out. But when a wild night at Olympic Stadium reached its surreal conclusion, Simpson stood alone as the only U.S. woman in history to medal in the 1,500. And Dibaba sat at a press conference and assured the world she isn’t a doper.

First, the race. Simpson ran the best 800 of her career to finish, gutting out the final 400 to finish in 4:10.53. She was gaining fast on Dibaba, the defending Olympic champ and world-record holder, but came up 26-hundredths of a second shy of her, with Kenya’s Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon taking gold at 4:08.92.

That finish, almost hard to watch it was so intense, led to a tearful celebration for Simpson, who lost a shoe in world championships last year and suffered a stress reaction in one of her metatarsals in December. She later declared “amnesia” on the whole scene.

“I don’t remember what I did,” she said. “I heard that I looked really happy and excited, and I fell on the ground and I ugly-cried for a while.”

She took a long celebration lap with the American flag draped around her body. She found her parents in the crowd, on the other side of the finish line, where she had to pick that shoe up a year ago in Beijing after an 11th-place finish.

“And now I’m here with an American flag,” she thought to herself, and later she considered the question of whether she’s the greatest female 1,500 in U.S. history.

“To be the first American woman to medal in the 1,500 meters is something that I’ve not allowed myself to think about until now,” Simpson said. “And it just feels incredible. I want to be someone that this country can be really proud to cheer for. And I didn’t decide to want to be that person this week or this year. I wanted to be that person eight years ago. And 10 years ago at my first world championship. So this has been a long ride of highs and lows, and hopefully every American watching my race tonight, I want each one of them to feel they can take a small piece of ownership in this medal.”

Coaches Heather Burroughs and Mark Wetmore told Simpson to position herself for two laps, then “be a predator” for the final two. She said she was resolved to look at the other 11 competitors as nameless and faceless – which was interesting because of what she said Sunday when asked about the arrest of Dibaba’s coach, Jama Aden.

“I think that you know a tree by the fruit that it bears,” Simpson said then. “And if a tree bears sour fruit, then the fruit around it are likely infected. And so I live my life that way in every way, not just through doping. And so I think that if WADA is on the case, they’ll find what they need to find. I hope so.”

There was no such talk in the wake of victory from Simpson, at least not as she came off the track. But she did say of the achievement: “It makes me feel amazing because I’ve done it honestly and clean, and with everything that’s just inside my own body as being expressed out on the track. And to me, that’s beautiful. And the last 100 meters, when I was running my guts out, that’s my favorite part of the race. I love the sport.”

Then came the press conference. At the Olympics, medalists hold pressers together. So there were Dibaba, Kipyegon and Simpson, sitting together at a table with questions coming at them.

Kipyegon was asked about rumors of heavy doping in Kenya. She replied that “in Kenya, we are clean.”

Dibaba was asked about her coach and said through a translator that she would stay with him if he was cleared, move on otherwise. She claimed to be “crystal clean” and said the rumors are “severely affecting me,” both in performance and psychology.

Simpson sat there listening. When asked to comment on doping, she mostly avoided the subject but did say: “Who you’re connected to … or who you associate yourself with is important.”

And when it was over, she could go back to reveling. She didn’t come to Rio to become a spokesperson on doping. She came to lose herself, and her memory, in the finish of a career.

“I just want to be truthful,” Simpson said after the press conference. “I was asked a direct question. I didn’t come up with it on my own. I was asked a direct question, I answered a direct question. I’ll continue to do that. This was bizarre, though.”

Joe Rexrode writes for The Tennessean.