“AS SOON AS SHE CAME into the world, running would never come first.” So Shannon Rowbury describes the transformation that came over her with the arrival of her daughter, Sienna, in ’18.
Yet if anyone thinks the 3-time Olympic 1500 finalist, now 36, is any less of a racer as a mother, they weren’t paying attention to her ’20 season.
She opened up with a tour of the Small Town Oregon Pandemic Circuit, hitting 8:40.26 for 3000 in Blue River and 4:03.62 for 1500 in Newberg.
Then she made her way to Europe and kept racking up the fast times: 14:45.11 for 5000 — her No. 2 time ever — in Monaco; a 4:03.04 in Stockholm; a 2:04.46 in Gothenberg, her first 800 in 4 years. She closed out the campaign with a 4:02.56 in Berlin.
“When the pandemic first hit,” the Duke grad says, “there was this limbo. I had to do all my training alone, and then there were still about a couple of weeks where it looked like maybe the Olympics would happen. And that was like, ‘OK, head down, just grind it out, whatever you have to do.’ Then once the Olympics were postponed, it all became real.
“So really having to adjust my training significantly from about March until June, I wasn’t on a track, I just did fartlek. So, when I look at the results that I ultimately had, I wanted quicker because I’m competitive like that. And, you know, you’re always driven to try to PR or come close to a PR. However, when I think about the context and the sort of highly disjointed training and lead up that I had had, I’m extremely proud of my ability to run compelling times despite the circumstances.”
The inspired racing didn’t happen despite being a mother — it happened because of it, Rowbury explains. “It’s given me a new perspective: there’s certain things that I experienced during my running career that felt wrong or were painful or challenging, but in my brain it was, ‘OK, I’m tough enough. I can take this. It’s fine. This is the price I have to pay to be an athlete at the highest level.’
“Now as a mother, looking back on those experiences, I’m imagining what if that had been my daughter Sienna and unequivocally saying I would never let her be treated that way.
“So that’s really created a motivation for me to continue the work that I’ve done in trying to improve the sporting world to be a more equitable place and to be one that’s more welcoming to a woman athlete’s experience and more inclusive than it has been. That’s given me a different kind of motivation. I want to be successful; I want to set an example for her. I want to show her the challenges and the joys of pursuing a multifaceted life.
“Really, that motivation to make the world better if and where I can really was crystallized through her coming into my life.”
One offshoot of this evolution came over the winter, when Rowbury took a part-time role at a startup called Parity, which, she says, “is working to create more sponsorship opportunities for women athletes.”
She notes, “That’s definitely been a new challenge in terms of balancing my day and trying to fit in my training as well as the work that I’m doing. And fortunately, I really love both the running and the work with Parity. The work that I’m doing is fun, but it’s a lot, trying to fit it all into the schedule.”
She couldn’t do it all — and parent — without the support of husband Pablo Solares and family: “It’s been all hands on deck in the period leading up to the Olympics.”
For Rowbury, the approach to what would be her fourth Olympics might at times seem like old hat — she’s the consummate veteran. Yet no road is the same twice and in uncertain times that is doubly true.
Crucially, there is the decision on whether she will run the 1500 or the 5000. The two events overlap impossibly at the Trials, their finals starting just 35 minutes apart.
She says she will make the decision after her next races, in May and June. Currently she has the 5000 standard for Tokyo, but her fast 1500 times last summer fell in WA’s dead zone when marks didn’t count for qualifying.
“If I get the 1500 standard [4:04.20], then I’ll have the privilege of deciding between the two,” she says, admitting that her heart still favors the 1500, all other factors being equal.
“That will always be my favorite event,” she says of the one that saw her finish 7th in the ’08 Games and then 4th in both ’12 and ’16. “It’s a challenging event because it can be so heartbreaking. I’ve set the American Record and I’ve also come in 4th at the Olympics. It’s one I’ve really enjoyed because of the intensity of it. But the more I do the 5K, the more I am understanding it and trying to perfect my ability to execute a good one.”
Over the winter, Rowbury reupped her contract with Nike. It’s a 1-year deal — or 2, if she makes the Olympic team.
“I had planned for my running career to be done in the fall of 2020. I’d wrapped my head around that. It was very emotional to process that. Then the world turned upside down. I spent a lot of time talking to my husband and just soul searching on runs.
“Did I want to pursue this extended season and all of the implications that it had, both good and bad, for my family?” She pauses before recounting what she’s happy about at this stage of her career: “I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. I think my consistency is among the best in the sport, and while consistency isn’t always valued as high as a shining star moment, that is really who I am and what I stand for.”
She also points to her work in advocating for women athletes and helping with the eventual creation of USATF’s maternity policy. She notes that her work there stems from a conversation she had with coach Pete Julian.
And then there is the historical context of her racing: “When I started in 2008, we weren’t getting any American distance women in the [WC/OG] finals. Since that time, it’s been a whole new era that I’m really proud to have been a part of and help usher the way forward.”
“I mean, look, three Olympic teams is already above and beyond. A fourth is like a cherry on top. I want to make that team because I think I can and I’ve worked for it. It’s an opportunity to really live this season with all its ups and downs and highs and lows, really trying to soak it all in.”
In other words, Shannon Rowbury is not fading away. Not even close.