Jenny Simpson leads the field on her way to winning the women's 1,500-meter final at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium on June 29, 2014 in Sacramento, California.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Jenny Simpson could finally check off “U.S. 1,500-meter champion” on her “To Do” list, while teen phenom Mary Cain is still chasing a national outdoor title at the senior level.
“Maybe we’ll say I’ll put a star next to it, because it’s a little bit more special than just a check mark,” Simpson said Sunday, “but it’s definitely on the list of things that were really important goals for me this year.”
Simpson, 27, held off Cain at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships after moving into the lead early to push the pace. Though Cain, 18, the 2014 U.S. indoor champion, kicked past Katie Mackey with 200 meters to go and sprinted down the final stretch, Simpson was far enough ahead to stay out of reach. She finished in 4 minutes, 4.96 seconds to Cain’s 4:06.34.
“I didn’t feel that really intense breathing-down-your neck pressure,” Simpson said, “but I knew I had to work hard to win.”
Simpson was already a three-time national outdoor champion – just in other events. She won the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2007 and 2009 and the 5,000-meter in 2013.
But the 1,500 is the event that secured Simpson’s reputation on the international scene. She was the surprise world champion in 2011 in Daegu, South Korea, and added the world silver medal in 2013 in Moscow.
“My team likes to tease me that I do things a little bit backwards,” Simpson said. “When I was in college (at Colorado), I won my first national title before I ever had a conference title.”
However, she took nothing for granted when she stepped on the starting line at scorching Hornet Stadium, where the temperature was about 100 degrees.
“There’s always doubts,” Simpson said. “It’s so difficult and frustrating when people are like, ‘Oh, you know you’re going to win,’ because you don’t. This is hard! It’s hard to run 4:05 in hot weather with wind when you’re on your own (in the lead).
“I’m always warming up thinking, ‘At what point am I going to have to be brave?’ There’s always a point in a race when you have to be brave, even when you’re the heavy favorite - maybe especially when you’re the heavy favorite.”
Cain came into the race with Simpson squarely in her sights after running mostly at her shoulder in their preliminary round.
“I felt like I really could challenge her,” Cain said, though she recognized that it all depended on the pace.
Cain knew that if Simpson, who clocked 3:58.26 at the Prefontaine Classic on May 31, ran at a similar clip, she didn’t have the fitness to keep up with her.
But, “If it was a ‘sit-and-kick,’ I was like, ‘Heck, I got some wheels, watch out!’” said Cain. “I think I just gave her a little bit too much of a gap, but geez, it’s Jenny Simpson.
“Afterwards, I went over to her and I said, ‘You know, before the race, I told my coach, if there’s one woman who could beat me, and I’d be OK with it, it was you, so good job!’”
Cain, the 2012 U.S. junior champ, was also the runner-up last year in the 1,500 to Treniere Moser. She went on to place 10th in the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, where at age 17 she was the youngest athlete on the U.S. team.
After barely missing the world junior indoor mile record by .01 with a personal best of 4:24.11 in January, Cain started her outdoor campaign with 800-meter races. She called the 800 a “rustbuster” while she was finishing her academic work to graduate from Bronxville High.
Cain had extra incentive Sunday as she can down the final straightaway. Recalling that Shannon Rowbury received a stuffed animal for placing second in the 5,000, “that was definitely on my mind, that last 100 meters,” said Cain. “I was like, ‘You need to get behind her! You might not get a stuffed animal!’”
Cain was still clutching her plush prize as she talked to reporters.
“That gave me a lot of confidence running a 4:06 and still feeling like I have a good bit left,” she said.
Cain said she felt badly for Morgan Uceny, a medal contender who fell for the third time in a major 1,500 race.
Uceny went down in the 2011 World Championships, the year she was ranked No. 1 in the world. She then tumbled to the track in the final of the London 2012 Olympic Games. This time, Uceny was running third, just ahead and inside of Cain, when disaster struck.
“I didn’t do anything, but I just felt really awful,” said Cain, who insisted there was no contact between her and Uceny, who got up and finished the race. “I wanted to give her a hug afterwards.”
A pro athlete since November, Cain will attend the University of Portland this fall so she can continue to train with Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project.
“I’m in good shape, but we’re peaking for August, so I’m not super-duper sharp,” she said.
Cain will run next in the U.S. junior nationals July 5-6 in Eugene, Oregon, “a good fun race,” she said, then will have three weeks to train for the IAAF World Junior Championships, which are also in Eugene. She plans to compete in the 3,000-meter instead of the 1,500 so she can train through the meet.
“Then another three weeks to August,” Cain said. “If I can go like I’m going, watch out for the world record – no, I’m kidding.”
Simpson, who will next race in the Diamond League meet in Paris on July 5, is in striking distance of one of the oldest American records on the books, Mary Slaney’s 3:57.12 from 1983.
Simpson’s 3:58.28 at Prefontaine was her first personal best since she ran 3:59.90 in 2009. That year Simpson also set the American record in the steeplechase of 9:12.50, which still stands.
“I think a big part of it is staying injury-free and learning when to take a little bit of a step back - when to take care of your body and take care of your mind,” Simpson said. “I think that’s a big part of consistency. It’s so, so tempting to always train really, really hard. Sometimes you have to train smart.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.