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As a high schooler, she ran hundreds of miles on the roads and trails around Oviedo. This summer, at the Olympic Games in Rio, Jenny Simpson made history as the first American woman to medal in the 1,500-meter race.

As a freshman at Oviedo High School, runner Jenny Barringer showed talent. But her coach in those days, Jay Getty, has to admit: There was no indication she would become one of the fastest women on Earth.

In her sophomore year, Jenny caught fire. By the end of high school, she had won eight state championships in various events, with promise for a very bright future.

And this past summer, Coach Getty got to watch his protégé, now Jenny Simpson, take the bronze at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the first American to win a medal in the women’s 1,500-meter race.

Coach Getty watched the historic event from his Oviedo living room with his children, who Jenny once babysat as she pilfered fruit snacks from the Gettys’ kitchen cabinet.

“It was a great moment for us as a family because of all those connections,” says Jay, now athletic director at Hagerty High School. “She just proved to be at the top of her game at the right time.”

For Jenny, it was the culmination of a dizzying number of accomplishments in middle-distance and steeplechase racing, and more than a few setbacks. This was Jenny’s third Olympic appearance, after Beijing and London, and she knew beforehand this was the time to reach a new peak. She had learned by now to filter out all the pomp and noise surrounding this global event, and Jenny felt that she was in the best shape of her life.

“Every athlete has an arc to their career,” says the 30-year-old Jenny, who now lives in Colorado. “I felt this was near the top for me.”

Jenny vanquished 11 opponents by running her Olympic final in 4:10.53, good for bronze. 

That she had won her first Olympic medal did not kick in immediately.

“It was incredible. I was in disbelief,” Jenny says.

At first, Jenny wasn’t even sure what to do with the medal, which she describes as unexpectedly heavy. For a time, she carried it around in a sock in her suitcase.

Born in Webster City, Iowa, Jenny realized as a little kid that she was fast.

“It came naturally,” she recalls. “You’re out on the playground, and you know you’re the best one at playing tag.”

But Jenny, whose family moved to Oviedo when she was in third grade, concurs with her former coach that her full potential was still hidden when she arrived as a freshman at Oviedo High. She recalls asking Coach Getty how many days per week track practice would be held. When Coach Getty informed Jenny practice would occur every day, she was taken aback. But that reticence, that wondering if she wanted to commit so much time to running, would melt away quickly enough.

“By my sophomore year,” Jenny says, “I was all in.”

Jenny recalls many afternoons running along the picturesque trails around Oviedo. She found a perfect place to practice: the historic cemetery across the street from Oviedo High. It featured an unpaved surface and plenty of shade, and it was only later in life that Jenny realized this might have been an odd choice.

Her coaches at Oviedo High, Jenny says, encouraged her and her fellow runners, but never pushed too hard. That was huge, she says, given the tremendous pressures that lay ahead. But it’s not as if Jenny needed a lot of prodding. Coach Getty repeatedly witnessed Jenny’s fierce determination and recalls one moment in particular when she was a junior taking part in a cross-country state final in Tampa. On an online forum, a boy remarked that no girl could break 17 minutes in the upcoming race. Jenny reached the finish line in 16 minutes, 55 seconds.

After Oviedo High, Jenny ran for the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she now lives with her husband, runner Jason Simpson. Her parents, Bruce and Janet Barringer, moved to Oklahoma.

The bond that Jenny and Coach Getty formed at Oviedo High remains to this day. Jay was with her in Eugene, Oregon, when she qualified for the 2016 Olympics by taking the 1500m women’s title in the U.S. Olympic trials.

But the flurry of attention that follows an Olympic medal is so intense that Jay waited a week or so before calling Jenny to congratulate her. Though he was immediately in touch with Jenny’s family, Jay felt compelled to give his former babysitter a little space.

Jenny loved the Rio experience and the warmth and friendliness of the Cariocas, as that city’s residents call themselves. All the pre-Olympic anxiety about Brazil’s political and economic struggles, not to mention the Zika virus, quickly fell by the wayside when the Games began, Jenny says.

“I saw maybe two mosquitoes the whole time,” she jokes.

One might think that winning a bronze medal would be enough of a feat to allow an athlete to wind down and relax awhile, bask in the glory. Not Jenny. About one month after her Olympic achievement, she was in New York City running in the New Balance 5th Avenue Mile event, where she became its first five-time title winner – man or woman. Her running time was the third fastest by a woman in the 36-year history of the event. And it was a nail-biter. A mere one-tenth of a second separated Jenny from her closest competitor.

But then nail-biters are a Jenny trademark. Even in Rio, in the final race, she moved into third place with 90 meters to go.
At the age of 30, many athletes are at their physical peak. But an appearance at the Olympics in Tokyo four years from now “is certainly not out of the question” for Jenny, Coach Getty says. Jenny agrees. She believes she has a fourth Olympic Games in her.

“I love what I do, and I want to do it as long as I can,” says Jenny. “I feel I am in the best shape of my life, running the fastest races. I don’t see how in four years that will be dramatically different. I’d love to go back and medal again.”

Not that there is a lot to prove. Jenny has broken record after record in every imaginable racing event in high school, college, and beyond. What impresses her former coach is not just Jenny’s mind-boggling success, but also the humility with which she carries herself in spite of it.

Jay remembers when he, Jenny, and their families were waiting to enter the stadium of a U.S. Open tennis event in New York following the Rio Olympics. A stranger in the crowd recognized Jenny and approached her, and Jenny gave the woman her full attention.

“Instead of blowing her off, saying, ‘I’m busy, I’m with my friends,’ she started talking to her,” Jay says. “She is very open, very approachable, and courteous. She’s a great kid to be around.”

Jenny's Greatest Strides

Though she made Olympic history in the 1500m event, Jenny has also excelled in steeplechase, a middle-distance race that includes multiple hurdles and water jumps. At the Olympic level, both races require a combination of endurance, speed, and wits.

Here are some of the many high points of Jenny’s career: 

Olympics

2016, Rio de Janeiro – won the bronze medal in the 1500m event.
2012, London –
reached the semifinals in the 1500m.
2008, Beijing –
finished ninth in the finals of the steeplechase event 

World Championships 

2013 Silver medal, 1500m
2011 Gold medal, 1500m 

National Championships 

Jenny is a 10-time USA Track & Field Champion, with six outdoor and four indoor championships 

College 

She holds four NCAA titles from 2006-2009, three in steeplechase, and one in indoor 3K 

High School

Jenny is a five-time state champion in track and a three-time state champion in cross-country.

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