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Three-Time Olympian Shannon Rowbury Turning 2020 Into “Miracle” Season

By Karen Rosen | Aug. 22, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Shannon Rowbury wins bronze in the Women's 3,000-meter at the IAAF World Indoor Championships on March 20, 2016 in Portland, Ore.


Shannon Rowbury called 2020 the “Just in Time” season until the pandemic upended the sports calendar.

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were supposed to begin roughly two years after the birth of her daughter, Sienna, and 17 months after a debilitating injury cost Rowbury months of training. She was sixth at the 2019 U.S. Track & Field Championships, missing a spot on the 2019 World Championships team and snapping her impressive run of three Olympics and five worlds since 2008.

Going into 2020, “It seems like everything was coming together just in time - there really wasn’t much wiggle room,” Rowbury said.

Now in a year that some athletes have written off, Rowbury is writing a surprising new chapter while closing in on her 36th birthday in September.

“In some ways this is like the ‘Left Field’ or ‘Miracle’ season,” Rowbury said. “It’s just such a strange year.”

As one of the rare Americans using their passport amid travel restrictions, Rowbury is competing on the Diamond League circuit. She’ll race Sunday in the women’s 1,500 meters in Stockholm.

And within the increasingly crowded field of top U.S. female middle-distance and distance runners, Rowbury, the former American record holder in both the 1,500 and the 5,000, has proven that a mother in her mid-30s can still be an Olympic contender.

She roared back onto the international scene Aug. 14 by clocking 14 minutes, 45.11 seconds in the 5,000 in the Monaco Diamond League meet, placing fifth. That was only about 6 seconds off her personal best and 20 seconds faster than her best time last year.

“It’s not where I want to be, but it’s a very big step in the right direction,” Rowbury said.

Two weeks earlier, she had blazed to a time of 4:03.62 in the 1,500 at the Big Friendly 3 meet in Oregon, which was her fastest time since winning the Diamond League final in Zurich in 2016.

With the Olympics postponed a year, Rowbury said she’ll continue calling this season by its original name since it still applies.

“I’ll get everything together just in time to have an even better lead-up to next summer,” Rowbury told TeamUSA.org via Skype from Stockholm.

Top Field in Diamond League 1,500

Due to the injury in 2019 and her pregnancy in 2018, Rowbury said, “It’s been a while since I’ve ben able to toe the line against the best, so I’m sharpening up both my tactics and also my fitness.”

She hopes to dip back under 4 minutes while facing two-time 5,000-meter world champion Hellen Obiri and Winny Chebet of Kenya and British runners Laura Muir and Laura Weightman.

Calling the race in Portland essentially “a time trial” and with only one 1,500 last year off little training, Rowbury said, “For all intents and purposes, in my brain, this is my first real 1,500 since 2017, so it’s a little daunting -- but also exciting. It’ll be a great way to get back out there.”

However she finishes, “We’ll walk away from it with more information that’ll help me prepare for next year.”

And next year brings a dilemma - Rowbury will choose only one event for Tokyo. The 1,500 is her favorite, and the one in which she has competed in three Olympic Games: placing seventh in 2008 and fourth in 2016 behind teammate Jenny Simpson. In 2012, she crossed the finish line sixth, but moved up later due to doping disqualifications.

Her lone major outdoor medal is a bronze in the 1,500 in at the 2009 worlds. She also competed at worlds in the 1,500 in 2011 and 2015 and raced the 5,000 in 2013 and 2017. Rowbury added a bronze in the 3,000 at the indoor worlds in Portland in 2016.

“I like the concentrated intensity of the 1,500,” Rowbury said. “It’s a great combination of power and endurance, so I feel like it really jibes well with my body and my mindset.”

Another Piece of Hardware?

But the 5,000 could offer a better route to Team USA as well as to the Olympic medal that is the only box she has yet to check on her illustrious resume.

“If I don’t achieve it, it’s still a career full of records and medals and consistency and things that I’m extremely proud of,” Rowbury said, “but of course to add another piece of hardware to my collection would be wonderful. That’s a great motivation.

“Last year the 1,500 at worlds was just so stacked and the performances were so impressive. But equally so was the 5K, so it’s a decision that my coach and I will make as the year evolves and as we see where my best chances lie at not only making the team, but having a shot at a medal.”

When Rowbury turned pro in 2008, she thought she might compete 10 years, knowing that starting a family would play a factor in her longevity.

“After Rio, I just felt like I still had more in me,” she said, “so I competed the 2017 season. And then it was a point -- I knew I wanted to be a mother before I ever wanted to be a runner, so I made that choice with the full awareness that it might mean the end of my running career. And so to be able to come back and be running as I am now, and to have the next Olympics on the horizon as a possibility, is a cherry on top.”

After Sienna was born on June 30, 2018, Rowbury didn’t waste time getting back into shape. Her contract with Nike was up for extension and, she said, “There was an urgency to get out there.”

She has since teamed up with other track and field athletes to create a maternity process that ensures financial and healthcare protections for expectant mothers.

“When I was pregnant, there wasn’t much of a conversation about athletes’ shoe contracts and protections in maternity,” Rowbury said. “I think if I had had those things, maybe I wouldn’t have had to rush back so quickly and I wouldn’t have gotten injured and 2019 could have been a very different year.”

Rowbury suffered a sacral stress fracture in February 2019 and didn’t run on the ground again until mid-May. After failing to qualify for worlds, she won a road race in New York, the USATF 5K Championships, last November.

After Rio, I just felt like I still had more in me so I competed the 2017 season. And then it was a point - I knew I wanted to be a mother before I ever wanted to be a runner, so I made that choice with the full awareness that it might mean the end of my running career.

Proving She Belongs

Yet Rowbury knows that some folks had started to count her out of the top three in the U.S. Shelby Houlihan has been dominating the scene, claiming both of Rowbury’s American records, and several up-and-comers are now in the mix.

“I think that there’s been a narrative my entire career that once you’re over 30, if you have a kid, that your value somehow decreases, and there weren’t any protections in place to help make the maternity process easier,” Rowbury said. “I was trying to just keep the faith and believe in my process and my capabilities, and hope that by doing so, I can set an example and prove that all those other narratives of the past weren’t fair, weren’t true.”

After all, Rowbury was in her early 30s when she posted a time of 3:56.29 to break Mary Slaney’s nearly 32-year old American record in the 1,500 on July 17, 2015. She clocked 14:38.92 to break Molly Huddle’s American record in the 5,000 to cap her 2016 season.

“That was a combination of my aerobic development over time, which was largely a factor of just staying healthy and continuing to get better year over year,” Rowbury said. “Of course, my training has had to evolve. I don’t recover as quickly in my 30s as I did in my 20s, but I can handle a workload that I wasn’t capable of 10 years ago.”

The Duke University graduate not only welcomes competition, she is trying to develop it. She and her husband, Mexican national record holder Pablo Solares, launched a non-profit called “Imagining More” to encourage youth, particularly young women, in sport and the arts.

“The depth in middle-distance and distance running has really grown, and that’s wonderful,” said Rowbury, who was once ranked seventh in the world in Irish dancing before becoming a competitive runner. “I think we have so much talent in our country, and whatever the reason, whether it’s inspiration, resources, better opportunities, who knows? To see that depth expanding and growing is really exciting."

She is scheduled to race Aug. 29 in another meet in Sweden, possibly the 1,500. Although she has a ticket home booked for Aug. 31, Rowbury may try to stay in Europe, balancing travel logistics with Covid-19 developments and family dynamics. She is also considering competing at the Diamond League meet in Doha on Sept. 25.

Balancing Running With Family

Besides the strangeness of competing during a worldwide pandemic, this Diamond League is a different experience for Rowbury, who left her husband and daughter at home in San Francisco.

“For the first time in my life, I’m really feeling torn between two worlds,” Rowbury said. “It was always tough leaving my husband – I would miss him -- but he was a big boy and was very supportive. My daughter on the other hand,  she’s 2 and she doesn’t quite understand. She keeps saying, ‘Mommy’s gone, Mommy’s gone.’”

“It’s the first time I’ve had this much fun being over in Europe, but then there’s the other part of me that really, really misses my daughter. It’s strange.

Before this trip, the longest Rowbury had been away from her daughter was four days. When they tried FaceTime last year, “It would always end up with both of us in tears,” she said.

Even though Rowbury has been away since Aug. 6, their sessions are no longer tear-drenched, which means she doesn’t have to feel guilty about enjoying time with her team.

Rowbury is coached by Pete Julian, who put together a group when the Nike Oregon Project disbanded following the ban on coach Alberto Salazar.

Under the leadership of Julian and physical therapist/strength coach David McHenry, Rowbury said, “Just the dynamic on the team now is so much more positive and supportive and fun. It’s the small things -- we all get dinner together and we don’t just eat and leave. We sit and talk and laugh.”

After the meet in Monaco, the athletes rented a small boat so they could experience the Mediterranean.

“It’s a group that just enjoys spending time with each other and has a really good attitude,” Rowbury said.

She was completely on her own, though, when the country began shutting down. While Rowbury’s team is based in Oregon, she lives in San Francisco and had been training with the San Francisco State men’s track team.

“They were pretty strict from the beginning about shelter in place and masks,” Rowbury said, “so within a matter of two or three days, I went from having this big support group to having nobody to train with.”

She wasn’t allowed to use tracks, so she would run from her house. There was uncertainty about if and when meets would happen.

“We kept training in this holding pattern,” Rowbury said. “It definitely was an unideal lead-up, a very emotionally tumultuous year for everybody, and so to have an opportunity to race in Europe, is something that I’m really trying to enjoy and celebrate.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to be fit enough to be in these races, and I’m really grateful to be in a position where I can compete with the best in the world again.”

And she knows Sienna will be waiting when she gets home.

Solares recently drew a poster that said “Suerte Mama” (which is Spanish for “Luck”) and “Soo fast,” and Sienna added some scribbles.

“Whenever she sees me, she’s like ‘Mama running, mama so fast,’” Rowbury said. “She enjoys it. That’s my goal. I’ve seen some children of professional athletes from different sports who kind of had a resentment toward the sport because they felt like it took their parents away from them, so I try very hard to share what I do with my daughter.”

It’s a season to remember.

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Shannon Rowbury