* One of Simeon Birnbaum's first big wins was his mile victory at Arcadia in 2021
Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit
"I pretty much decided that I wanted to be great at some sport and not just good at two sports. I wanted to definitely be national level and be really good. I saw a future in running more than I saw one with hockey."
By Cory Mull - Milesplit
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When Simeon Birnbaum won his second Gatorade state Player of the Year award this past spring in South Dakota for his merits in track and field, earning a $1,000 grant to be given to the organization of his choice, he did something a bit unusual.
He decided to give it to his local hockey association.
"Hockey is king in Canada," said Birnbaum, a current Rapids City Stevens High School senior, relaying a bit of his family background. "That's the sport everyone does."
Naturally, that should begin to tell you a little bit about Birnbaum, who was born in Oregon but raised and reared in Alberta, Canada -- a place where you don't just accept hockey but appreciate it as a rite of passage.
About five years ago, he moved to Rapids City, South Dakota. It was here, over his sophomore and junior seasons, where he forged an identity in running, earning his first Gatorade POY recognition in cross country last fall.
This spring, with his exploits earning him national recognition, he was bestowed another. As a result, his profile in Rapids City exploded, so much so, he says, that people in a town of 76,000 have begun to recognize him and ask, "Are you that runner kid?"
This past spring, Birnbaum -- who comes in at No. 5 on the most recent MileSplit50 national cross country rankings -- began to fully realize his potential, becoming the youngest American teenager to break four minutes in a mile, just eight days before his 17th birthday.
He now owns South Dakota state records in the 800m, 1,600m, mile, 3,200m and the sprint medley relay. Still, those blips in the radar created shockwaves across his community and beyond. By the end of June, Birnbaum was officially someone to know, and perhaps in some ways, forced us all to ask, 'Who the hell is this kid?'
The story behind Simeon, though, isn't so complicated. It may be equal parts upbringing, DNA and sheer will.
"Hockey helped with his speed, in a weird and indirect way," said Paul Birnbaum, Simeon's father. "It helped him anaerobically."
Better yet, Simeon has kept his foot on the gas. Recently, Birnbaum opened his senior cross country campaign with a career best 5K time of 14:47 at the Nike Heartland Preview. It's currently the 10th-fastest time in the United States.
He says he knows that's only the beginning. But while expectations can sometimes sticky the hands of talented-prodigies, he says he's not getting caught up in all the hyperbole of record times and big wins.
"All the guys at the top now, we're thinking about national titles," he said. "I definitely want to do some good stuff, but at the end of the day, I'll be happy with a good finish at either national race."
On Saturday, he will head to the Rapid City Invitational, where he will face off against Sawyer Clarkson, an in-state athlete who's gone 15:02 for 5K.
"I'll probably run with him," Birnbaum said. "But if I run the way I want to, it shouldn't be close."
There's no doubt, Birnbaum has confidence. But maybe that has to do with belief. It isn't so much ego as it is an understanding of his gifts.
Simeon is a blend of two former high-level athletes. His father, Paul, a pastor in Rapids City, ran the 5K and 10K at Adams State, while his mother, Sarah, ran 2:10 in the 800m for Dordt University, an NAIA program.
Simeon has been an athlete all his life. You know that tired perception about runners who are typecast as failures in other sports?
Simeon isn't that guy. Tennis, basketball, hockey? You name it, Simeon can acquit himself in most things.
"I like to think I'm an athlete first and then a runner," he said. "I feel like there's a pretty good correlation with good athletes and an ability to run fast."
His background is important. Hockey undoubtedly played a major role in shaping who Birnbaum is today. Is it coincidental that the youngest American teenager to ever break 4-minutes in the mile grew up loving a sport where grit is coded within your DNA?
Birnbaum was a defensemen much of his life. Which means, he's given -- and taken -- a few hits in his day.
"You learn to play the sport with a group of guys," Birnbaum said recently. "You bond through that. It's the flow of the game and the speed and the precision. It's a beautiful sport. That's what made me fall in love with sports."
Numerous studies and books have relayed the idea of grit and how it impacts athletic performance. The athlete who can overcome adverse situations typically puts himself or herself in a position to succeed. When we think about runners, that idea often is lined up parallel to physical barriers: Pushing past a wall, training through difficult circumstances, mustering that last ounce of energy with 100 meters left in a race
Let's consider Birnbaum's big moments.
When he won the mile at Arcadia in April, he made a move with 400 meters left, was past 200 meters later and then fought his way to the finish, pushing through the pain to take the win from lane three.
"I like to think I'm an athlete first and then a runner. I feel like there's a pretty good correlation with good athletes an ability to run fast."
A few months later, in the mile at Brooks PR in June, Birnbaum found himself chasing the leaders with two laps to go but never wilted, once again swerving to the outside lane in the final 100 meters to go under the four minute barrier.
"He began to believe he could do it if he ran the right race," Paul said. "He's such a competitor, just competing with the best is a treat for him."
What's more, Birnbaum has continually welcomed new information. He soaks in the sport, from its podcasts (He's a fan of Coffee Club with Morgan McDonald) to its content creators (He's mentioned his affinity for Total Running Productions) to its professional races (he keeps track of Diamond League races).
When you combine his love for running, a lifelong foundation of sport and a family pedigree, what more can you ask for from an athlete? You could cook all these ingredients up in a lab and still not come out with the perfect athlete.
What sets Simeon Birnbaum apart?
Perhaps desire is a part of that equation, too.
"I pretty much decided that I wanted to be great at some sport and not just good at two sports," he said. "I wanted to definitely be national level and be really good. I saw a future in running more than I saw one with hockey."