Iowa elite pace 1,500 field

Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson, Shelby Houlihan lead ‘world-class’ event

AP FILE PHOTO • Jenny Simpson reacts as she wins the women’s special 1,500-meter run at the Drake Relays on April 29, 2016, at Drake Stadium in Des Moines. Simpson, a Webster City native, is the reigning Olympic bronze medalist.

With the announcement of the women’s 1,500-meter race field, the Drake Relays is already poised to have one of its best years in recent memory with now more than 50 Olympic athletes slated to perform at the Blue Oval.

Headlining the 1,500 will be two runners who rarely need introduction in the professional track and field world, let alone Des Moines.

Born in Webster City, Jenny Simpson will return to the Drake Relays a year after sealing the title ahead of felllow American Kate Grace (also returning this year to the Relays). Simpson is the only runner in the field with a sub-four-minute personal best (3:57.22) but will have a stout field to pace her along.

Simpson took the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and has two more Olympic appearances in 2008 and 2012 under her belt. Sioux City native Shelby Houlihan will be the other Iowan returning to her home state for the 1,500. Houlihan won seven Relays titles in her time at Sioux City East. It’s also of note Houlihan’s 5,000 time in the Olympics (15:08.89) was the fastest by an American.

Drake Relays director Blake Bolden said with confidence on Wednesday this will be one of the best meets of the year.

“I know this will be a highlight of the 2017 Drake Relays,” Bolden said. “It might be the best [1,500] of the track and field season, nationally and internationally. And it’s highlighted with two superstars with ties to Iowa.”

Boldon is closing in on last year’s mark of 60 athletes going on to compete at the Rio Olympics, with 51 as of Wednesday. With more fields to be released before the Relays take place April 26-29, Boldon might have the mark set in just his first year of running the operation.

In an interview last week with the Times-Republican, Boldon joked his main goal for this year’s Relays would be just to make sure they happen. But he’s on the cusp of putting together a showcase of a weekend.

Other elite members of the 1,500-meter field include Canada’s Nicole Sifuentes, who was a 1,500 finalist in Rio last summer. Brenda Martinez has the second-best seed time at 4:00.94, who was a medalist at the 2016 World Championships and 21st in the 1,500 at Rio.

“This is how good the 1,500 field is. We’ve got a world championship medalist, and there’s barely a focus,” Boldon said about the caliber of the women’s 1,500. “This will be as good or better than any Drake Relays we’ve ever had.”

American junior record holder Alexa Efaimson will be making her professional debut in the 1,500 as well. She won the bronze medal at the World Youth Championships in Athletics in Donetsk, Ukraine in 2013.

“That women’s 1,500-meter field will be one of the best we’ve ever assembled,” Boldon said. “That field of 10 athletes will truly be world-class in each and every athlete.”

Bershawn Jackson is one of the more decorated Drake Relays contestants, and announced in a video interview he will be retiring after this year is over. Jackson owns the Drake Stadium record in the 400 hurdles at 47.32. His personal record of 47.30 is the 11th-fastest time in the event by an American.

Joining him in his final Drake Relays will be Jamaican Olympic finalist Annsert Whyte, who was fifth at Rio, and Michael Tinsley, a two-time Relays champion and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist.

Javier Culson has become a favorite at the Drake Relays during the recent past. The Puerto Rican will make his fifth Relays appearance and is a three-time Olympian and two-time World Champion silver medalist.

Those coming to watch the women’s 1,500 shouldn’t miss the men’s race, either. It will feature a trio of Olympians, with 2016 Relays champ Clayton Murphy leading the field. Murphy is a bronze medalist in the 800 and will be tested by the 2012 silver medalist in the 1,500 in Leo Manzano. He was the 2015 Relays champion.

Iowa State graduate Hillary Bor will compete in the 1,500 field, who was an Olympic steeplechase finalist in 2016, all chasing one of the longest standing records at Drake Stadium, sitting at 3:28.27 (Steve Scott, 1984).

The women’s high jump added 2012 Olympic silver medalist in Brigetta Barrett and 2016 Olympic finalist Alyx Treasure of Canada to its field on Wednesday. Kimberly Williamson is the reigning NCAA champion in the event and also joining the field is Erica Bougard, the 2017 U.S. Champion in the indoor pentathlon.