AS A HIGH SCHOOL JUNIOR in ’08 Anna Shields had all the promise in the world. That year she won the Nike Indoor 5000. She broke Connecticut’s state record in the mile with a 4:48.52 at the Penn Relays and rated No. 9 on the national yearly list. And yet somehow, it all crumbled. In hindsight, she thinks she was suffering from a serious protein deficiency.
“I didn’t understand what was happening,” she recalls. “I kept training hard and just every race kept getting worse and worse. I was trying to write it off like, ‘Oh, this is a bad day for this reason…’ But things started trending downwards to the point that I went from running 4:48 to only being able to run like a 5:13. The colleges that had been really interested, the D1 schools, they weren’t anymore.” She signed a letter of intent with North Carolina, only to be told later that she wasn’t a good fit. “I guess they saw me as a young girl that had talent at a young age and wasn’t looking like I could continue with that potential.”
She ended up at Central Connecticut: “I competed for a year, and I did worse and worse. Racing felt very painful, like I was going to faint. I remember the conversation I had with my college coach. I don’t blame him at all because he could tell how miserable I was. He said, ‘Is this really what you want to keep doing?’”
The onetime burgeoning superstar thought of all the races where people who had seen her as a high school ace now watched her struggle at the back of the pack: “It was humiliating. It took away a lot of the joy I had running.” She now says it was a relief when her coach asked the question. “No, I can’t keep doing this,” she responded.
She left school and went to work fulltime as a bank teller. For 6 years she barely ran. “I would go for little jogs after work sometimes,” she says. “I wouldn’t even change out of my work clothes. I was wearing loafers and work pants and I’d jog for like 15 minutes.” Then the bank put on a “steps” challenge. Whoever took the most steps that month would win a free week of groceries. “Money was tight,” she explains of her decision to go for a 6M run. “I felt that runner’s high again and I felt good and it just made me think, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ It was so many years later that there was nothing to lose.”
And while the contest was canceled because of pedometer issues, Shields had rediscovered running: “There was nobody putting pressure on me or looking at what I was doing. It was a totally private endeavor of mine. I went to a high school track and wanted to see what I could run for a mile. I ran a 6:30 and I was like, ‘That’s good!’
Before long she was running 13M at that pace. She worked her mile time down to 5:03. She could have focused on being a road racer, but the track bug still burned in her. Her old high school coach told her that she would still have eligibility at an NAIA school, so she started making phone calls.
One of them was to Point Park University’s Kelly Parsley. “I was 26. He was like, ‘You could do this. You’d be running the half-marathon [a scoring event at NAIA Nationals].’ And I said, ‘No, I want to run middle distance. I think I can do it.’” Parsley may have had his doubts, but he responded politely, “Oh well, if that’s what you want, you can do that too.”
In her first year on the school’s Pittsburgh campus, running as a soph, Shields won the NAIA 1500 and hit bests of 2:09.41, 4:22.35 and 4:49.02. A year later, she had added national crowns in cross country, the indoor 1000 and mile, the outdoor 800 and 1500. With a best of 4:12.36, she hoped to run the 1500 at USATF, but she just missed the cut. Instead, she made it to the big dance with her 800 best (2:04.75) and her 5000 (16:28.09), which made her the only athlete that hot weekend in Des Moines to attempt that particular double. She did not advance in the 2-lapper and finished 18th in the long race.
Now 28, Shields will be graduating soon with an English degree. Over the winter she ran 1000 in 2:42.51, placing 2nd behind Danae Rivers’ Collegiate Record, and won NAIA titles 7 and 8. This despite a coaching switch with the departure of Parsley. “He was a big part of my success, but I also respect our new coach, Jim Spisak,” says Shields.
With less than two months left to compete in the distinctive green-and-white striped singlet of the Pioneers, Shields is looking at what it will take to be part of the conversation nationally in her event. She’s already talked with several post-collegiate coaches. “I’m going to keep pursuing my best no matter what,” she says, “No matter where.”
She admits, “Not being a D1 runner, sometimes the path seems a little harder. I think that I’ve come as far as anyone could have come in that short amount of time and I’m not putting any more limits on myself. I’m going to reach for the highest level and see what happens.”