RIO DE JANEIRO – Four years ago, Jenny Simpson watched the Olympic 1500m final from a New Balance hospitality house in London after fading to last place in her semifinal two nights earlier.
“To be there, surrounded by people that were hoping to be watching me race the final and were crossing their fingers for a medal in the final, and the fact that I was there with them in that room was a little bit embarrassing to me,” Simpson recalled in 2014.
On Tuesday night, Simpson could have seen some of those same supporters during a victory lap that lasted about 15 minutes after winning a bronze medal.
“I don’t even know if you’re supposed to run all the way around [the track], but my little sister told me to enjoy the view,” said Simpson, who grew up riding horses, dreaming of an Olympic equestrian medal until a P.E. teacher suggested she join a cross-country team to make friends. “I kept thinking of that the whole way. I thought, take your time, enjoy it, you’re not guaranteed to get these moments. So I just really wanted to go around and see every person with an American flag and thank them for being here.”
Simpson became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic 1500m medal, surging from sixth place with 300 meters to go and dashing painful memories from 2012, when she entered as the reigning world champion.
“I want to win here because I don’t want to cry every day until Tokyo 2020,” she said Friday.
Simpson’s bronze felt like a victory.
She came in ranked seventh among the 12-woman field in best times this year and fifth in career-best times. Neither The Associated Press nor Sports Illustrated picked her to make the podium before the Games.
Kenyan Faith Kipyegon was the upset winner in 4:08.92, followed by pre-race favorite Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba another 1.35 seconds behind and Simpson 1.61 back. Simpson would have caught the world-record holder Dibaba if the race was 1510 meters.
“My coaches told me, just be a predator,” said Simpson, who passed her rival, the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan, to move into third with 90 meters left. “Just get into a good position and the last 300 meters, run ‘em down. And they know what I’m best at. And I so feed off of that opportunity to just run down people. And I don’t always do that in races.”
Earlier in the morning, Simpson read a note from her little sister, Emily Bradshaw, a U.S. Army fire chief in Fort Stewart, Georgia. Bradshaw has passed inspirational lines to Simpson before all three of her races here.
“There was something she wanted me to remember for every step of the way,” Simpson said. “The letter she wrote for me to read this morning was, ‘You’ve already climbed Mount Everest. Now, remember to take the time to enjoy the view.’”
Simpson had plenty of time to take it in on the first lap of Tuesday’s final. It took a pedestrian 1 minute, 16.57 seconds to cover 400 meters.
“It went so slow, and I just thought, that’s OK, that’s OK, that’s OK, you don’t have to make anything happen tonight,” Simpson said.
She tucked in next to countrywoman Shannon Rowbury and behind Great Britain’s Laura Muir. Dibaba moved to the front at 800, extinguishing the snail’s pace, but Simpson did not attempt to go with her.
The top three of Dibaba, Kipyegon and Muir had separated when the bell rang to start the final lap. Simpson’s face still looked unflappable.
She started picking off runners in the backstretch, around the same part of the track where Simpson kicked one of her shoes off in the 2015 World Championships final in Beijing. That shoe fling came with one extra lap to go, though.
Simpson would eventually finish 11th in Beijing, leaving with a bloodied foot and the feeling that she would have to wait another year to face Dibaba and Hassan at full capacity in a championship final.
“You can’t run on a foot that doesn’t have skin,” she would say after that race.
On Tuesday night, Simpson came around the final curve shoulder to shoulder with Hassan. It had to be a familiar place.
Simpson edged Hassan for the season-long Diamond League title in 2014, diving through the finish line of the last race to win by one hundredth of a second. Shaunae Miller would be proud.
Simpson focused not on the finish line but on third place. Kipyegon and Dibaba were already out of reach.
“I think [my coaches] just knew, if Jenny can see where the medals are, she’ll go get one,” she said.
That’s what she did, but Simpson remembers none of the last 200 meters.
“I just remember crossing the finish line ugly-crying,” she said. “It is Everest. Getting to the top of this is so hard.”