Jenny Barringer Simpson's persistent competitiveness marks Olympic journey

The first step of Jenny Barringer Simpson's athletic career began as a third-grader competing in a mile race around a soccer field. She finished second to a girl named Brittany Baxter.

Brittany went to become a cheerleader at Oviedo High School.

Jenny went on to become a 5-time state champion in track and 3-time state champion in cross country at the same school.

"It's funny," Barringer Simpson said last week. "You see how things and what moments and memories form you in life,"

She is chatting via phone from a hotel room in Monaco, where she competed in a 3-K run over the weekend. The moments and the memories from the third grade have now morphed into moments and memories of a 25-year-old woman about to step on the greatest stage for international athletic competition.

She is back for her second Olympic tour, after competing in the steeplechase in the 2008 Games in Beijing and placing ninth. Although her time set an American record, it was more or less a casual footnote.Barringer Simpson was competing in an event that gathers little attention nationally.

Her return, this time in London, is markedly different.

The 1,500-meters is one of the glamour events in track and field, the metric version of the mile. No woman from the United States has medaled in the event, putting a greater squeeze on Barringer Simpson, the gold medalist in the 2011 World Championships.

You could say that Barringer Simpson shocked the world. How else do you explain the logic of someone who hadn't placed in the top 10 during the season winning the first title for the United States in the race in 28 years?

"I think I've proven throughout my entire career that I'm willing to put myself in a competitive position whether I belong there or not," she said. "I've had races in my career where maybe I didn't belong in the front but I put myself in the best position to make something great happen. I certainly wasn't favored but I was focused on the task at hand. When I got to the final lap I said to myself, 'I won't let the pack get away from me.' I think my competitive will is my greatest asset."

Her mom figured that out 24 years ago, when Jenny was a year-old and wanted a toy from her brother, John, who was two years older. They played the hand-over-hand game to see who would get the coveted prize. But it was Jennifer who figured out how to play the game so she could position her hands on top when it ended.

"I remember sitting there going, 'did she just do that?' recalls her mother, Janet, who now lives in Oklahoma. "…she was persistent."

So maybe it's best to mark Barringer Simpson's career as a tribute to her "persistent competitiveness." that pushed her to become such a dominant athlete at Oviedo, setting Florida high school records in the mile, two-mile, 5,000 meters, and three-mile, before racing for the University of Colorado.

She had been on 'the radar' since middle school. Jay Getty got a call from Ken Rohr, his old college roommate, who was coaching Jennifer at the time. "This girl is a lot different than anyone else I've seen, Kenny,' '' Rohr said.

Getty coached Jenny at Oviedo during her freshman year, then became the athletic director at the school. But all the while, he became sort of a special consultant to coach Scott Wiseman in regards to Jenny's career.

One of the things they did was keep Jennifer to 'medium mileage' during training to avoid physical and mental burnout. Instead of 60 to 80 miles a week, they kept her down to 35 to 50 miles a week. "We did what we needed to get done without tearing up the body," said Getty, now the athletic director at Haggerty. "…she was never driven to the ground."

That was evident in 2009, when Barringer Simpson ran 3:59.90 in the 1,500 at 2009 Prefontaine Classic _ marking the third-fastest time in U.S. track and field history.

It's been ages since this an American had a legitimate shot to medal in this event at the Olympics. You have to go back to Mary Decker-Slaney in the mid 1980s.

Now three decades later, Barringer Simpson joins Morgan Uceny and Shannon Rowbury as the field of Americans vying for the podium.

Not bad for a little third-grader who fell short in her first race.

"This is by far the best part," Barringer Simpson said last week. "You work so hard at training every day. I feel the sacrificial job is in the bank.

"The hard,cold winter runs are over and I get to sit in a beautiful hotel room in Monaco."

The next hopeful step is a podium in London.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com
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