2023 HS Boys Athlete Of The Year — Simeon Birnbaum

Birnbaum won the loaded Arcadia 3200 with a PR 8:34.10 and later recorded the same time for 2 miles at Brooks to move to No. 2 all-time. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

WHEN HE BROKE 4:00 in the mile as a junior, Simeon Birnbaum made himself a name to watch his senior year. After a low-key indoor season, the Stevens High School (Rapid City, South Dakota) star put together a near-perfect outdoor campaign, one that won him our High School Athlete Of The Year honor.

Performance-wise, Birnbaum made a big jump from cross country, where he was a none-too-shabby 6th at Nike Cross Nationals, and a week later 4th at the Champs Sports race (now back to being called Foot Locker). Indoors, he placed 5th in the 800 at the New Balance Indoor Nationals, the next day running 4th in the mile.

But Birnbaum and coach Jesse Coy timed everything for outdoors, where he proved to be nearly unbeatable in the high school set. He opened up at the Arcadia Invitational in California, winning the 3200 in 8:34.10, the No. 5 performance in prep history. He recalls that as perhaps his favorite race of the year.

“I still don’t know where I found that extra gear,” he says. “I wasn’t in great shape. I just wanted that bad. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.” He crossed the line just 0.04 ahead of Utah prep Dan Simmons.

Three weeks later, he took the prep mile at the Drake Relays in 4:02.36. In early May, he tested his fitness with a 1:50.37/4:04.05 (1600) double on the other side of the state at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays.

Then came his State Meet at the end of the month, where he was determined to help his team try to win the team trophy. On Thursday he ran anchor on the winning sprint medley. The next day, he captured the 3200 in 9:22.96 and later the 800 in 1:53.02. On the final day, he set a meet record in the 1600 (4:02.78), winning by nearly 18 seconds. It was the second year he had done that quadruple successfully, but the team still fell 4 points short of the victory.

Then came what Birnbaum had been aiming for as an individual, the post-season. His schedule was packed. On June 01 he made it to St. Louis for the HOKA Festival of Miles. There he won the deepest mile race in prep history, clocking 3:57.63 as three others — Rocky Hansen, Tinoda Matsatsa and Jackson Heidesch — also broke 4:00. (Continued below)

Two weeks later came the Brooks PR meet, where he crushed 2 miles in 8:34.10, becoming the No. 2 performer ever. He defeated one of the best prep fields ever assembled, with Connor Burns 2nd, Hansen 3rd, Tyrone Gorze 4th and Simmons 5th.

A quick turnaround found him in Eugene two days later, running in a special pro section of the 1500 at the Nike High School Nationals. He placed 3rd in 3:37.93, the No. 2 clocking ever: “Even though I got 3rd and I’m all about winning, I think I ran really well. That time was what I really needed to get into USAs, which was my goal at the beginning of the year.”

Just two days after that, he ran against the preps at Nike, moving past Newbury Park’s Leo Young with a fluid homestretch kick, his 4:02.22 punctuated by a 55.83 last lap. As Birnbaum approached the line, he turned toward Young and put his finger to his lips in shushing motion, à la Cole Hocker.

He says, “A lot of people were saying that these are the guys I had to beat to prove I was the best, even though I knew I was the best. I was able to take them down pretty steadily and it wasn’t completely all out.”

Not everyone was pleased with his finishing gesture. “That wasn’t pre-planned. That was just kind of spontaneous,” he explained. “I wanted to do something to get people’s attention and I certainly did. They talked about DQing me; people aren’t very happy about it, but I told them, ‘DQ me. I honestly don’t care. That doesn’t change anything. If I’m DQed, I still know I won.’ That will get a lot of views and bring more popularity for the sport. I love Cole Hocker; I have a shirt of him doing that to Centro [Matthew Centrowitz], so that just came to my mind.”

In early July, he lined up at the USATF Senior meet, bringing with him his trademark confidence: “I think I can make the final and I think I can perform well in the final.” As it turned out, he led his heat into the bell lap, but he couldn’t kick with the pros. “The game plan was to take the lead with a lap to go and don’t look back.” He finished a non-advancing 6th in 3:44.14.

He stayed in Eugene to race the Junior 800 three days later. A PR 1:47.96 got him 2nd to Matsatsa. It was his first loss of the outdoor season to a high schooler, but his consolation prize was a trip to the Pan-Am Juniors in Puerto Rico. There he wrapped up his campaign, taking silver in 1:49.31 behind Illinois high schooler Dan Watcke.

“I think what separates Simeon from anyone else I’ve been around is his drive,” says Coy. “He has this unshatterable belief in himself that can’t be coached or taught. And I think you see this, especially at the end of races. I remember he had run 4:23 as a sophomore and won State in the 1600m. That winter, we were doing drills on the turf and he told one of his teammates that he was going to break the State Record that spring, which was 4:07 at the time. I remember thinking to myself that it was pretty lofty, but the end of that story was not just the State Record, but sub-4; and I think was a good example of how Simeon just thinks differently than anyone else.”

Birnbaum pairs that confidence with a good amount of pre-race jitters: “I’m always anxious; I have bad anxiety before I race, and so maybe being more nervous helps me.”

Born in Oregon and raised for a good while in Alberta, Birnbaum showed some solid running skills as a child. His father, Paul, now a pastor, ran for Kansas State. Yet the younger Birnbaum’s first sport was hockey, not running, an understandable choice in a Canadian childhood. He made the switch after the family moved to South Dakota when he was in middle school.

Coy remembers when Birnbaum joined the high school team. “Simeon came to Stevens as a sophomore, which was after the COVID spring where we didn’t have a track season. I didn’t know him at the time, but his dad had said he did a time trial during the spring and ran 4:30 or something in the 1600 meters and 2:01 in the 800 meters. Anyways, at the end of the summer, they allotted us 30 minutes to meet as a group, as there were still COVID restrictions in place. We did a short warm-up and then a 1600m time trial and he ran like 4:35 or something like that which sort of verified what his dad had said and I knew he’d have a chance to be a state champion as a sophomore.”

In his time at Stevens, Birnbaum won 2 state cross country titles and 10 titles in track, all but 2 of them in individual events. In terms of training, Coy explains that they kept the load light. “What helped Simeon was his belief in his speed as being a strength. With Strava and hanging out with the top guys at national meets, he knew he wasn’t running as much as most everyone else. He averaged probably 50-55 miles per week, but it was consistent; it wasn’t like 65 one week, 35 the next; he was training through the whole season really.”

Looking back, Birnbaum has said, “I pretty much had a dream season. I surprised myself a lot… I’ll take a lot of lessons going into next year from this.”

Now that he is being coached by Jerry Schumacher at Oregon, some things have changed. Says Birnbaum, “People always say it’s a huge adjustment. I always thought it wasn’t going to be too bad, because I thought I can adjust well. I stay healthy pretty well, just doing the little things right.”

Whatever the future holds for him, he has clearly landed in the right sport. As he told South Dakota’s NewsCenter 1, “There’s really nothing like surpassing all expectations you set for yourself and other people set for you. When it comes down to a race, you’re the only one responsible for how you perform.”