Photo by Victah Sailer/PhotoRun.net
Before Thursday, I doubt that many people would have picked Jenny Barringer Simpson to end the title drought in American distance running that has persisted, stubbornly, since the mid 1980s. When Barringer Simpson went wide into lane three in the final of the women's 1,500 meters on Thursday and ran away from half a dozen of the world's best milers, no American woman had won a world or Olympic title in a distance event in 28 years, since Joan Benoit Samuelson took the inaugural women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles, in 1984. After she won, Barringer Simpson looked as surprised as the rest of us.
The context here is important: the early 1980s were the last really good years for American runners. Grey Meyer and Alberto Salazar won the Boston Marathon, Salazar dominated the New York City Marathon, and Mary Decker won world titles at 1,500 and 3,000 meters. In '84, Samuelson won her Olympic gold, and then that was it—the sport professionalized, east Africans arrived on the scene, and by the end of the decade Americans were suddenly second or third-class citizens on the international circuit. Perhaps no longer being the best was hard; not only did Americans in the 1990s fail to keep up in the new era, they got worse.
At the level of nations, success in distance running is largely a numbers game, because in any race it is usually safer to bet on the success of the field over the success of any single runner. Great Britian's Mo Farah, clearly the best man in the world this year, learned that lesson the hard way on Sunday when he lost a gold medal in the 10,000 to an obscure Ethiopian—not because the Ethiopian is better, but because Ethiopia sent three men to the meet who were at Farah's level, and only one needed to have a good day to win.
For 20 years, the United States has been lucky to arrive at races with even one woman in the elite tier, and usually her name was Deena Kastor. Things began to change in 2007, first in the 5,000 meters, then in the 10,000 and 1,500. Two years ago, the United States had four of the best 1,500-meter runners in the world, and one of them, Shannon Rowbury, came away with a bronze medal at the world championships. To make the U.S. team at 1,500 in 2009, as in 2011, you simply had to be world class.
American Morgan Uceny, not Barringer Simpson, was the favorite in the 1,500. And, indeed, Uceny looked poised and comfortable in the final until she was tripped, through no fault of her own, and finished second to last. Who knows whether Barringer Simpson would have won if Uceny had stayed upright, or if a hole had opened up in the final stretch for Great Britian's Hannah England, who closed faster than anyone in the race but had to pull even wider than Simpson to stretch her legs.
None of which is to say that Barringer Simpson's win was a fluke: she is among the most talented Americans ever, and has shown world-beating potential before. (Her introduction to professional running, though, has been unforgiving, and began with a mental breakdown and then literal collapse at the 2009 NCAA cross country championships, not long after which she was dumped by her coach at the University of Colorado, Mark Wetmore, and then became injured with a stress fracture in her femur. It's easy to look back at Barringer Simpson's 2009 season, which was extraordinary, and read success forward, but many runners don't recover from a one-two-three combination like that.) The point is that Barringer Simpson's win is as important for the sport it is as Barringer Simpson herself: she won, in part, because American women are once again competitive in this event.
Otherwise, the meet has not been a great success for American distance runners, who have turned up injured, flat, or unprepared. But that's the cool thing about having a good team: bring half a dozen runners who have the ability to win, and one might.