The Evolution of Jenny Simpson
At 32, the three-time Olympic track star says she's more passionate about running than ever. Here, she shares her secrets to success when it comes to getting older, wiser—and faster.
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It’s a Thursday afternoon in December, and Jenny Simpson has just finished up her first run of the day near her Boulder, Colo., home. Refueling with a cup of Siggi’s yogurt (her absolute favorite), she tops it with a handful of ginger-molasses granola from the Run Fast, Eat Slow cookbook—which just so happens to be co-written by a good friend of hers, Shalane Flanagan.
“That sounds very domestic of me,” Simpson jokes about her homemade topping. “I’m not usually someone who just whips up a batch of granola. I just love their recipes.”
While Simpson may not be a domestic goddess (she leaves most of the cooking and cleaning to her husband, Jason), there is no denying her super-hero status on the track. One of the most decorated middle-distance runners in U.S. history, Simpson’s resume is as shiny as the gold medal she picked up at the 2011 World Championships in the 1500 meters. A three-time Olympian (in 2016, she earned a bronze in the 1500 meters), Simpson is the current American record holder in the two-mile and has a record-setting seven straight victories at the prestigious Fifth Avenue Mile to her name.
And that’s just her post-collegiate career. Prior to going pro and signing with New Balance in 2010, Simpson—then Jenny Barringer—was a NCAA steeplechase star at the University of Colorado and a high school phenom from Florida before that. (Last year, Oviedo High School named its track in honor of its uber-accomplished alum.)
Indeed, Simpson has been a force on the running scene since some of her youngest competitors were still in grade school. But at 32, she swears she’s not slowing down. After all, there are more records to chase. And oh yeah, an Olympic gold to grab, too.
Staying Ahead of the Curve
Simpson says she’s doesn’t put much thought into aging, but she admits to a brief moment of panic a couple of years ago as one very big birthday loomed large.
“I was pretty anxious for 30 because that’s the age when people start to think ‘Oh, you’re getting ready to be done,’” she says of her running career. After all, a former track rival of Simpson’s, Morgan Uceny, retired in 2016 at 30, and Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross was 31 when she retired from track in 2016. “Then I looked at the calendar and realized that my 30th birthday was right around the time of the 1500-meter finals in Rio. And all I could think of was, ‘I cannot be watching that final at home, on the couch, on my birthday. I have to be there.’”
Turns out, she had nothing to worry about. True to form, Simpson made the Olympics—and the final. And she had some extra bling at her birthday celebration, courtesy of that bronze medal. At an age when many middle-distance runners are on the bell lap of their careers, Simpson’s historic finish in Rio set the tone for this new decade: 30 had nothing on her.
In fact, Simpson feels like she is now the age she was always meant to be. Her 30s suit her, she says, because in many ways, she has been adulting since she was, well, a kid.
Simpson’s younger sister, Emily Bradshaw, says she was always mature for her age, a leader, with flawless handwriting and grades to match. “She was so on top of things. She was the organizer. If there was something we had to memorize, she would memorize it first,” Bradshaw says. “She always had everything together just so, and that made her stand out.”
In high school, Simpson skipped out on prom and homecoming to focus on big races. As a freshman on a full athletic scholarship at Colorado, she cashed out a college fund her grandparents had set up and used it as a down payment on a condo in Boulder.
“I read somewhere that moving was one of the biggest stresses in life, so I thought, ‘Where can I go so I don’t have to move every year?’” she says of opting out of dorm life. “It seemed crazy to everyone, but I knew I’d be running at a high level and needed to avoid that stress.” (The plan worked: Simpson not only dazzled as a collegiate runner, but she covered the mortgage by renting out spare rooms to teammates.)
And then there was Jason. After meeting through mutual running friends, the two dated for just 11 months before getting engaged while Jenny was still a senior at Colorado. At a time when many of her classmates were concerning themselves over the next frat party, Simpson was planning a wedding. The two married in 2010.
Indeed, Simpson has stayed firmly ahead of the curve in many aspects of life. And while some of it was happenstance—like falling in love with Jason—most of her major choices throughout life have been made with careful calculation and planning.
“Being in a competitive environment, I’ve always placed myself on a path to be the very best, to find what works for me. And that might be one of the secret things to me being able to sustain this level of effort for so long,” she says. “I’ve always done what I can to eliminate stress and drama in my life.”
Of course, it takes much more than maturity and knack for avoiding drama to sustain such incredible success as an athlete. Certainly, a cooperative body helps. Simpson is quick to say that she has been extremely lucky to avoid major injury in recent years, and attributes this to her close-knit support crew of coaches (she has been under the tutelage of her college coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, for the better part of 14 years), her husband (who supplies moral support and relieves her of household chores) and a host of physical therapists, massage therapists and trainers in Boulder.
“There is a huge backend to what I do, and having consistency in my inner circle is really valuable,” Simpson says. And not only does this squad keep her in one piece, they keep her motivated. Because when it comes to training, it can even be tough for a world champ to get out the door sometimes. “I wake up some mornings, and running is the last thing I want to do,” she says. “It’s just not normal to want to run every single day.”
So when Simpson needs a bit of a boost? “All I have to do is think about the people who have sacrificed so much to get me to the highest level,” she shares. “When you see people doing so much for you, the least you can do is get out there and train.”
Jason Simpson sees this spirit of gratitude in his wife on the daily. “She is deeply motivated by the work and sacrifices that others have made for her career,” he says. “That, and the fact that she trains hard and races smart are some of the essential qualities that have made her so good for so many years.”
The Strongest Version of Herself
No doubt, Simpson has goals. Case in point: She not only wants to be on the starting line of the Olympic Games 1500-meter final in Tokyo, but she is ready to contend for a medal, too. So, will winning gold be the moment that’ll have her hanging up her spikes for good? Not quite.
“A huge part of my progression is that I’ve never had this one pinnacle moment that I’ve been striving for,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can think of that will make me say, ‘That’s it. This is all I’ve ever wanted.’ And that keeps me motivated for more.”
So these days, instead of focusing on that One Big Thing she wants out of a race, Simpson makes incremental goals that aren’t so black and white. “Goals are really important in life, but I never set a ceiling, like this is the one thing I have to do,” she says. “That way, it takes the pressure off. I step on the starting line with a lot of hope and fewer expectations.”
This approach has led her to be more relaxed in life, too. Her sister sees it in the way their own relationship has evolved from squabbling siblings with different interests and lifestyles to genuine best friends who talk nearly every single day.
“What I’ve seen in recent years is a different version of Jenny. She’s relaxed. She’s spontaneous. And she is always there for me and others, whereas at one point, running came first,” Bradshaw says. “That’s not to say she has lost any of her edge, but she has become a better version of herself.”
Sure, having already accomplished so much in her career has taken plenty of the weight off of her exquisitely sculpted shoulders. But Simpson remains as focused on being among the world’s best—she is just a lot more chill about it.
“I spent a lot of time in my 20s figuring out my strengths and weaknesses and putting a lot of energy into what makes me the strongest version of myself,” she says. “So today, especially as a competitor, I have a real solid sense of who I am and what I am good at. This has given me a level of calm.”
Career First, Family Later
After working for so long to achieve that level of calm, she says she is not quite ready to disrupt it with, say, a baby. Though vocal about wanting to start a family, Simpson is firm on the fact that it will have to wait until retirement. She gives credit to her fellow runners who have been able to balance a professional career with motherhood, but she admits the lifestyle is just not for her.
“Having a baby and then actually raising that child is a real sacrifice when your body supports your career. And it’s one I don’t think I’m willing to make,” she says. “Because it’s not like you’re just going to take a season off, you then have to be there for that baby. It takes up so much time and energy.”
Simpson is practical about the realities of the so-called biological clock (“One day, you wake up and all of your friends have two kids. It definitely sneaks up on you,” she says.). But she’s confident in her decision to ride out her career now and and enjoy kids later.
“It’s a beautiful thing that I live in an area that people have kids later in life. One of my best friend had hers after 40. So I don’t feel like it has to be this paralyzing situation,” she says. “And I think in many ways, my life with my kids may benefit from me having a career first.”
Quitting the Comparison Game
There’s no question that Simpson is as confident in her convictions as she is in the home stretch on the track, but she confesses that there are days when she feels less-than-stellar about herself, especially after scrolling social media and getting caught up in the comparison game.
“Seeing someone else’s perfectly coordinated life, especially if I’m having a bad day, brings me back to my insecure high school self,” she says. “As much as I try to evolve and become a better person, there are parts of me that will never change. Those insecurities will always be there.”
Simpson says that because she is so much more aware of her shortcomings, she purposely tries to avoid situations that zap her confidence, which is a big part of the reason that she’s not super active on social media. While she does occasionally share snaps and thoughts (her favorites are #MondayMotivation posts), she says she is perfectly content checking her feeds once a week.
Still, as a public figure, she feels conflicted about how much she should interact and engage with her fans online. “It’s tricky because I have all of these followers and some sponsor obligations on social media, but truthfully, I am just not wired to be a famous, full-disclosure type of person,” she shares. “We tend to get sucked into this popularity contest, but as I’ve grown older, it’s become more and more apparent that it is not my job to get likes. My job is to win medals and get records.”
The Best is Yet to Come
Just how many more medals and records we can expect from Simpson in the next few years is unknown. But what is for certain is that while Simpson may be older, she is also wiser. Stronger. More confident. And yes, perhaps even faster than ever before.
“Look, if I only have three years left in my career, they are going to be the best three years yet,” she says. “I’ve got this precious window of time left. And until that’s up, I’ll be working my butt off.”