Jenny Simpson is Back on Her Starting Line
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 1,500 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 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 1,600 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 FLRunners.com 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.”
The next year, Getty took Simpson to the USATF Junior Cross Country Championships in snow-covered Indianapolis (“We totally bootstrapped it; stayed at my uncle’s house,” said Simpson. “I’d never run in spikes before.”) She finished fourth but when she was handed a piece of paper in the chute that said her finish made her eligible to compete on Team USA, she casually tossed it in the trash. She’d had no idea that the Top 6 got to go to the 2004 World Junior Cross Country Championships.
Coach Getty, after all, had only said: “Let’s just get in the race and see how it goes.” And she’d had no idea, in those years before the information tsunami of the internet, of where she stacked up against other girls from around the country.
Until that day. “I feel like that was the moment everything shifted,” she said. “I’m better than I realized I was. I love that memory. It couldn’t happen today anymore.”
When she was a senior, the Orlando Sentinel published a feature story on her that included this paragraph:
Barringer aims to make the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and throws around the idea of potentially competing in four Olympic Games, likely in her specialty of 5,000 meters. The marathon intrigues her for the future – “How does one get to such an elite level to run five-minute miles over 26.2 miles?” – although that’s not an immediate goal.
Although the 5,000-meter distance never came into play, Simpson did indeed make the 2008 Olympics – in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, finishing 8th, while still in college – and the scent of competing in four Olympic Games is still in the air. Hence the return to the familiar turf surrounding Lake Eola.
Make no mistake, however: Nostalgia goes only so far. As Simpson told Carrie Tollefson recently on the CTolleRun podcast: “I’m not going there to just see if I can do it. I’m going there thinking I really want to put an amazing effort out there. I want to race. I’m going to race. I’ve never been somebody who goes out there to kind of tick the box.”
“She really wants this,” confirms her father, Bruce Barringer. “She’s going to leave it all out there.”
This would come as no surprise to Getty, who calls her “one of the fiercest competitors I have ever seen.”
If the universe gave Simpson a gift when Orlando got the Trials, she is happy to pay it forward by competing in front of so many people who were there from the beginning: Jon and Betsy Hughes, the coaches who traveled around the country to watch her compete (“Little old me, I had quite the entourage,” she said), old friends from high school she hopes will turn out along the course on race day.
“As you build on your running journey, you build all these relationships along the way,” she said, reflecting. “It’s really special.”
Special: About 15 years ago, Getty joined Simpson on the track at the University of Central Florida, where her father was teaching at the time, to handle her splits during a workout. They warmed up and cooled down together, and Simpson needled, “We need to get you back in shape.” Getty says that he hasn’t missed a day of running since.
Special: For 45 years, Jon and Betsy Hughes have hosted a Christmas morning run from their home. Several times, Simpson has shown up at the door – even in the rain.
Special: A few years ago, Oviedo High School renamed its track for Jenny Barringer Simpson. The date of the dedication ceremony was February 3, 2018. Six years later, to the day, Simpson is hoping to repay the honor. The community, she says, has given her so much.
“It feels like I finally have a chance to give them that love letter back,” she said. “On the days that are the hardest, I think about how good I want to be for the race back home.”