Back in third grade, Jenny Simpson was no different from the other kids at her public elementary school in Florida. She loved to run around on the playground, playing tag and other chasing games with her friends.
Simpson almost never got tagged because she could outrun the other kids, even the older ones. “I remember the P.E. teacher telling me, ‘You’re pretty good at this,’” said Simpson, a Team New Balance athlete, an Olympic and World Championships medalist, the six-time winner of the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile, and the Ambassador & Special Advisor to Rising New York Road Runners, NYRR’s free youth fitness program.
Just for Fun
Simpson joined the cross-country team in third grade and went to practices a few times a week after school. “We did a couple of laps around the playground, and we always had popsicles at the end,” she recalled. At the end of the year, everyone competed together in a one-mile cross country race. “The course was six laps around the school and you got a popsicle stick after each lap. When you got six popsicle sticks, you were done with your mile.”
Speaking recently to a group of schoolkids at the NYRR RUNCENTER featuring the NB Run Hub, Simpson revealed that she never won that race—and that was fine with her. She ran because it was fun and social and a chance to be outdoors. “I loved being with my friends and having fun together,” she said. “That grew into the love of running and eventually winning races.”
Finding Fulfillment with Friends
Simpson went on to join the middle school track team, and while she loved the feeling of giving it everything, mostly she still loved sharing a fun activity with her friends. “My friends are definitely the reason I got started running and the reason I stayed in running,” she said.
With her teammates, Simpson started running local 5K races, and they had a blast. “I remember looking around and seeing all different types of people—friends, my brother’s friends, moms and dads of friends—all running together,” she said. Afterward, everyone enjoyed bagels and orange slices as they cheered the rest of the runners across the finish line. “It was then that I thought, I love this—being in a community and getting to run with more than just my friends.”
Simpson also loved her relationships with her coaches, who often ran workouts with the team. “I always looked up to my coaches,” she said. “Whatever they thought I could do, I wanted to achieve.”
Her parents were happy to see she’d found an activity she enjoyed, but they didn’t get too involved—in fact, they didn’t start coming to her races until high school. “My parents knew that if I was going to be good at running, it would have to be me choosing it,” she said. “They could see I had great coaches and they were just going to be cheerleaders behind them.”
Lessons Along the Way
In high school, Simpson started to set goals and push herself to achieve them. Guided by her coaches, she learned that “success” didn’t necessarily mean crossing the finish line first. “The first hard experience I had was when I really expected that I would win a race, and I didn’t—I came in seventh,” she said.
“My coach gave me really good advice,” Simpson continued. “She said, ‘You’re never going to win everything, and it’s okay to want to be better. But if you really want to be good, you’re going to have to learn to get back up after the bad days.’ Learning to aspire and set goals, but to be patient in getting there—I think that was the first really hard lesson I had to learn.”
She also learned to manage the pressures that come with competing. “Transitioning from running for fun to a more competitive environment can be a big adjustment,” she said. “The biggest shift is just the nerves. For me, it’s worked really well to just acknowledge that it’s there. Being honest about it and saying, ‘Yeah, I’m nervous, I really want to win,' helps me wrap my mind around it and not try to hide it.”
Simpson won five state track championships and three state cross country championships in high school, and she set state high school records in the mile, two-mile, three-mile, and 5000m. She placed third in the 2003 Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships and was recruited by some of the best college running programs in the country.
Mastering Each Level
Simpson knew she wanted to go to the Olympics someday, and to set records and win medals. But she also wanted to get the most out of herself at every step along the way. “One of the keys to my success was reminding myself to master the level I was at,” she told the Boulder Daily Camera. She had a surprising breakthrough at the University of Colorado when she won the 3000m steeplechase national championship as a freshman.
Despite this and other successes—including setting an American record in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—Simpson delayed her professional career to complete her final indoor and outdoor track seasons—when she won NCAA titles—and her final season of cross country. In between she placed fifth in the steeple at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, breaking her own American record. She won the Bowerman Award as the year’s top track collegian.
Coming Full Circle
Simpson became a Team New Balance athlete in 2010. Her professional career highs include winning the 1500m gold medal at the 2011 World Championships and the silver in 2013 and 2017. In 2016, she was the 1500m bronze medalist at the Rio Olympic Games. “I remember coming across the finish line and thinking back to when I was 10 years old and wanted to do this,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was 29 years old that I finally did it. It took a really long time, but in that moment when I finally achieved my goal it felt so worth it, and such a short trip from 10 years old to that point.”
Keeping a Healthy Outlook
Now, Simpson wants to spend as much time as she can with kids who are like she used to be—having fun with their friends on the playground, running with their school P.E. programs, maybe racing a few times a year. She wants to make sure they enjoy all of it—being outdoors, having fun, hanging out together afterward. “If kids just go out and run and enjoy what they’re doing, incrementally over time they’re going to get better,” she said. “When I was in high school the most I ever trained was 35 miles a week. I never felt more pressure from my coaches than I put on myself, and when I put too much pressure on myself, my coaches told me I was taking it too far. And I think that was a really healthy outlook.”
It’s also an outlook that Simpson believes can serve every runner. “I’m so lucky that in running I get to be the tip of the spear—I get to go to the Olympic Games and win races and compete against all kinds of different people and see how good I can get in running,” she said. “But that’s only one version of being good at running. Don’t think that the only way to be good at running is to be the best. If you love it and if you do it in a healthy way, and you do it together, that means you’re good at it.”