The last time Jenny Simpson watched the Olympics on television, it was 2004. Deena Kastor won a bronze medal in the marathon and Simpson was a 17-year-old high school kid, unaware that one day she’d bring home her own bronze from the Games.
On Monday at the 2021 Olympic Track & Field Trials, Simpson failed to make the Tokyo Games in her signature event, the 1500 meters, placing tenth in 4:07.76. An entirely new trio of women, all first-time Olympians who grew up in the sport emulating Simpson, took the victory lap around Hayward Field that she had taken so many times before.
Going into the final, Simpson, 34, had indicated that she felt rusty. That the long pandemic hiatus wasn’t kind to her. She knew it would take a “four-flat” effort to make the Tokyo Games, and she didn’t think she had it in her this time around.
“Can we all blame COVID for everything?” Simpson joked in her post-race interview. “I was in killer shape in January 2020, and from then till now it was just hard to manage. I had an injury in the summer for one of the first times in my career, probably just pushing too hard…and just waiting.”
While younger athletes like Elle Purrier St. Pierre, 26, who won the 1500 meters on Monday in 3:58.03, may have benefited from an extra year of development and training, it was more difficult for older athletes to manage. Molly Huddle, 36, withdrew from the 10,000 meters with injury — she’s the American record holder (30:13.17) and reigning Olympic Trials champion.
“[The extra year] was probably a net negative for me,” Huddle said, in May. “I do feel like there was some extra pounding and grinding on my body that I didn’t need and I wasn’t getting the body work I should have during COVID. That did take a toll.”
Nonetheless, Simpson is always a threat and a favorite on the starting line — a master strategist on the oval. On Monday as she was introduced on the start line, the crowd responded to her long list of accolades with enthusiastic applause: three-time NCAA champion at the University of Colorado, 11-time national champion, 2011 world champion, and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, the first U.S. woman to ever medal in the event.
“I remember the day that Jenny signed pro — I was in high school and my dad called me into his office and said, ‘This woman has just signed for the first six-figure contract ever as a middle-distance runner.’ So not only did she push American middle-distance running further than it’s ever been pushed, just in regards to contracts and representation, but then just medaling,” said Cory McGee, 29, who placed second in the 1500 meters on Monday to make her first Olympic team. “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 seem real…once somebody actually achieves those things you start to think, maybe I can do that.”
Purrier St. Pierre and Simpson were roommates at the 2019 world championships in Doha, at the time that Purrier St. Pierre was planning her wedding — Simpson said after the semifinal round on Saturday that although she had been married for 10 years already, exchanging love stories and wedding advice “brought out the youth in me.” The two became close.
“Jenny is a huge role model to me. I look up to her immensely,” Purrier St. Pierre said. “I’ve loved following her career…I feel so fortunate to have her lead the way for all of us.”
Simpson, still training under her college coach Mark Wetmore, is a legend, sure, but she also doesn’t think she’s done yet. This isn’t a retirement announcement — it’s maybe just a reset.
“I’m in good enough shape, I want to keep racing. My rounds were really clean and really smooth, I felt good,” Simpson said. “So I want to keep racing this season, it just is a matter of looking at the calendar and determining what races are next that make sense for me to go to.”
Still, the sting of missing the 2021 Olympics is real. Minutes after crossing the finish line, Simpson said she was in some disbelief, trying to process if the 94-degree heat or the bumping and jostling at the beginning of the race played a part in her performance. In the end, however, she said, “I just wasn’t ready.”
“Maybe it’s hard for some athletes to admit or say this out loud, but the sport goes on without you,” Simpson said. “You don’t make the Games and the Games go on and they’re fine without you. That will cause a little heartbreak for me, but I will be rooting for Team USA just like the rest of our country.”
The Games may go on, but the American women say if not for Simpson, they may never have dreamed of their own Olympic berths.
“I have a million and one reasons to be grateful to Jenny Simpson,” McGee said.