Jenny Simpson, former CU star, claims bronze medal in 1,500 at Olympics

  • Lee Jin-man / Associated Press

    Jenny Simpson celebrates after winning the bronze medal in the women's 1,500-meter final in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday.

  • Lee Jin-man / Associated Press

    Jenny Simpson, center, crosses the finish line in the women's 1,500-meter final behind winner Chepngetich Kipyegon, left, of Kenya and Genzebe Dibaba, right, of Ethiopia.



RIO DE JANEIRO — Jenny Simpson went into this Olympics as arguably the greatest U.S. female 1,500-meter runner of all time, and it would be even harder to argue otherwise after what she did Tuesday night in one of track and field’s marquee events.

Simpson became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the event, claiming a bronze medal to go with her two world championships medals — gold in 2011, silver in 2013. That’s a pretty persuasive case for her as the best, and the former Colorado Buff didn’t mind hearing that assertion after her historic achievement.

“It makes me feel amazing, because I’ve done it honestly and clean and with everything that just inside my own body, being expressed on the track,” Simpson said. “To me, that’s beautiful. The last 100 meters, when I was running my guts out, that’s my favorite part of the race. I love this sport, I love how competitive it is, I love how hard the 1,500 meters is — I’m biased, I think it’s the hardest race on the track.

“The last 400 meters is always gut-wrenching. I think I thrive in that, even though it’s really, really hard. Standing on the starting line, I’m terrified of it. But that last 100 meters is always a thrill.”

Simpson claimed her prize a day after training partner Emma Coburn, also a former Buff, claimed bronze in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Simpson was in sixth place with one lap to go and was in fourth entering the home stretch. Mark Wetmore, who coached her at CU and continues to coach her in Boulder, saw Simpson’s performance as a matter of willpower.

“I saw a killer, a predator,” Wetmore said. “Just killer will. She ran her last 800 faster than she’s run any 800 in her life (1:59).”

Faith Chepngetich Kipyegon of Kenya took the gold medal in 4 minutes, 8.92 seconds, upsetting reigning world champion Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia (4:10.27). Simpson finished in 4:10.53.

“I don’t remember a lot of the race,” Simpson said. “I am suffering some amnesia. My coaches gave me a mantra — their wisdom and my fitness is what excelled tonight — and their mantra was, ‘Position the first two laps, then be a predator.’ They said, ‘When somebody jumps to the front, go with them, look at where the medals are and go get them.’ “

Simpson, who turns 30 next week, was an eight-time state high school champion in Florida before coming to CU, where she won four NCAA titles and set five NCAA records. When the women’s steeplechase made its Olympic debut in 2008, she finished ninth while still a CU student and broke the American record. A year later she lowered her American record at the world championships, a mark which stood until this year when Coburn broke it twice.

Now she and Coburn have matching medals.

“The medal is incredible,” Simpson said. “To be the first American woman to medal in the 1,500 meters is something that I have not allowed myself to think about until now. It just feels incredible. I want to be somebody that this country can be really proud to cheer for. I didn’t decide to want to be that person this week or this year. I wanted to be that person eight years ago. This has been a long ride of highs and lows. Hopefully every American watching my race tonight, I want each of them to feel like they can take a small piece of ownership in this medal.”