The 2008 Olympian proves that constant goal setting is a sure path through injury.
One of Shannon Rowbury’s competitors said it best: “She just can’t believe that she’s not a better athlete than every other girl out there.”
That competitor, who will remain nameless, was speaking about last year’s USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, where Rowbury, who had only been training for six weeks after recovering from the dual Achilles injuries that sidelined her for much of the previous two seasons, snatched a world championships team berth in the 1,500 meters with a third-place finish. In the final in Eugene, Rowbury beat women who, on paper, should have been shoo-ins for the U.S. team, but the fiercely competitive, goal-oriented native of San Francisco was determined to make the team and launch herself back into the ranks of the world’s elite.
As a collegian at Duke University Rowbury was a six-time All-American and the NCAA indoor mile champion in 2007. After graduation that year, she entered the professional ranks, and soon began building her credentials, first by winning the U.S. indoor championship at 3,000m, then by taking the 1,500 meters at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Later that summer she would go on to finish seventh in the 1,500 at the Olympics in Beijing — the highest placing ever in the event for an American woman. She was equally as dominant in 2009, where she won the 1,500m at the U.S. outdoor championships, was ranked #1 in the country in the metric mile, and then earned a bronze medal at the world championships.
So far this season, a now completely healthy Rowbury has been racing well, running 8:55.06 in the 3,000 meters at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, and then grabbing runner-up honors in the 1,500m at the Millrose Games, clocking an indoor personal best of 4:07.66.
Competitor.com caught up with Rowbury recently to talk about self belief, goal setting, coming back from injury, and the allure of Irish step dancing.
Competitor.com: What are your thoughts on how your competitors describe you?
Shannon Rowbury: Well, I’m flattered by it. I think that that is pretty true. At U.S. nationals last year, I was coming off a really tough year of injuries. I’d basically gotten six full weeks of training leading up to USAs, so, on paper, against a field of women that I was facing, I think my coach even doubted whether it was going to be possible for me to make the team (laughs).
I’d gone into the season hoping to win the World Championships, and then it kind of became, well, let’s just focus on making the world team. I put all my focus on that race and getting to the finish line in the top three.
What was your mental process for dealing with your Achilles injury?
What I tried to do with my injury was the day to day: just focus on one day at a time, getting the most I could out of every single day. Sometimes it was crazy or scary because I would all of a sudden have this reality check of wow, it’s the end of May (laughs)—I’ve been so focused on the day to day that I didn’t realize how quickly time was passing. It did help for me to just think of it to take each day as, “OK, this is what the cards have dealt me for today. How do I make the most out of it? How do I end this day feeling like I’ve accomplished the most that I could?”
When you look back on 2011, were you satisfied with what you accomplished?
As probably any other over-achiever would tell you, as soon as you reach one goal, you set your sights on the next one, so I was ecstatic when I made the (world championships) team—and then I started thinking about worlds. I was hopeful that maybe, because training had been progressing so well, I would be able to get fit enough and make it to the final and maybe have a shot at doing well there. When I didn’t do well there and I didn’t make the final of the world championships (n.b. Rowbury would make it to the semifinal round), I was really disappointed.
While I was disappointed that I didn’t make the final at Worlds, I sat down in October and looked at the goals I set back in April. I made the world team, I got the “A” standard, which set me up well for this year, and I think I learned a lot about myself as an athlete. I think more than anything I’m proud of myself for making it through. I could have thrown in the towel many times.
Do you think that this constant revision of goals has something to do with your success?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve always been someone who, while I have an idea of what would be really cool to achieve down the line, I’m more of a process-goal person. When I was in high school and I first started running, my first goal was just to be the best on the team, and then it was the league, and then the conference, and then the state. College progressed the same sort of way. While I thought the Olympics were cool when I was little, I never thought, “I will be an Olympian”; I just wanted to be the best at whatever level I was at. And so, I think for me, I do really well when I have a goal in mind.
You were a competitive Irish step dancer in high school. If you hadn’t been as successful in running, would you be a Nike-sponsored step dancer now?
You know, if I could have made a career in dancing, I would probably be doing that now. Anything that you start when you’re a five-year-old, you just have this deep love for, and that’s how I feel about dance. I’m really excited about the path that I’ve taken in life, but there is a part of me that, whenever I hear Irish music or dancing music or one of those (dancing) shows, I think, “Arg, I wish I could be doing that (laughs).”
About The Author:
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, California. His work has appeared in Running Times, Runner’s World, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @JonGugala.