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World Champion Jenny Simpson’s 5 Keys For Embracing Change

Life presented Jenny Simpson with numerous challenges in the last year. Here’s how Simpson faced them head-on.

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For well over a decade, Jenny Simpson could always be counted on to fight for a podium spot in the 1500 meters. From 2009 to 2019, the 36-year-old broke four minutes every year (the American record is 3:54.99) and earned four medals at global championships, including gold at the 2011 world championships and bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games. But the streak came to a sudden close when the pandemic hit and several setbacks upended her life. 

Looking back, the Marshall, Colorado native likened the experience to a car accident. On December 30, 2021, she and her husband, Jason, narrowly escaped the Marshall Fire that devastated the area around their home. While their house remained standing, the smoke damage left the Simpsons displaced for months. The day after the fire, she learned that her long-standing sponsorship with New Balance was ending. 

In the span of 48 hours, Simpson had to find a new place to live and process the reality of losing her job. The uncertainty rocked the three-time Olympian for months. “Oh my gosh, the valley was so deep,” Simpson said. “But now we’re climbing out of it.”

Amid the challenges, Simpson chose to embrace change. She hired an agent for the first time, signed a new endorsement deal, and made the transition from the track to the roads. Now with the help of her support system, mental health tools, and a new outlook on her career, Simpson is taking on the next step in her running journey. In an interview with Women’s Running, the world champion shared how she managed the major shifts and moved forward. 

RELATED: Read About Jenny Simpson’s Evolution as an Athlete

Establish Your Priorities

In addition to losing her sponsor, Simpson also lost her health insurance at the end of 2021. After not racing much due to injuries in the last two years, she fell out of the USA Track and Field tier system, a program that provides athlete support, including health insurance and medical reimbursement, among other benefits, to those who meet specific performance criteria (earning global championship medals, for example). In a case of terrible timing, she also required treatment for a sports hernia. 

“There was one day when I was really struggling, thinking I’ve made so many teams in a row and now everything is falling apart, and [Jason] said, ‘Well, it took a pandemic, fire, and losing your health insurance and sponsor to take you out, so don’t feel too bad,’” Simpson said. 

Amid the initial moments of disruption, Simpson centered herself by laying out a list of priorities. For her, that meant addressing her health needs and finding a new place to live after the fire. While her health insurance expired at the end of last year, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee allowed her six additional months to use the organization’s medical network, she said. In the lead-up to that access ending in June, she enrolled in her own health insurance and set up care with a physical therapist. 

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the Simpsons couch surfed at friends’ houses and stayed in hotels while insurance adjusters assessed the damage on their home. But bouncing around so frequently left them feeling unsettled. Once it was determined that repairs would take three months, the Simpsons decided to rent an apartment in Boulder near the University of Colorado campus. Having a temporary home also allowed them to establish normalcy. “The first step was just creating some stability, creating some routine, because you can’t problem solve if you feel like you don’t know where you live and where you’re going,” she said.

RELATED: Jenny Simpson on 2020 Resolutions, Winter Training, and Being a Night Owl

Lean on Relationships

By April first, the Simpsons were able to move back into their house. But fear was still a big obstacle she had to work through. After the fire, she started experiencing post-traumatic stress, and for the first time ever, the seven-time national champion was afraid she wouldn’t be good at running again. “I’ve never been a person that let fears enter my mind and they certainly weren’t there long enough to fester, so having the area of my brain that shelters doubt grow, was really upsetting to me,” she said.

When Simpson struggled to cope, she turned to those who were quick to remind her who she is at her best. “When you can’t see yourself as the really strong, confident, disciplined person that you used to be, there are people in your life that do see that in you still,” she said, explaining that when she couldn’t trust her thoughts, which were riddled with self-doubt, she trusted the people closest to her. 

For example, when Simpson returned to training earlier this year following the sports hernia, she was very out of shape and worried about regaining fitness, she said. At that moment, Mark Wetmore, her longtime coach and head track coach at the University of Colorado, took a rational approach when offering support. Simpson said he came to her with a plan and reminded her that she’d never taken six months off or experienced an injury as severe, and she could be a strong runner again if she was willing to commit. “I knew he was right, that I’d never been this far away from fitness before, and it’s going to be a dog fight to get it back, but we’re not going to know unless we put the work in,” she said. 

RELATED: The Evolution of Jenny Simpson

Surround Yourself with Forward-Facing People

After she regained more stability with their living situation, Simpson finally had room to reassess her running goals in the summer. Feeling like she put out her best in the 1500 meters for many years, Simpson wanted to test herself against new challenges on the roads. But she needed to find a brand who supported her goals, so she hired an agent to help her navigate those conversations. She started working with Hawi Keflezighi, founder of Hawi Management, who helped her focus on taking step-by-step action instead of dwelling in anger and frustration, she said. 

Those steps included an interview process with several running brands that Simpson pitched on her road running ideas. Some passed, which was hard feedback for Simpson to receive, she said. But after hearing several no’s, Simpson finally met with a company that resonated with her vision. “No matter how long our journey is together, I can’t imagine ever not just having a special place in my heart for Puma because they came along in a time that was so low for me, and they triggered the belief in me again,” she said.

In early October, Simpson announced her new sponsorship with the brand that has made significant investments in women’s distance running in recent years, including a partnership with Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel and a new pro group in North Carolina. On October 9, Simpson won the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

 

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Find Encouraging Examples

When rejection became hard to deal with, Simpson drew inspiration from fellow athletes who navigated similar transitions at various turning points in their career. Simpson recalled how Allyson Felix left Nike and signed with Athleta after the sportswear giant failed to secure maternity protections for her, as Felix shared in a New York Times op-ed. She also looked to Meb Keflezighi, Hawi’s brother, who faced a low point years ago when Nike showed a lack of interest in resigning him. In 2011, he became Skechers’ first spokesman for the running shoes line. Three years later, he won the Boston Marathon. 

“If you get bitter and down on yourself, then you’re going to miss out, and I didn’t want to miss out,” Simpson said. “I thought there’s other people that have done this well, and I want to look at their example. In five years, I want to be one of the athletes that did this well.”

In 2023, Simpson plans to debut in the half marathon sometime in the first half of the year. When asked about the marathon, the event Jason has focused on for years, she shared a diplomatic response. 

“I have so much respect for what it takes to be good [at the marathon], that I don’t think I can go from a 4-minute race to a two and a half-hour race and just toss out, like this is what I’m going to be doing, and I’m going to be good at it. There’s some important incremental steps that have to take place,” she said, explaining that she is open to exploring 26.2 down the line if her body can handle the demands of the event.

Give Yourself Grace

Running among the world’s best for many years, Simpson grew accustomed to setting high standards for performance. But when her life turned upside down, she realized she needed to adjust her expectations and be kinder to herself. “When you’re going through a transition or trauma, take a step back and don’t measure yourself against your previous self,” Simpson said, explaining that in challenging times, you can’t always access your best, and that’s okay.

For the first time in many years, running couldn’t be Simpson’s top priority. To cope with the change, Simpson told herself that she’s allowing it to take a backseat for a certain period of time until things settle down. After finishing 17th at the USATF 5K Championships in New York City on November 5, Simpson said she would’ve been embarrassed by the result under normal circumstances, but given the context of the year, she chose to give herself grace.

If Simpson ever needs a reminder, she looks at the buffalo print on the wall in her house. She said her friend gifted them the buffalo after the fire because the animal runs directly into storms and ultimately gets through them sooner, unlike cows who run away. “Every time I see it, I think we are facing the storm and we’re getting through it,” she said. “I finally feel like we’re on our way out.”