If you only notice the sport of track and field during the Summer Olympics, your last exposure to Shannon Rowbury may have been the 1,500-meter final in Beijing, where she delivered a surprising seventh-place performance. It marked the highest finish ever for an American woman in that event, and capped a relatively meteoric rise to prominence for the young Duke grad who had been sidelined by a debilitating stress fracture the year before.
Now that the Olympics are racing into the viewfinder once again, you should know that while your sporting interests were occupied elsewhere, Rowbury kept on running. Her meteor has been orbiting tracks across the world for the past four years, preparing to re-enter the public consciousness along with her sport this summer. On Thursday afternoon at 3:50 p.m., Rowbury will be one of the prime contenders on the quest for a spot in London.
As the calendar flipped to June, Rowbury owned the fastest 1,500 meters time among American women this year. She ran it in her first outdoor 1,500 of the season, at the USATF Occidental High Performance Meet in Los Angeles in May, when she clocked a time of 4:05.92. No one else at that meet surpassed the Olympic “A” standard of 4:06.00 — including 2011 world No. 1 Morgan Uceny, who ran a 4:06.52.
The top three finishers at the upcoming U.S. Trials claim berths on the Olympic team if they’ve reached the “A” standard. The competition figures to be intense, as the next six fastest American women in the 1,500 so far this year are all within 1.5 seconds of Rowbury’s pace-setting mark. But she’s confident in her ability to make the Olympic team for a second time.
“It’s always scary. You never know who’s going to do what,” she said. “Some people come out of the woodwork. You could be the fittest athlete, but if you get tripped or if you get sick on that day, you never know. But I feel very good about my chances, especially after last year when I struggled with Achilles injuries for most of the year and was able to make the world team off six weeks of training.
“This year has been going very well. I feel like I’ve portioned out my energy well, so hopefully I’ll be mentally and physically peaking at the right time. It’s always a gamble — you have to wait until that day to see how you do, but I feel good about my preparation.”
Four years ago, Rowbury was one of those who seemingly came out of the woodwork. A multiple ACC champion, she won the 2007 NCAA indoor mile title during her last semester at Duke but missed the entire outdoor season due to a stress fracture in her hip. After turning professional and signing with Nike she began working with veteran coach John Cook, who directed her comeback from the injury. Cook helped her return to racing form in time for the 2008 outdoor season, but no one expected her to blow away the field at the Olympic Trials or post a 4:00.33 during the run-up to Beijing. “To be where she is right now is almost a miracle, frankly,” Cook noted on the eve of the ’08 Olympics.
Rowbury’s pro career has progressed steadily since then. In 2009 she repeated her USATF national title in the 1,500 and qualified for the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, where she won the bronze medal. She took third at nationals in both 2010 and 2011 and returned to the World Championships in South Korea last summer, reaching the semifinals.
Along the way, she has also twice won the Fifth Avenue Mile, an annual road race in New York City, and in 2010 she posted the second fastest 3,000-meter time ever by an American woman in a Diamond League race at Monaco. Last winter she took second in the Wannamaker Metric Mile as part of the annual Millrose Games in New York. So she has proven she is among the elite at her distance of preference.
“Each year it has been about getting more and more comfortable with this lifestyle, understanding the cycle of the season and learning how to train smarter and better,” Rowbury said. “It’s been a gradual growing experience, with lots of positives along the way.”
Rowbury’s training base remains her hometown of San Francisco, where she still works with her former high school track coach. She occasionally travels to another Nike base in Austin, Tex., and she religiously spends several weeks every year in altitude training at San Luis Potosi, Mexico. During the prime summer racing campaign, she typically sets up shop in Europe and stays there until returning home at the end of the season in September. Her summer homes the past three years have included England, Belgium and Germany.
“Probably the most challenging aspect of this lifestyle is that it actually is a lifestyle,” said Rowbury, whose Duke degrees include a masters in Humanities, a bachelors in English & Theater and a certificate in Film/Video/Digital. “It’s not something you can leave behind at the office. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job. That can get tough, especially when you run into rough patches. If you have an injury, if things don’t seem to be going right, it’s hard to separate your idea of self from your job as a professional runner. Finding that separation and that love for the sport that allows you to live a lifestyle that is conducive to success but also doesn’t feel oppressive is important.
“There are a lot of aspects of the sport that I feel extremely lucky about. You make your own schedule. At first its kind of tough trying to figure out how to treat the day-to-day, but once you get into that routine, getting paid to keep yourself in shape is a pretty cool thing. Getting to travel and the people I’ve met along the way have been extremely interesting for me. I feel very fortunate that my job takes me all over the world and introduces me to all sorts of people. That’s probably my favorite part of the sport.”
When Rowbury was at Duke, she did a study abroad summer theater program in London, and it has remained one of her favorite cities. With her new agent at Pace Sports Management now also headquartered in London, she looks forward to setting up her annual home-away-from-home base in England as the Olympics approach. Quality races should proliferate as Summer Games prequels; she just hopes her performance in Eugene this month qualifies her for the big one that draws attention to her sport every four years.
“It’s different for me than it was four years ago,” Rowbury admitted. “I’ve been through it before. When I made the Olympic team in 2008, that was only my second time ever competing at U.S. nationals, so there was a lot riding on that race. Since then I’ve made the world team twice and been either first or third every year at nationals. So I know what it takes to be there. I just have to rely on my training, my coach and my experience.”