She could see her rivals looking, but Jenny Simpson tried not to notice.
It was Tuesday evening in Rio, minutes before the start of the women’s 1500m final, and the 2011 world champion couldn’t stop coughing.
Simpson was one of the leading contenders, possessing as she does a finishing kick so renowned and potent that she had long been touted as the athlete to deliver the USA their first Olympic women’s 1500m medal.
After winning the US title in impressive style in July, Simpson went back to training and prepared assiduously for the task at hand.
“I had some of the best training of my life,” she said. “But then I got a cold.”
Less than two weeks before she got her Olympic campaign under way, Simpson awoke one morning with a dry, scratchy throat, a flicker of illness that would soon explode into a full-blown infection.
Elite athletes are highly-strung beings at the best of times, but two weeks out from the Olympics, this was a disaster, at least in the small part of Simpson’s mind that was starting to panic.
“It made me nervous that it was going to compromise my performance but I just kept my head above water,” she said. “I was drinking peppermint tea, getting enough sleep and rest and the people closest to me, my coaches and husband, kept telling me I’d been great at championships before when I hadn’t been at my best. They kept telling me this will not hold you back, though I never believed it.”
Within a week, Simpson started to come around, but that scratchy cough still wouldn’t leave her be. It was the latest annoyance in an Olympic year that started in the worst possible circumstances for a high-level athlete: with severe injury.
Giving her rivals a head start
It was December last year when her foot first started hurting. Simpson, a rigorous trainer with impressive durability, had not picked up a serious injury since 2010, at least not anything that stopped her running.
When the diagnosis was confirmed – a stress reaction in the metatarsal bone in her foot – she had to come to terms with eight weeks of no running at all. In the race to Rio, she was giving her rivals a whopping head start.
“That was a real challenge, to keep my head in the game,” she said. “I was cross training for eight weeks and I was surprised and grateful no one really asked me about it.”
Simpson bypassed the indoor season, making her seasonal debut with a win at the Drake Relays in April. After that she raced sparingly – once in Shanghai, once in Eugene, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively over 1500m – before setting her sights on the US Olympic Trials.
After she made the team, Simpson channelled all her energies into returning to the kind of form that saw her swoop to the world title in 2011 in Daegu. “It’s hard, hard training,” she said. “Intervals, long runs, doing everything I can to be the best in the world.”
With the late illness and doubts about her health, it was surviving the preliminary rounds that made her most anxious when she got to Rio.
“I was so much more nervous for the semi-final,” she said. “When you make the final, you think: ‘this is where I want to be, this is what I craved, what I’ve worked for, just to have a shot'.”
Cough or no cough, Simpson knew she had a legitimate medal chance.
The early pace was slow, with Britain’s Laura Weightman taking the field through 400m in 76.57 seconds. Only with 700m to run was the first decisive move made, as world champion Genzebe Dibaba surged to the front. Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon and Britain’s Laura Muir were the only two to follow suit, with Simpson staying in the chasing pack, following the instructions of her coaches and waiting to play her cards late.
Playing the predator
“My coaches gave me a mantra coming in that was: position for the first two laps, then be a predator the second two laps. They know what brings out the best in me and that I would be in the best position if I could see the medals and go get them.”
Simpson was in sixth position at the bell, but those out front were beginning to suffer the consequences of going with Dibaba, who dropped a sub-57-second third lap. Simpson followed Hassan into the home straight as she overtook a tiring Muir, then changed gears in that familiar style and moved into the bronze medal position.
To hold it, she had to repel the challenge of teammate Shannon Rowbury, but she was up to the task and crossed the line in 4:10.53, completing a dream that had taken shape many years before.
“The first time I dreamed about being in the Olympics, I was in equestrian sports in middle school,” she said. “Winning an Olympic medal is this childhood fantasy, and I’ve been working at this for 10 years now. When I made my first World Championships in Osaka, I said, ‘I can be great at this'.”
Along the way, there have been as many dispiriting lows as there were euphoric highs, such as in Beijing last year, where Simpson faded out of contention and finished 11th after losing a shoe on the penultimate lap. Shortly after her race in Rio, Simpson had a flashback of that race.
“I was doing a victory lap and stopped on the other side of the track to see my parents,” she said. “The first thing I thought was that this time last year I was over on the back stretch picking up my shoe, and now here I am with an American flag.”
She was the first US athlete ever to do a lap of honour after an Olympic women’s 1500m final, a feeling that brought home to Simpson just why she put her whole life, her whole being, into doing what she does best.
“The last 100 metres, when I was running my guts out, that’s my favourite part of this race,” she said. “This is a beautiful sport. I love it.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF