Shannon Rowbury is one of the finest American distance runners in the U.S. She owns the American records for 1,500 meters (3:56.29), and 5000 meters outdoors (14:38.92), and a bronze medal in the 2009 World Champs at 1,500 meters and bronze in the 3000 meters in the 2016 World Indoors. Shannon has competed on three Olympic teams: 2008, 2012 and 2016. She is aiming for her fourth Olympic team in 2020.
That, however, is not the life of an elite distance runner. It is about 13 workouts a week, rest, core training, hydration, planning travel and taking care of sponsor responsibilities. All of that is part of the package that comes with being one of the top runners in the world.
This piece was done in February 2017 by Cathal Dennehy. Shannon raced New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on January 28, Millrose on February 11 and Birmingham Muller Indoor GP on February 18. Now, she has two weeks to go before the USATF Indoors.
Half a second – it’s about the time it takes for an eye to blink, or for Steph Curry, the fastest shooter in the NBA, to release a jump shot. It’s also the length of time by which Shannon Rowbury missed out on an Olympic medal last year, an agonising measure that could destroy the mind-set and motivation of the most formidable athlete.
But Rowbury won’t let it. She’s 32 now, a veteran of three Olympic Games, and she’s been around long enough to know there’s more to life – and indeed her sport – than the quadrennial five-ringed circus. Truth is, you wake up the day after the Games and regardless of the result, the sun still rises, the world soon stops caring, and the only sane way to carry on is for you to do the same.
Which, at times, can be hard. Take the 2012 Olympics, where Rowbury finished sixth in the women’s 1500m, a race now making a bold bid for the infamous title of the dirtiest race in history. Of the five athletes to beat her that day, four have fallen foul of anti-doping authorities. Only one, Bahrain’s Maryam Yusuf Jamal, maintains a clean record.
In Rio, Rowbury finished fourth behind Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba and her US teammate Jenny Simpson. While none of them have ever tested positive, there weren’t so much faint whiffs of suspicion as dark plumes of cynicism surrounding Dibaba last year, who was present in Sabadell, Spain when her coach, Jama Aden, was arrested by police after vials of EPO were found at the hotel where they were staying.
On Friday, the day before she competed in the Millrose Games (February 10), Rowbury followed the breaking reports which saw Russia’s Mariya Savinova retrospectively banned, handing medal upgrades to her US teammates Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez from previous world championships.
It inevitably left her wondering whether she is due an upgrade from London or Rio. “I’m glad to hear that my friends and teammates are getting the medals that they deserve and I hope the women in the 1500 who cheated will also receive the same,” she said “I think it’d despicable that they would cheat in the first place. My heart breaks for every athlete who’s been a victim, who hasn’t been able to have their moment of glory because it’s been stolen by a cheater. I hope that justice will prevail.
“I hope that sooner rather than later they’ll be able to determine who cheated, but they’re trying. All the IAAF and Wada can do is work to try catch these people. You can’t change the past but you can try to affect a better future, so I hope that that is the case and there is less cheaters moving forward, and I hope the ones who cheated in the past are caught.”
Rowbury is coached by Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project, who himself has been faced, at times, with controversy. Salazar focuses on the task at hand, coaching his athletes, like, Shannon Rowbury, Mo Farah, Jordan Hasay and Galen Rupp.
In recent months one of Rowbury’s biggest rivals, Sifan Hassan, moved to Portland to join the group, and though she has not been able to work out with Rowbury yet – they are currently on different training programs – they have already clicked on a personal level. “She’s a lot of fun,” said Rowbury. “She’s hilarious.”
Hassan is also flourishing in her new set-up, as shown on Saturday night, February 11, when she routed the field to win the Wanamaker mile in 4:19.89, the fourth fastest indoor time in history. “It’s nice, training has been going better,” said Hassan, whose 2016 season was marred by injury. “It’s much different to what I was used to do. At the start it was very, very hard, everything was new, but now it’s very nice. I like Alberto; he’s so nice, very friendly and a normal person – kind and funny.”
Rowbury had no match for Hassan’s surge over the final two laps on Saturday night, fading to third in 4:23.05, but she may be better equipped to cope with her Dutch rival when they square off over 3000m in Birmingham, England on Saturday, February 18.
“My fitness has been coming along really well,” said Rowbury. “I came out of altitude training in Mexico City feeling really strong but my training the last couple of weeks at sea level has sharpened me up and I feel equipped to go after a good race.”
By now, Rio seems like a distant memory, and though it wasn’t the ideal result, Rowbury wisely reflects on the year through a wide lens. “I won bronze at world indoors, PR’d in the 800, set the American record in the 5K, won the Diamond League final in the 1500 and came fourth in the Olympics,” she said.
“When I had some time to sit and take a step back, the season was phenomenal. I would rather have come in with a medal than fourth, but I’m proud of fourth, especially against such a strong field. I was glad I had an opportunity to race after the Olympics because the season is more than just one race. It gave me some exciting things to think about for the next four years.”
After Birmingham, Rowbury will race at the US Indoor Championships in March before sitting down with Salazar to draw up plans for the outdoor season. It’s likely to feature more forays into the 5K, which may prove her ultimate destination ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
She’ll be 35 when they arrive, and short of retro-active testing snaring some more dopers, they will almost inevitably represent her last shot at an Olympic medal. Rowbury, however, knows there’s a whole lot of road between here and there, and a whole lot more to this sport than to concern herself with in the meantime. Step by step, she’s moving on.
(Editor’s note: At Birmingham, Shannon Rowbury finished 8th in 8:45:48. Jet lag, sore legs, Shannon will be ready to roll for Albuquerque March 3-5. And remember to watch Shannon this spring as she builds to the London World Championships!)