Jenny Simpson, 2011 world champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500 meters, has the professional athlete life nailed, in large part because she’s a planner. She enjoys looking at the calendar and knowing exactly what she’s preparing for and when it’s going to happen. So, like a lot of planners, the pandemic really threw her for a loop.
“I mean, it doesn’t matter who you are, you have a version of your story the last 14 months that is a story of survival, of grinding through something difficult and arriving on the other end, hopefully prepared to still do well in whatever your job is,” Simpson says. “I have that story, too.”
For the first time in years, Simpson enjoyed being at home in Boulder, Colorado, during the summer (“I took most of August off—I’ve never really been here at the house, able to do yard work and walk on the trails,” she said). But the downside? The long hiatus from racing left her a bit rusty at the routine, which isn’t a scenario she’s encountered much in her career.
She stepped back to the start line in April at the Grand Prix at Hayward Field and came away with a disappointing result, finishing ninth in 4:10.07.
“My first race of the season was terrible. I mean, there’s just no sugarcoating it—I would never want to put out a performance that is either that time or that kind of place,” she says. “I don’t need disappointment to motivate me, but it can be something that can help recalibrate how hard I have to work towards the Trials. I took it as an indication that we have to step it up a notch.”
The first weekend in June, she gave it another go at the Music City Track Carnival in Nashville, Tennessee, and felt her momentum shift, finishing second in 4:06.18.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta wear a helmet before you get a crown,” Simpson wrote on Instagram after that race. “A solid second this evening. Another step forward and another collection of race-day memories.”
Simpson certainly brings maturity and a wealth of experience to the Trials, along with the third-fastest qualifying time (3:58.42), behind American record-holder Shelby Houlihan (3:54.99) and Elle Purrier St. Pierre (3:58.36).
At the beginning of 2021, Simpson was more than ready to get back to a “normal” schedule and put that one big thing on the calendar: the Olympic Trials, which begin on June 18 in Eugene, Oregon.
“I feel like I can look at the arc of my career and say, ‘I don’t have to do anything—anything I get from here is just a result of my desire and my will and my love for the sport,’” she says. “That has given me some peace at different times, but it doesn’t mean I’m letting off the accelerator when it comes to still wanting to achieve at a really high level.”
Hometown: Boulder, Colorado
Event: 1500 meters (3:57.22)
Training tip: Wake up every day and say, “I can keep going.”
“That has really transformed how I have, in my brain, planned out my sense of grinding through the months. Instead of saying, ‘OK, I can make it to Christmas,’ or ‘I can make it to the first race,’ or ‘I can make it to the Olympic Trials,’ it’s been so much more useful for me to say, ‘I can keep going,’ and not have to rely on the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Favorite workout: It’s not really a workout, but Simpson has come to enjoy the weekly long run of 15-16 miles the most.
“It has just felt like connecting with the part of running that really is constant, even during a time of a pandemic or political chaos and all the other things we’ve gone through,” she says. “As much as workouts are the bread-and-butter that get you to the start line ready to run hard, the long run this year has been what has emotionally and spiritually kept me in love with the sport.”
The worst part of race day: Simpson keeps race-day nerves in check pretty well until it’s time to put her gear in her backpack and head down to the hotel lobby to catch a ride to the track. When the time comes to step away from competition, the trek through the hotel lobby isn’t something she’ll miss.
“Almost every single time I head down the elevator or the stars to go to the lobby of the hotel, I think, ‘This part is the worst,’” she says. “It’s just the anticipation and knowing how much you want to do well. The pressure you put on yourself.”
The best part of race day: It’s the first 100 meters of the race.
“I love that feeling that the race is on, it’s underway, and anything can happen,” Simpson says. “The gun goes off, you’re going down the straightaway, and it just feels like the world is at your feet and you can do anything.”
Trials success (aside from the obvious goal of making Team USA): It’s a question that Simpson has carefully considered, she says. She’s concluded that her sense of fulfillment begins in the months before the Olympic Trials.
“I’ve thoughtfully and intentionally looked at the work I’m putting in and said, ‘I want to be so confident and so proud of the work I’m doing now, that whatever happens at Hayward, I can have peace,’” she says. “That does not mean I’m OK not making the team; that is still a truly deep desire in my heart. But feeling good about how everything goes in the middle of June has to start months earlier than that.”
Sage advice: A friend of Simpson’s in the military told her: Don’t have a plan, just be prepared.
“For somebody like me, it’s hard to back away from having a plan—like nearly impossible to do,” she says. “But this helps me say, ‘OK, how can I best prepare for anything that happens?’”
Pandemic pastimes: At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Simpson and her husband, Jason Simpson, adopted their dog Truman, a Jack Russell rescue pup with his own Instagram account (@thehairytrumanshow), who is “the center of our world.”
She also took up gardening, planting fruit trees in the yard and a vegetable garden that includes lettuce and radishes. “I don’t think I started thinking of it as being some sort of metaphor, but it’s kind of turned into that—tending to something, caring for it, and just praying the fruit comes from all the labor.”
And along with many of the quarantined people around the world, Simpson and her sister-in-law, who visited for two months to get out of New York for a while, took to binge-watching “Schitt’s Creek,” viewing all six seasons—80 episodes—twice.
“It was just like the balm in my life,” Simpsons says. “The thing that always made me laugh.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.