Simons emerges as a team leader after breakout season

John Simons broke out last year with strong showings in pivotal meets.

Minnesota John Simons outsprints Iowa state Mohamed Hrezi at the finish of Men's Division I Roy Griak Invitational Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course in St. Paul, Minn.

Anthony Kwan, Daily File Photo

Minnesota John Simons outsprints Iowa state Mohamed Hrezi at the finish of Men's Division I Roy Griak Invitational Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course in St. Paul, Minn.

Betsy Helfand

John Simons had a successful freshman year running at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but he wasn’t where he wanted to be.

Now entering his senior season, Simons is finding success at his dream school as one of the Gophers’ top runners.

“Minnesota was the place that I always wanted to be, even in high school,” he said. “I was getting better but wasn’t making jumps as quickly as other athletes that were signed right away.”

So Simons started his cross country career at UW-Milwaukee and spent his freshman year improving. He was the team’s top finisher in five of six meets, but he said the situation wasn’t ideal.

“I was virtually training myself toward the end of my career at Milwaukee,” Simons said, “so it’s nice to have … two-time Olympian [head coach Steve Plasencia] coaching you.”

Simons said he contacted Plasencia immediately after getting a release from UW-Milwaukee.

Minnesota was a good fit for Simons. The school consistently turned out strong performances, was close to home and competed in an elite Big Ten conference.

He said training with the Gophers was more like his high school days because it’s a more “talent-based program.”

It’s hard to know how some runners’ previous marks will translate after they transfer, Plasencia said.

“He was doing some pretty good things in a situation that he wasn’t really happy with. We were able to make the situation more happy,” he said.

Still, Simons had more problems to overcome after he transferred.

Simons came to Minnesota in 2010 and ran cross country for the Gophers his sophomore year.

But he got pneumonia near the end of the season and said it cut into his strength as a runner.

He dealt with injuries that hampered his performance and forced him to redshirt both the track and cross country seasons in 2011.

But now those problems are behind him.

“I’m a much stronger runner physically,” Simons said. “I just don’t have the injuries that I used to have because I have the strength built in my legs and in my core to sustain the mileage.”

Last season, Simons led the Gophers at the 2012 Roy Griak Invitational, finishing first on the team and eighth overall.

He also led the Gophers in the 8,000-meter Big Ten championships, finishing 11th overall.

Simons said he was expecting more from himself at the NCAA Midwest Regional, where he finished second on the team and 41st overall.

“Before last year, I talked to him about the fact that … he might be able to benefit from running a little bit higher mileage than what he’d been comfortable with, and he did
that last year,” Plasencia said.

He said Simons’ trust in what the coaches proposed has helped him become a top runner on the squad.

“I’m willing to follow [Plasencia] into any realm,” Simons said.

This year, following a solid track and field season, Simons has a chance to continue developing.

“I’ve improved a ton because I’m actually able to take on the workload,” he said. “I think that’s part natural development and part getting used to my surroundings.”

Plasencia said Simons can be a good leader in his senior season and has the potential to be the team’s No. 1 runner.

The Gophers kicked off their season Sept. 6 and rested many of their top runners, including Simons. He has yet to compete this season.

But when he does, he wants to lead the team to a conference title and a berth in a national meet.