Focus On The U.S. Women’s 1500 Scene

In last year’s USATF Championships, Shelby Houlihan kicked by Jenny Simpson and the rest of the field to take the win. (KEVIN MORRIS)

TOKYO IS DELAYED and nothing about the world or the sport is normal these days, yet an inescapably heartening state of affairs holds true: This is a red-letter time for the women’s 1500 from a U.S. point of view. By a number of measures the picture with regard to extent and depth of talent has never before been so rosy.

Consider for one indicator the clock: last year Alexa Efraimson had to run 4:04.06 to make the Top 10 on the U.S. list. That was unprecedented depth. The times for that same spot going back in time look like this: ’18–4:06.04; ’17–4:05.30; ’16–4:06.33; ’15–4:04.50; ’14–4:06.16; ’13–4:05.89; ’12–4:07.23; ’11–4:08.09; ’10–4:09.22; ’09—4:09.52; ’08–4:07.87. We’ll stop there. In ’07 Erin Donohue led the national list at 4:05.55.

No true devotee of women’s metric miling won’t know that the ’19 USATF final was the fastest ever for depth, as 5 raced under 4:04, 6 under 4:05 and 7 faster than 4:06.

The shelves of the American cupboard are stocked with two active competitors who have Olympic or World Champs medals plus an AR holder with 4ths in Worlds 1500s indoors and out. The message to their countrywomen is “Yes, you can.”

As you read on, don’t miss the links to individual profiles on 8 of the stars.

The Towering 3

All players on the international stage in championships and Diamond League settings, Shelby Houlihan, Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson have set the standard others strive to meet. They account for all the World Rankings earned by U.S. women back through ’11. In 2010 since-retired Christin Wurth-Thomas was the last from outside this group to earn a world top 10 spot.

Houlihan, 27, set the American Record with her 3:54.99 to place 4th at last year’s speedy World Championships. In all but one of the meet’s 17 previous editions—’87 when doping controls were, let’s say, different—that time would have been good for runaway gold. In her breakout season of ’18 Houlihan rated No. 1 in the world. “I gotta get a little faster. I’m proud but I’m definitely not totally satisfied,” Houlihan tells T&FN.

A U.S. Rankings presence since ’06, Rowbury raced to bronze at the ’09 World Championships in Berlin, the U.S.’s first global medalist of the millennium. Her 3:56.29 PR from ’15 is still the No. 2 all-time U.S. clocking. At 35 and with first-rate 5000 accomplishments, we are more likely to see her emphasize the longer distance in the ’21 Olympics season, but don’t write the Rio 4th-place finisher off this page entirely.

“The one achievement I haven’t had in my career is an Olympic medal,” Rowbury says. “Is that realistic at 35, 36? I don’t know, but my fitness is coming along well.”

The athlete who has an Olympic medal (bronze in Rio) is Simpson, now 33. She has also mined World Champs gold, at Daegu in ’11 (not to mention silvers in ’13 & ’17). Owner of a 3:57.22 best from ’14, at 33 she has her sights set as high as ever. “I trust my team, as I lean on them a lot over the next year, will help me be ready at the right moments every year; especially 2021,” Simpson says.

Milers Riding Hot Streaks

Don’t miss the profiles in this issue of four ’19 U.S. Rankers who finished in the thick of the Nationals final—or in the case of Elle Purrier, raced to an indoor mile AR over the winter. Follow the links to read about Nikki Hiltz (No. 3 Ranker, 25 years old as this goes to press), Kate Grace (No. 4, 31), Sinclaire Johnson (No. 5, 22), Shannon Osika (No. 6, 26) and Purrier (No. 8, 25).

Last Year’s Other U.S. Rankers

No. 7: Rachel Schneider, 28. A runner in coach Mike Smith’s Team Run Flagstaff cadre, the Georgetown grad is another who may end up 5000-focused in ’21. Last year she dropped her best to 15:06.71 and placed 4th at USATF at the longer distance, earning a World Champs berth. But en route to a 4:20.91 mile time at the ’19 Monaco DL, she passed 1500 in 4:02.26. Schneider took 4th in the ’18 USATF 1500.

No. 9: Heather MacLean, 24. Claimed her PR, 4:04.27, placing 7th at USATF last July and then nearly matched that (4:05.29) indoors over the winter. Stepping up as one to watch since finishing her eligibility at UMass–Amherst in ’18 and joining coach Mark Coogan’s Team New Balance Boston group.

No. 10: Alexa Efraimson, 23. Having turned pro and sponsored by Nike since ’14 after her junior year at Washington’s Camas High, she medaled (bronze) at the Pan-Am Games last summer behind winner Hiltz. Claimed a 5th at the ’14 World Juniors, 6th in ’16. Coached by Mike Hickey, her prep mentor, she turned a 4:24.82 mile in ’18, worth 4:05.21 for 1500.

Others In The Mix

Veteran Brenda Martinez missed almost all of the ’19 season after an appendectomy. (JEFF COHEN)

Dani Jones, 23. The NCAA Indoor 3000 champ in ’17 for Colorado, Jones was runner-up in the NCAA Indoor mile in ’18 and won the NCAA cross country that fall. Could be 5000-bound, as she won that event at the ’19 NCAA. At 1500 she PRed with 4:07.28 last year, and one can’t help but assume Jones will have more to show as a miler now that she has turned pro and joined coach Joe Bosshard’s group in Boulder. Placed 5th in the ’18 USATF 1500.

Lauren Johnson, 33. The BAA’s metric miler set the stage in Des Moines last July with fearless early frontrunning. Though she wound up 12th, she was 4th in ’17 and has a best of 4:04.17.

Katie Mackey, 32. Earned a USATF 4th in ’14, 10th last year. Has a 4:03.81 best from ’15 yet opted for the 5000 at the ’16 OT and raced to 8th in the ’18 World Indoor 3000.

Brenda Martinez, 32. An emergency appendectomy in ’19 scuppered any chance for the vet to show her stuff in Des Moines. Still, she knows how to reach podiums: the 800 silver medalist at the ’13 World Champs, she also placed 3rd in the ’16 OT 1500 and got to the Rio semis. Her 4:00.94 best dates from ’13.

Karisa Nelson, 23. Last year marked the arrival of the then-Samford senior at a new level. She placed 2nd in the NCAA Indoor mile. She could not advance from the outdoor NCAA semis, but in the weeks thereafter PRed three times, with her 4:06.14 best coming in the USATF final (8th).

Sara Vaughn, 34. She flipped the formchart to place 3rd and make the ’17 World Championships team (10th in her semi) after giving birth to her third child. Now she has four kids and intends to defy mother time and the predictions once again. Knocked out her 4:04.56 PR in her London WC heat, rises up when it counts.

The Rest Of The Picture

When the final field is set for next summer’s Olympic Trials, anything could happen. Championships 1500s are anything but predictable.

It’s a near sure thing, however, that Shelby Houlihan—a là Steve Ovett in his prime—will finish like the dickens from wherever she feels like. In a Trials scenario, where top-3 placings count as victories of a kind, expect honest pacing but no audacious blasting for the win out the gate.

And won’t it be fun to watch? Sure feels that way right now.