Profile: Shannon Rowbury
Pacific Association's Olympic 1500 Meter Team Hopeful
by Bob Burns
Shannon Rowbury takes a sensible approach to her running career.
“If I can take a little off my time each year and stay healthy, I’ll keep getting better,” Rowbury said.
But this is no ordinary year. First off, it’s an Olympic year, which frequently brings out the best in track and field athletes. Second, Rowbury has taken more than a “little” off her time this spring. The San Franciscan has taken a wrecking ball to her personal best in the 1,500 meters.
Rowbury’s best time entering this season was 4 minutes, 12.31 seconds. In early May, she knocked nearly five seconds off her best by running 4:07.59. Two weeks later, at the Adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif., Rowbury improved by an even greater margin, clocking a world-leading 4:01.06 to become the fifth-fastest U.S. performer of all time.
“It’s not easy to go from 4:12 to 4:07,” said Rowbury’s coach, John Cook. “I would be dishonest if I said 4:01 wasn’t a surprise. I thought she might be able to run that fast next year.”
In carving 11 seconds off her best time, the 23-year-old Rowbury has surpassed the Olympic “A” qualifying standard of 4:07.00 and become a serious contender to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
“My goal is to make the team,” Rowbury said. “I want it so much. But I try to treat every race like it’s the most important race I’m going to run.”
There are valid explanations for Rowbury’s quantum leap. After having her final collegiate season at Duke cut short last spring by a hip injury, she began working with Cook, the highly regarded coach of Shalene Flanagan, the U.S. record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
While at George Mason University, Cook coached Adi Bile, the gold medalist in the 1,500 meters at the 1987 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Cook now lives in Sarasota, Fla., where he oversees just a handful of runners Flanagan, Rowbury and Erin Donahue. They join up in such training locales as Colorado Springs and Mexico, but much of the coach-athlete communication is done on the phone or by e-mail.
“Shannon is probably the most disciplined runner I’ve ever had,” Cook said. “She’s almost anal about everything. We’ll be going over her workouts and she’ll point out something that I forgot. She’s a brilliant girl.”
Her brains earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the humanities from Duke. Her powerful legs helped her win the mile at the 2007 NCAA Indoor Championships. But she was forced to shut down a promising senior season at Duke when she suffered a stress fracture in her hip.
She moved back to San Francisco and worked hard to rehabilitate her hip, training on an anti-gravity treadmill before resuming regular running in July. Cook’s training regimen is geared to turning runners into “complete athletes,” to use Rowbury’s words.
“We have a huge, year-long strength and conditioning program,” Cook said. “It’s pretty arduous.”
The work paid dividends immediately. Rowbury won the 3,000 meters at the 2008 USA Indoor Championships in March. So it wasn’t if she didn’t give warning for what was to come.
“I knew I in for a big personal best,” Rowbury said. “But I didn’t set any specific time. The only time I had in mind was the Olympic ‘A’ standard.”
Prior to her 4:01.06 in Carson the fastest by a U.S. woman in six years Rowbury joined up with Cook for some high-altitude training in Colorado Springs. Usually, it takes time for an athlete to re-acclimate to racing at sea level, but it wasn’t an issue in her case.
“Running the low 4s wasn’t a shock, but at the same time, dreaming is one thing and doing it is another,” Rowbury said. “I really did feel great. We’ve been doing a lot of race-pace work. I kind of clicked into a rhythm.”
San Francisco might not seem like the ideal training site for a world-class runner, but Rowbury says it hasn’t been a problem. She does her track workouts at San Francisco State and City College of San Francisco.
“What’s so amazing about San Francisco is that there are a lot of dirt trails,” said Rowbury, who does some of her off-track work in Golden Gate Park. “To run by the ocean is one of the most beautiful runs imaginable.”
Rowbury attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco. She won the 800 meters at the 2001 National Scholastic Outdoor Championships and went to Duke as part of a nationally acclaimed recruiting class.
“I needed to see what else is out there,” said Rowbury of her decision to attend Duke. “It got me outside my bubble and helped me understand people from outside San Francisco. It didn’t keep me there, but it was a great experience.”
Rowbury lives with her parents and grandmother in the Sunset District. Neither of her parents were particularly athletic, but they’re caught up in the excitement of their daughter’s Olympic quest. “It’s exciting to see them so excited,” Rowbury said.
The final of the women’s 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials will be held on the final day of competition Sunday, July 6. Having attained the Olympic “A” standard, she can clinch an Olympic berth with a top-three finish.
“Peaking too soon is always a concern,” Cook said. “I hope to hell we can sustain it and not fall on our asses.”
Win or lose, Rowbury plans to keep going. She’s having too much fun not to.
“I hope this will be the beginning of a long, successful career,” she said.
© 2008 Bob Burns and Pacific Association. All rights reserved.