THE SIXTH IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. women’s 1500, an event on a hot streak and one in which we expect to see fierce-fierce racing when the competitive trek toward the Tokyo Olympics resumes.
SPRING OF 2020, now heading into summer, has manifested itself as a train-and-wait game for athletes. The pandemic “why” of that is no secret. Shannon Osika, ’19’s No. 6 U.S. Ranker in the 1500 who PRed big with a 4:01.80 win to wrap last season, is rolling with the postponement reality. It’s not like she or any miler has a choice, but the ’16 Michigan grad has the advantage of having viewed her career as a long but determined journey well before she even started her prep career at Mott High (Waterford, Michigan) back in ’09.
It helps that the 26-year-old Osika is part of a running family. Her parents competed as middle distance runners for Eastern Michigan in the ’80s and put up national class 1500 PRs. Father P.J. raced 3:41.39 in ’87 and mom, Andrea Bowman, ran 4:18.27 that same year. Both competed in the ’88 Olympic Trials.
“It’s definitely in my blood,” says Shannon, who herself made the OT semis in ’16. “I mean, at this point in my life I don’t really know much different. From Day 1, you know, my parents were still running, not competitively, but recreationally. So I saw them get out the door almost every day, and then eventually I’d go with them for a couple miles and just really fell in love with it.
“Even in elementary school, just having the running clubs and everything, I found I had a real passion for it. And it’s funny because I’ve just always wanted to be a professional runner. Even in elementary school, which I feel like is rare for people to even know that’s an option.
“I had my eyes on it for a while. So it feels very surreal to be achieving that. It’s just practicing patience throughout it all and having confidence that I’ll progress. I’ve definitely had times where I felt my times were stagnant.
“For example, freshman year in high school I ran a 4:52 mile and I actually never got faster. I ran 4:52 all four years. So there were other improvements, but sometimes I would kind of be at a stand still, but just always knew that I would get there. So just having that confidence, having that patience, that’s been key. And the support as well.
“You know, my parents having gone through elite running and everything, they knew how to talk to me and keep me motivated. So I feel like that’s really been helpful because it’s paid off. Even hitting that PR was huge. So I feel really grateful.”
Osika won’t deny “there were times where it was a struggle, but at the same time I was still having success.” So she kept working. Her older sister Alyssa ran track at Ferris State, younger brother Tommy competed for Michigan State and her youngest sibling, Katie, is a current Spartan frosh. But following high school graduation in ’12, Shannon headed to Michigan and the stewardship of associate head Mike McGuire, her coach to this day.
“I feel like coach McGuire was a good fit for me,” says Osika, who trains in the Wolverine coach of 30 years’ unofficially named True Blue Elite group. “He wasn’t one to micromanage. I liked the flexibility of it, the freedom but still having that accountability. Coming to Michigan was a really good fit for me, and then I just kind of blossomed from there. So yeah, I had my struggles. It’s not easy just to stay stagnant for a bit but I knew that there’s a long road ahead. Especially because from early on I did want to go professional, so I just kinda knew, ‘OK, it’s not happening now, but I have a lot of time to get there.’”
Among the training partners who have helped her get there are the current True Blue crew of Amanda Eccleston, Jaimie Phelan and Natalie Cizmas. Canadian Nicole Sifuentes, who retired at the end of ’18, “still jumps in with us.”
Osika’s athletic journey at Michigan culminated in ’16 with senior-year Big 10 titles in the indoor mile and outdoor 1500, and an NCAA 4th in a PR 4:12.23. In the weeks that followed she dropped her best to 4:09.08, qualified for the Olympic Trials and reached the semis of that big show.
Now Nike sponsored, Osika has made the USATF 1500 final in each season since—7th in ’17, 7th again in ’18 though her preparations were hampered by a sore shin and 6th last year. At the ’18 USATF Indoor, she placed 3rd in the 1500, in ’19 with the mile contested for that edition she was 4th.
Her PR progression since college has come along steadily, too before substantial jumps last year: 4:06.17 in ’17, 4:04.80 in the USATF final last July, then 4:04.22 a couple of weeks later in Memphis. But ouch! The latter race missed the Olympic Q-standard by just 0.02.
Five weeks later after a trio of slower races in Europe, Osika hit her crucial 4:01.80 run well beneath the standard in Chorzów.
“My last race was the Poland one,” Osika says, “and that wasn’t even on the calendar for me. I had my flight booked home and then the [Chorzów] meet director found me after [her 2nd-place finish to Kate Grace in the US–Europe dual]. He was trying to get more 1500m runners, and I was like, ‘Well, yeah, let’s do it.’
“So I went over there and basically right from the gun just was behind the rabbit and I was looking at the clock, I knew the splits. I was ready to be vocal if I needed her to pick it up or step off. But she did great for 800 and then—I just wanted that time so bad. So I just kept going. I was in awe, though, to see 4:01, ’cause I was like, ‘4:03 would be just great.’ And then to cut another 2 seconds off, it was very surreal.” Osika won the race by nearly 9 seconds.
Of her step up in class just in time for what would have been an Olympic year, Osika says, “I think the consistency really helps. I had a couple injuries, I’m pretty injury prone—lower leg stuff, I get really tight calves. So just through trial and error we’ve figured out, ‘OK, what do I need to stay healthy?’ And then once I could stay healthy and have that consistent training, then the time just kind of came.”
Looking ahead to the now year-deferred Olympic Trials, Osika candidly assesses that last year’s race to 6th in the historically fast USATF final only afforded her so much insight for the future. “I mean,” she explains, “they could all be so different, right? The experience of it is great, but it could be so different come ’20, ’21—how the rounds go and everything.”
Osika knows, though, how she feels about her place in a banner era for the U.S. women’s 1500. “I love it,” she says. “I mean, to be amongst so many talented and hardworking women and to be one of them feels really good. And it makes it even better when you do well and you place high because you know that took a lot, right? I’m not racing slackers, that’s for sure—everyone. So it’s awesome to be a part of this era.”