JENNY SIMPSON watched the 2004 women's Olympic marathon on television. She was 17 then and still Jenny Barringer, an eight-time Florida state champion in track and cross-country who was about to head off to run at Colorado. Watching U.S. marathoner Deena Kastor win bronze in Athens struck a powerful chord.
"It was inspiring to see [an American woman] medaling at the Olympics," Simpson says. "It was a poignant moment for a lot of high school distance women my age."
Simpson would make her first Olympic team four years later in the steeplechase. At those Beijing Games she roomed with Shalane Flanagan, a former star at North Carolina who earned a bronze in the 10,000 meters. "I saw Shalane as a very recent graduate from college, and I was in college," Simpson says. "I thought, If this woman could do it, I could do it."
In the seven years since, Simpson, 28, has indeed done it, surging to the front of an increasingly strong field of American women distance runners. In 2009 she broke four minutes, a benchmark for elite status, in the 1,500 for the first time, and in '11 she won the world championship at that distance. She followed that up with a silver at the '13 worlds, and last season at a Diamond League meet she set a new personal best of 3:57.22, .10 of a second off Mary Slaney's 32-year-old U.S. record. Simpson finished the season ranked No. 1 in the world.
"When one person does something it can really open the floodgates," says Simpson, who is hardly alone in making a name for herself on the track. This season she is just one of a record eight American women who have run under 4:05 for the 1,500. In the steeplechase 24-year-old Emma Coburn has emerged as a medal contender, while in the 800 the depth is so great that Lauren Wallace failed to qualify for the final at June's U.S. championships despite running the world-class time of 2:00.48.
Even among all those talented competitors, Simpson stands out. Her goals this season include winning the world championship in August in Beijing and, at some point, making another run at Slaney's record. "If I'm in a situation where the race is going well, that record can really come," says Simpson. "I feel more ready for it now than I was last year."
LIONEL CIRONNEAU/AP (SIMPSON)