DURHAM, N.C. – Shannon Rowbury won her first national championship in high school and another one at Duke, and she’s now claimed two USA titles in the last six months as a professional. The most recent, a runaway victory in the 1,500 meters at Eugene on July 6, secured her spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic track and field team that heads to Beijing next month.
Two days after she blew away the field at the Olympic Trials, still basking in the glow of her dominant performance, Rowbury recalled with clarity a national championship she didn’t win and how it helped shape the runner she has become.
It was November 2005 and the Duke women’s cross country team was ranked No. 1 in the nation, undefeated entering the NCAA national meet. Rowbury had won four races during the season, including the ACC, and was the leader of a veteran contingent that had a legitimate shot to bring the team title to Duke for the first time ever.
A strong first half of the race had the Blue Devils in position for victory, but Rowbury suffered a surprising break down near the end and struggled to cross the line in 55th place. Without the usual low finish from one of their stars, the Devils had to settle for third.
“Mentally I hadn’t done enough preparation,” Rowbury remembered. “I went too hard too early and then blew up at the end. It was a huge disappointment.
“But it was one of the biggest blessings in disguise that I could have had, because coming out of that race I was determined to figure out what I needed to do to become a better athlete.”
What she decided to do was to focus more attention on the mental aspect of racing. She began working with Greg Dale, a professor of sports psychology who serves as the director of mental training for Duke athletics. Over the following year, Dale helped Rowbury realize the importance of developing a race strategy that she could buy into and bank on for confidence.
Their work together made all the difference in the world. After redshirting the 2006 track season, Rowbury went on to win the NCAA title in the indoor mile as a grad student in 2007, and she has carried some of the same principles with her into her professional career. In the last year, she has not only won the Olympic Trials but also claimed the USA indoor title in the 3,000 meters and whipped off the fastest 1,500 by an American woman in six years during a spring meet in California.
“We really tried to help her develop a plan in the 1,500 that, if she does this to the best of her ability, it’s going to give her a chance to do very well,” said Dale. “We worked very hard in dividing the race into three phases — the first, the middle and the last — and coming up with key phrases to focus on in each phase, while keeping it very simple in what you think about. There is a lot of time to think, and we wanted to simplify what she thinks about, make it very relevant and be very deliberate in what she focuses on. If you focus on that, you are less likely to think about the negative things that can come in.
“We also worked really hard on having the approach that when you go to the starting line, you have the mentality that there’s no other place you’d rather be — really embracing that and taking it all in and enjoying the moment rather than having it be a fearful thing. She worked on that for two years with the idea of doing that for every race, not just the big races. So when you get into those races at the Olympic Trials or the Olympic Games, it’s not that big of a deal because you have a plan and you know what you are going to do. A lot of confidence comes from that.”
“I went in thinking he would tell me what I needed to do to get my head together and race well,” Rowbury said, “and I found through the course of our conversations that he really wanted me to figure out what I needed. He was a sounding board where I could take my thoughts and really brainstorm and realize what I needed to do to have success, then from there make a strategy that I could have confidence in.
“Each race strategy is essentially the same in that you’re trying to stay relaxed early on, be competitive in the middle and then attack at the end, while tailoring the specifics to the individual race and your fitness at that moment... We don’t get to talk as much now, but the lessons that he taught me were really how to mentally prepare myself. It’s always nicer when I can talk to him, but he gave me the tools to figure it out on my own if I need to. Like they say, teach a man to fish.”
At the Olympic Trials, Rowbury faced the prospect of racing three times in four days to earn her spot on the U.S. team. She won her heats in both the quarterfinals and the semifinals, in races that were much slower than she has become accustomed to running this season. The final was also shaping up at a slower pace, but with about 600 meters to go, Rowbury used a burst of speed to pull ahead of the field and never looked back. She won with a time of 4:05.48, almost three seconds ahead of second place finisher Erin Donohue, her Nike training teammate and former UNC standout.
She followed a race strategy exactly as it was prescribed by her coach, John Cook: get to the 600 mark and accelerate at each 200-meter interval the rest of the way.
“Shannon is brilliant when you tell her to do something, and she can adapt,” Cook said. “The greatest race plan can go for not, but she has learned to make decisions during the race. At Duke she was pretty one-dimensional. At this level you have to be able to kick and kick and kick again. At Duke she would kick one time and that was sometimes the end. These people will run you down. You just can’t get away from them. At the world level, well, I guess we will find out.”
“It felt good once I was about 10 meters from the line and knew it was all done,” Rowbury said. “It was pretty windy on the back stretch so I was trying to stay as relaxed as possible, not fight the wind too much and keep on moving toward the line. Every coach has always told me to run through the line, nothing’s done until you’ve crossed the finish line. So it took me about 10 meters past the line to feel excited about it, but it was a cool feeling.”
For the past year, of course, Rowbury’s physical condition has been as much of an issue for her racing as her mental approach. After missing the entire 2007 outdoor season due to a stress facture in her hip, she had extensive rehabilitation to undergo and long hours of training to log before she could contemplate competing in national championship form (see Blue Devil Weekly, June 7).
Cook directed that comeback with heavy doses of strength work and speed training, as well as several weeks at altitude in both Colorado Springs and Mexico. “Shannon’s first few weeks in Mexico were horrendous,” Cook said. “It was awful, a real awakening for her.
“She has come so far, and we need to remember where she has come from, not where she’s going. If she makes the final (in Beijing), I think it would be fantastic. To be where she is right now is almost a miracle, frankly.”
In preparation for Beijing, where her first race is not until Aug. 19, Rowbury recently ran in an international field in the Paris Golden League 1,500 where she took second place with the fastest time of her life, 4:00.33, less than half a second behind the winner. She will also run an 800 in another European meet. Then it will be back to the U.S. for more training until it’s time to depart for China.
Rowbury was an Irish step-dancer more than a runner during her childhood, so running in the Olympics has not exactly been a lifelong obsession.
“For me it’s always been an incremental thing,” she explained. “In the back of my mind I always thought making the Olympic team would be absolutely fantastic, but I tried to focus on the little steps along the way. In high school it was winning the sectional, then winning state, then winning nationals. In college it was the same way, conference then nationals.
“Professionally it’s been the same thing as well, focusing on indoor nationals and then getting to the Trials. It was something that was always faintly there, that it would be an amazing accomplishment, but it wasn’t until I saw my fitness progressing the way it should, with the Olympics close at hand, that it became a short-term goal I could focus on. It’s hard to think too far in advance because you can overwhelm yourself. You have to take it day by day.”
So far this year only four women in the world have run the 1,500 faster than the 4:01.61 clocking Rowbury had in Carson, Calif., in May. But about a dozen have had times around the 4:05 mark that she posted at the Trials, so there is no question the competition in Beijing will be stiff. For Rowbury, the best part of it all is that she still feels fresh and energized, compared to the exhaustion she usually felt this time of year after so much racing in college.
“I feel more fit than I was when I ran at Carson, and I’m excited for the challenge of racing against the best women in the world to see where I stand and learn what else I can do to get even better,” she said. “I’m still young. I’m only 23. I feel like I’m just getting started with this whole thing so I’m excited to be at the point where I still have a lot of room to grow and improve and get better each year.”