'Steeplechase Queen' Hopes To Score Big In London

Jenny Simpson, the 1500 meter women's world champion, is known to some as the American steeplechase queen. Simpson is doing a few last-minute training tweaks as she gets ready for her Olympic trials race on Thursday. She's hoping to represent the U.S. in London in an event that isn't typically dominated by American women.

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At this week's Olympic trials, middle distance runner Jenny Simpson will find out if she's going to the Olympics. Simpson is the current world champion in the 1,500 meters, but as we hear from NPR's Allison Keyes, she's had some setbacks recently, and she and her coach are making last-minute tweaks to her training routine.

JULI BENSON: Just relax, relax a little, just ease it back, ease it back. You're plenty fast.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: On the cobalt blue track at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Jenny Simpson's coach, Juli Benson, worked with the middle distance runner and two male training partners, trying to make sure she'd be in top form for the trials.

BENSON: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good job, good job.

BENSON: Sixty-four, six.

KEYES: At a world-class meet in New York earlier this month, Simpson ran last in a rocky 800-meter race, which at half her normal distance should have been a breeze. She says she was trying to ride a fine line between training for endurance and speed.

JENNY SIMPSON: So the transition is now just recognizing that between strength and intensity something had to give, and we just needed to rest up and really focus on re-energizing for the trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wow, this is quite a turnup in the end. It's America victory for Great Britain.

KEYES: Jenny Simpson's tactical prowess helped her win the 2011 World Championship in the 1,500 meters in Daegu, Korea, in September. She lurked in the beginning, staying with the field, made a smooth move to the outside and around, then finished like a freight train, kicking her way to victory off the final curve. Simpson told flotrack.org...

SIMPSON: All of a sudden, I can see the finish line, and there's not many people in my vision. And then all of a sudden, there's no one in my vision, and I'm like, I think I'm winning.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMPSON: And I just felt like I couldn't believe it.

KEYES: But the first American since 1983 to win gold in the race known as the metric mile has won gobs of titles and set many records. Last year alone, the 25-year-old Florida native also took indoor titles in the mile and 3,000 meters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here she comes powering those arms down the final straightaway in front of the whole field here, crosses the line, arms up. Look at the time. Oh, my gosh. That's almost eight seconds under the current record.

KEYES: That's flotrack.org's play-by-play of Simpson's 2009 NCAA 3,000-meter indoor championship, and she has a slew of steeplechase championships as well. Simpson also holds the American record in that event. That's the race where the runners jump over 35 30-inch hurdles, including water hazards in addition to running 3,000 meters.

SIMPSON: It is a really crazy event.

KEYES: Simpson says it's been a good stepping stone in her career, and she's made teams, including the 2008 Olympic team. She wouldn't have without it. But in 2009 as a college senior, Simpson ran a startling 3:59 in the 1,500.

SIMPSON: It was such a huge barrier to break four minutes.

KEYES: Simpson says she realized then she could be world-class at any distance she focused on from 1,500 meters on up. Now, she's laser-focused on making the 2012 team at that distance.

SIMPSON: It's fun to be a miler. It's fun to only be in excruciating pain for four minutes instead of nine minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah.

BENSON: Right into it, right into it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good job.

KEYES: Back at her coach's home base at the Air Force Academy, kids from an athletic camp cheered Simpson on as Juli Benson put her through her paces, but Benson says Simpson is absolutely ready for the U.S. Olympic trials.

BENSON: This woman can compete and will compete with whoever wants to line up against her.

KEYES: Jenny Simpson says she's heading into the trials excited about what she may be capable of this year. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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