In the centre of St Austell there is a mural displaying some of the most notable sons and daughters of the Cornish town. Next to images of Daphne du Maurier, Nigel Martyn and John Nettles is one of Jemma Simpson. The 26-year-old has appeared as an extra on Neighbours and been on the set of The Da Vinci Code but it is fair to say that in the wider world beyond the Tamar Bridge, she has yet to make a name for herself as a leading lady.
That could change in the space of two minutes inside the Montjuic Olympic Stadium this evening, when Simpson runs in the 800m final on day four of the European Championships. Last year she travelled to the World Championships in Berlin seemingly on the cusp of a major breakthrough – only to bow out at the semi-final stage of the two-lap event while her Great Britain team-mate Jenny Meadows took a step up to podium class, claiming the bronze medal in the final behind Caster Semenya and Janeth Jepkosgei.
This time round both Britons have made the final cut and both will line up as serious medal contenders. Mariya Savinova, the Russian who cruised past Meadows to win the world indoor title in Doha in March, starts the clear favourite but Simpson lines up as the second fastest in the field this summer, having clocked a lifetime best of 1min 58.74sec in Lausanne two weeks ago. The Cornish fastie also goes into the race on a wave of inspiration.
While Simpson was on the warm-up track on Tuesday night, winding down from her winning run in the 800m semi-finals, her long-time boyfriend, Chris Thompson, was chasing – and winning – a medal in the men's 10,000m final, a silver behind Mo Farah.
"She was lapping the warm-up track as I was doing laps of the main track, checking the television monitor as she went by," Thompson said. "She stopped to watch the final stages and started screaming. At one point the whole warm-up track was going crazy, because it was such a close one between me and the guy in third.
"I didn't see her until she was eating dinner. She was munching on a pineapple, I nearly choked her when I hugged her. We both pretty much cried in the dinner hall. Then I was like, 'Stop this. We've got a reputation to keep. I'm a hard guy, really'. It was emotional. It was special."
The special couple have been spending 12 hours a day in an altitude simulation tent at the UK Athletics High Performance Centre in Loughborough for much of this summer but have made their main base in the United States – at the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, under the direction of Simpson's long-time coach (and now Thompson's co-coach), Mark Rowland, the 1988 Olympic steeplechase bronze medallist and British record holder.
"Jemma came on a heck of a lot racing-wise last year," Thompson said. "I know I am her boyfriend but I always thought she would shock a fair few people this year and in the next few years. There's still chunks to come off her times."
Simpson concurs. "It felt amazing to finally duck under 1min 59sec in Lausanne but I know I can run faster," she said. "What Jenny Meadows has achieved over the past year has been really inspirational for someone like me, because it's something I can aspire towards. I'd like to think my time will come at a championship over the next couple of years – hopefully at the Olympics in 2012."
Or maybe even in Barcelona, right here, right now.Reuse content