Mile News

Jenny Simpson is Back on Her Starting Line

January 28, 2024

By Barbara Huebner

When Jenny Barringer was a third grader, she moved to Florida over Thanksgiving break, well after the semester had begun at Partin Elementary School. As a way for her to make friends, a physical education teacher suggested she join an after-school running program, where the kids ran around the recess area and would collect a popsicle stick after every lap.

Low pressure, no expectations, nothing but fun – for years, all the adults around the young Oviedo runner shared the same philosophy.

“I don’t remember anyone taking it seriously,” she said. “I was the only one who took it seriously.”

Jenny Simpson, 37, has since become a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, two-time World Championships silver medalist (2013, 2017) and 2011 World Champion at 1500 meters. Now, the most-decorated American female middle-distance runner in history is coming home, hoping to make her fourth Olympic team when she toes the line on Saturday morning, February 3 for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon.

“I knew I wanted to run a marathon at the end of my career,” said Simpson, who will be making her debut at the distance as a hometown favorite, growing up just a few miles from Orlando until leaving to attend the University of Colorado-Boulder and settling in nearby Marshall with her husband, Jason, and their two dogs, Truman and Barkley. “Then Orlando wins the bid … it feels like the universe is giving me a gift.”

Although her professional running career blossomed out West, its root can easily be traced back to those Florida popsicle sticks. At the end of the elementary-school program, the kids did a Mile race. Simpson recalls trying hard to win but falling just short.

“I feel like getting second in that race at such a young age couldn’t have been more perfect,” she said. “I totally got the itch to get better next year. Kind of diving at the line and not getting there, it totally flipped a switch in young Jenny."

At some point, Simpson’s mother, Janet – a nurse who, working on her feet all day, understood the importance of proper footwear – brought her into Track Shack in Orlando to get her first pair of running shoes. The girl joined Track Shack’s middle school running club, doing many of her early races with them.

Jon Hughes, co-owner of Track Shack with his wife, Betsy, is the race director for these Trials.

“Talk about a full circle moment,” said Hughes, his voice catching.

“Nothing has changed inside that place,” said Simpson, of the well-known running store, founded in 1977. “There’s a real sense of place and community.” (At a conference in Boston early in her career, the young athlete even surprised Betsy Hughes by presenting her with the first pair of her then-sponsor New Balances “Barringer” shoes.)

For a few years, horses competed for Simpson’s attention. Her mom “loves, loves, loves” horses, she said, and worked every year to improve a nearly abandoned five acres she leased on which to keep them. In her youth, Simpson competed in equestrian, and a riding friend of Janet’s was the first person she ever knew who had Olympic ambitions.

But early in her high school years, running practice and dressage began to conflict.

“I knew it was going to disappoint my mom,” she recalled, “but I really had a drive for running and not for equestrian sports.”

Calling it a disappointment, Janet Barringer acknowledges, would have been an understatement at the time. “I think she had the talent to be as successful as she’s been in running as an equestrian,” said her mother. “But it wasn’t her passion.”

That drive had become clear by the time she got to Lawton Chiles Middle School. Ken Rohr, her coach there, had a message for Oviedo High School coach Jay Getty: Pay attention. This one seems a little different.

Getty, now a coach and athletic director at nearby Hagerty, immediately saw a girl who was more mature, more focused than her teammates. He cited a 2-mile race early in her freshman year in which he had told her not to lead early. She stared at him as she passed by on every lap, as if to say “I’m ready to go when you are. “When he finally gave her the go-ahead, “She ran that girl into the ground. That’s when I realized that we were probably going to have to restructure some training programs.”

As a sophomore, Simpson would win the first two (cross country and 1600 meters) of what would grow to eight Florida state titles, but it was her junior year in which things really took off. As she was heading into the state cross country championships that year, Getty remembers, some kid laid out a challenge on the forum: There is no girl who will break 17 minutes.

“Please don’t let Jenny see that,” he thought.

Jenny saw that. Rising to the challenge (“I just remember her being like, ‘watch me,” her mom recalls), she ran 16:55 – a state record – and celebrated in what writer Jason Byrne described as “pure joy. She just loved so much to compete that it flowed out of her.”

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Tags: olympic trials (56) , jenny simpson (138)

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