Jeff Simonich knows all about the proverbial runner’s “wall” of pain. After all, he competed in track and cross country for eight years with a broken back.
A Tooele native, Simonich has always enjoyed competing in sports. The first time he thought about running competitively was while watching a local race — the Kiwanis 5K Freedom Run, held annually in honor of Independence Day.
“I saw a dad and a son running it together,” he said. “He (the son) looked about my age, maybe a little older. I thought, ‘I can do that,’ so I started to train for it and ended up winning it the next year (in 1984). Then I won it 10 or 12 years in a row. We’ve all got to start somewhere.”
When Simonich was in ninth grade, he was injured in a collision with another player during a football game. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the collision had caused a compression fracture in the upper vertebrae of his back.
Midway through the fall season, Simonich dropped out of football to join the cross country team. As a sophomore the following year, he competed in wrestling.
It wasn’t until his junior year when doctors finally diagnosed the compression fracture in his back. Simonich spent six months in a complete body brace, from the knees to the mid-chest and went to daily physical therapy sessions in Salt Lake City.
After those six months, doctors told him and his parents that the fracture in the upper left vertebrae had healed. However, the fracture in the upper right vertebrae had not — and probably never would.
They also told Simonich he couldn’t compete in any sport with a “jarring or impact” motion.
“I was devastated at first,” Jeff told the Tooele Transcript Bulletin as a senior in 1995. “I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always loved playing sports. Then I got mad. I just couldn’t stop competing. I told my parents this is not going to stop me.”
And it didn’t. His list of accomplishments in track and cross country are numerous. As a senior at Tooele High School, he won the 4A state cross country championship. After high school, he joined the track and cross country teams at the University of Utah.
While at the U, Simonich captured Western Athletic Conference titles in three different events — once for the 3,000 meters, once for the 8,000 meters cross country and twice for the 5,000-meter race. He was also a four-time All-American.
“I broke all the school records,” Simonich said. “Everything from the 1,500 (meters) to the 10,000 meters.”
In 1997 and 1998, he placed eighth in the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Two years later in 2000, Simonich qualified to compete in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Cross Country Championships.
Only the top seven cross country runners in the nation were chosen to be on the IAAF team.
“It’s kind of like the Olympics in cross country,” he said. “I went to Portugal to compete. It was the first time I’d ever worn a USA jersey. It was kind of cool.”
Overall, Team USA finished 12th at the world championships. Simonich was the fourth U.S. team member and the 86th runner overall to cross the finish line in a race that included more than 164 athletes.
Later in 2000, he qualified to run the 5,000 meters in the Olympic trials.
Simonich’s many achievements led him to be chosen for the University of Utah Hall of Fame this year. He and the two other 2019 inductees were officially added to the Hall of Fame during a reception on Sept. 28.
They were also honored during the U’s football game against Washington State on Sept. 29.
“It was pretty cool; it was a great weekend,” Simonich said. “They walked us out at halftime — they had all the inductees walk out onto the field (when they honored us).”
Simonich remembers his time as a U student athlete fondly.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I did cross country and indoor and outdoor track, so I traveled all the time. … Being able to be a part of that was awesome.”
Simonich’s favorite memories of the U center around people.
“(The best thing was) just being with them,” he said. “All my friends went to the U. And my parents traveled to almost all of my races. … I think they only missed three.”
His biggest challenge as a student athlete was the amount of time he had to spend training and traveling with the team.
“You’re basically working your butt off for the school, but there are a lot of helps you get,” he said. “It was worth it, obviously.”