THE SEVENTH 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.
THE 1500 MAY NO LONGER BE her primary event—although that decision’s not etched in stone—but any discussion of the U.S. players in the metric mile has to include Shannon Rowbury, she of 11 U.S. Rankings appearances since her debut there in ’06: 10 in a row 2008–17 and 6 No. 1s (’08, ’09, ’10, ’12, ’15 & ’16).
Then there’s the Duke alum’s 1500 record at the majors: a bronze at the ’09 World Champs (plus a 7th in ’15), and in Olympic competition 7th in ’08 plus 4ths the last two times around in London (after others’ doping DQs) and Rio.
Now 35, Rowbury has been ensconced for the last three years in her native San Francisco after 4 seasons training with the now-disbanded Nike Oregon Project in Portland. Were she to aim for a 1500 spot on Team USA’s Tokyo Olympic team she would be the only mother among the group currently projecting as contenders. She and husband Pablo Solares welcomed daughter Sienna in June of ’18.
Motherhood has “added a lot of joy and perspective to my life,” Rowbury says, “but it definitely has complicated it as well. So I feel like I’m doing a good job. Totally excluding having a child, training just as a 35-year-old athlete has to look different than training as a 23-year-old athlete. It’s just your body has certain strengths. Like I’m better aerobically now than I was before, but I don’t recover as quickly. And so I’ve already had to adjust training in some ways because of just where I am in my training life. But you know, I feel like all of those challenges can get more exaggerated when you have a little child to care for. So it’s just taken a little bit more flexibility and the ability to adapt.” (Continued below)
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The not at all surprising shifts in athletic aptitude Rowbury describes surely point in the direction of the 5000, by no means a new part of her racing repertoire. Her PR, 14:38.92, was an American Record when she sped to it in September of ’16, and Shelby Houlihan (14:34.45) is the only American to have surpassed it yet. Rowbury has been U.S.-Ranked 4 times at 5K besides the No. 1 she rated in ’16, and she busted out a pair of sub-15:00 clockings at the ’17 World Championships in London—14:57.55 heat and 14:59.92 for 9th in the final—to rank No. 1 again.
Last year, though stymied in the spring by a sacral stress fracture as she rushed back from maternity, Rowbury gutted out a 6th-place finish at the USATF Champs and a 15:05.99 seasonal best in Berlin 5 weeks later.
Currently mentored remotely by former Oregon Project coach Pete Julian, Rowbury is mulling an event choice calculus for both this year and next that has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With complication in this case comes more options and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The plan for this summer would probably be to do more 5Ks,” she says. “But to be good at the 5K, I need to be good at the 15. I was thinking I would try to run 15s leading up to the Olympic Trials so I’d have had the standard in both and have the ability to make that last-minute decision as to where my best odds would lie.
“But with the qualifying window being closed, there’s sort of more flexibility in terms of what we do this summer. I have my 5K standard, which is great and really relieving, but you can’t get a standard in anything else until December. So I’ve done a lot of base-training work. I skipped the indoor season thinking that the Olympics would be this summer, and because I wanted to put in a lot of steady weeks of higher-mileage, longer volume workouts, with the understanding that if a 5K was going to be an event that I did, I needed more strength to get through the rounds.
“So with this shelter-in-place, and now this kind of delay of the season, first it just felt like everything was on pause. Now I’ve been able to kind of get back into that basework. I feel like I’m really strong. So I think it’d be fun to do some 5Ks this summer and just see where that fitness is.
“And then I think Pete is leaning towards the 5K and I think I’m wrapping my head around that. I really love the 1500 but if I can be fit enough to sustain the rounds of a 5K, then you know, I think I could also be a contender there, but it’s just a matter of, yeah—I know I’ve done it in the 15. The question is can I put all the pieces together to do it in a 5K?”
For Rowbury heading into what she hopes will be her fourth Olympics, the Games she has long planned as her last, moving home, starting a family and buying a house has been a comfortable decision—and one fully supported by Julian.
“I wanted to be back home in San Francisco,” she says. “I knew I always wanted to move back here and it was important for me to just be in a place that made me happy and where I felt supported and where I could put down roots. And fortunately for me, Pete is a person who knows my work ethic, respects me, was fully on board with me moving back home, always knew I wanted to have a kid and had always said if and when that happens, it’ll be great and we’ll figure out how to make it happen. You know, how to make that work from a training and racing perspective, whatever it takes.”
After training in ’16 with Oregon Project miler Treniere Clement through the Georgetown alum’s retirement at the end of that season, Rowbury was pulled through workouts in ’17 by Solares, who clocked a Mexican Record 3:36.67 for 1500 in ’09. The time since Sienna’s birth has required improvisation as Solares works a 9-to-5 for the Mission Economic Development Agency, a local non-profit providing particularly crucial assistance during the C19 crisis.
“Before shelter in place, I was working with the San Francisco State men’s team,” Rowbury says. “So that has been really fun. Starting in January I started working with that team as a volunteer assistant and they just were a really fun group of guys and really supportive and I was enjoying that team environment.
“During shelter-in-place. Pablo’s really been great at trying to step up where he can either running with me or on the bike with me. Or even just being there physically to keep me company. He doesn’t do my workout as much with me anymore ’cause his fitness just isn’t what it was when he was still competing. But he’s still very, very supportive and present on those sessions where I need him.”
Rowbury is also sowing seeds off the track for her post-retirement life in her position as senior director at Elite Optimization Services (EOS), a program started by former USATF board member Bill Shelton, the motto of which is “transforming elite athletes into elite professionals.”
EOS, Rowbury explains, is “getting ready to launch an online platform called Parity, the idea of which is to create more sponsorship opportunities for women. And so that’s been really cool and really exciting ’cause we’re trying to use social media, influencer marketing, but create a platform that better matches athletes and companies. We’re really trying to target the middle class of athletes and sort of the middle class of companies, as well.”
The numbers involved aren’t track times but they are important. “Like $64 billion is spent annually in the sports marketing industry, which is humongous, but of that just half of a percent goes to women,” Rowbury says. “So if we could even make 1% go to women, that would be a huge increase.”
Track & field’s professional aspect is at the forefront for Rowbury personally as this season of the pandemic awaits a starting gun. “It’s exciting for me that now I have a year to kind of really have it all dialed in,” she says. “Obviously this current moment is like all the things I had set up are on pause, but at least I know I have something to fall into. The main apprehension for me is that my current shoe contract ends at the end of December.
“So I’m excited that there’s hopefully going to be some races this summer, so I have an opportunity to show how much my fitness has improved from last year and to show that I’m an athlete that is a contender, not just to make the team but to medal next summer. ’Cause I think that I do have that as a possibility in my future. But you know, being 35, postpartum with an injury last year, I need to make sure I get that new contract because I have a family to support and I can’t continue to compete if I don’t have a sponsorship.”