Interview With Shannon Rowbury
By Becky Orfinger

Shannon Rowbury runs in the pack on her way to winning the 2002 California State 1,600 title in 4:52.77.
Photo: David Blomgren
Rowbury on her way to a win in the 800 at the 2001 Central Coast Section Championships.
Photo: Charlie Rettner
Rowbury competes in the World Irish Dancing Championships at age 10.
Photo courtesy of Paula Rowbury

If you look up the word "balance" in the dictionary, you might just find a picture of California prep middle distance star Shannon Rowbury. As a freshman at Sacred Heart Cathedral High School in San Francisco, Rowbury joined the cross country team as a way to keep in shape for the spring soccer season. Four years later, Rowbury graduated from Sacred Heart a two-time California state champion (once in the 800 and once in the 1,600), multiple-time league and sectional winner and recipient of a full track scholarship to Duke University in Durham, N.C.

As she became more successful throughout high school, Rowbury never forgot to keep her priorities in perspective. An accomplished Irish dancer since childhood, she continued to travel to dancing competitions until the time commitments required of both high-level running and dancing became too much to handle. As her competition read more and more about her running ability on Dyestat and other Web sites, Rowbury herself stayed away from the hype and concentrated more on being a regular teenager. She credits much of her success -- as a runner and a person -- to her family and Sacred Heart head coach Andy Chan.

Rowbury heads to Duke in a few weeks to join perhaps the most star-studded recruiting class in the country this year. She hopes that her ability, combined with that of Clara Horowitz, Natasha Roetter, Caroline Bierbaum, Sally Meyerhoff, Laura Stanley, Liz Wort will lead the Blue Devils to NCAA success in coming years. We caught up with Rowbury as she was about to leave for a week-long family vacation in Hawaii. Congratulations on an excellent high school career. Are you excited about starting college and entering a new phase in your life and running career?
Shannon Rowbury: I can't believe how soon [college] is! It's kind of surreal. I felt like the day would never come and now all of a sudden I'm going to be leaving soon. It's really weird.

How did you decide on Duke? Did you want to go that far away from home?
SR: I never really thought too much about where exactly I wanted to go before I started looking. I wanted to make a decision based on where I felt most comfortable, and that happened to be in North Carolina. Being from California, I didn't want to go to a state school in another state because I knew the team wouldn't be as geographically diverse and I'd feel a little out of place. I wanted to go somewhere where I could meet a lot of different people. It was hard to make a decision, though, because there really were so many options. I never thought about having so many choices for school before. The three that I considered most were Duke, Boston College and Villanova.

And you probably had no idea when you first started running that the team would factor into your decision so much.
SR: I started running by chance -- I wanted to get in shape for soccer and I ended up doing well. I didn't know it would be something I would do in college. During high school, college just seemed really far away. Finally, before my senior year, my family and I went to look at a bunch of colleges on the East Coast. The early signing period deadline was getting closer and closer and I had to make a decision. It was nice to get it taken care of early and not have to worry about it later, especially during track season.

So what about Duke and its team made you feel comfortable?
SR: It's a lot different from San Francisco, first of all. The biggest city is Raleigh, and it's not even that big. There's a lot of trees and nature there -- it has a whole different feel than San Francisco. Having grown up in San Francisco and lived in a big city all my life, I really wanted to get a different experience. I'm hoping to come back to San Francisco after college, but I want to live somewhere else while I can.

I was looking for a school that had both a good team and good academics. That was really important to me, because I don't know if I'm going to stick with running all my life. You never know what's going to happen. I'd like to stick with it a long time, but nothing is certain. In terms of the team, the Duke coaches just seemed like people I could totally be open with. The head coach, Jan Ogilvie, is sort of a mother figure. She seems really loving and someone who would take me under her wing since I'd be so far from home. And Kevin Jermyn, another women's coach, is a lot like the coach I had in high school: a young guy who is really passionate about running and wants to see his athletes improve without burning them out. I definitely felt wanted when I visited there, which was really important.

Did the fact that they have a pretty young team influence your decision at all?
SR: Yes, they are an up-and-coming team. I didn't want to go to a big running powerhouse school where I would be insignificant -- a place where if something happened to me, it wouldn't really be that big of a deal. At a lot of those schools, if something happens to a top runner, there are ten others just chomping at the bit to take her place. I wanted to join a team where I could make a difference, because that's really exciting for me. There are a lot of really great girls coming in as freshman. Hopefully all of us can work together to help the team. I think it is going to be a really rewarding college experience. When I signed, I didn't know exactly who else was going to sign, but it has been really neat to see the list growing during the year.

It will be nice to start college already part of a group.
SR: Definitely. You become friends with people who have similar goals and will understand you better. It's nice to have that community right when you go in -- you don't feel quite so alone. We have a team camp before school starts in the mountains somewhere nearby, so that will be a good chance to get to know each other.

Do you know who your roommate is yet?
SR: I'm going to be rooming with Natasha Roetter. I've been talking to her through e-mail the whole summer and I'm really excited. We have a lot in common. I didn't want to live with someone who only thought about running… she seems to be more like me in that respect. I think it'll be good to have each other as roommates. At first, I wasn't sure if I wanted to live with another runner. But I think this will be good because we will run against each other in cross country but in track, she will probably be doing the longer stuff and I'll be more middle-distance. I think it'll be nice not to have to explain to each other why we need to get up early [for a meet or practice] or go to sleep early.

You mentioned that one of the Duke coaches reminded you of your high school coach, Andy Chan. It seems like the two of you had a mutually beneficial relationship over the past four years, something we learned when reading the article he wrote for Bay Area Running News. Have you seen it?
SR: It was really touching. I had no idea that someone had asked him to write about his experience coaching me. I saw him one day recently and he gave it to me… it practically made me cry, it was so nice. It was so sweet of him. We were both new together (when Rowbury was a freshman in 1998) and he put so much of his heart into the sport and did an amazing job helping me to improve and not burning me out. So many coaches get a good athlete and try to push them to see what they can do. He really looks forward and sets long term goals. He knew that I had potential to run in college, so he didn't try to push me to do as much as I could during high school. He knew that I would have time afterwards to improve at a good rate.

[Chan] is really knowledgeable and if he doesn't know the answer to a question, he'll find it for you. He's constantly learning from other people and talking to different coaches that he knew to try and get advice. He would always try and do as much as he could to make the best decisions for me. I owe so much to him for that. Having a good coach who you are close with is really important. No matter where you are placing in meets in high school or wherever, he or she will make you love running and then you're likely to stick with it for your whole life. That's what's cool about running -- you can do it all your life. You just throw on a pair of shoes and go.

And that's what makes running while on vacation pretty easy, too. Is your summer training schedule for college adaptable to your upcoming Hawaii trip?
SR: Yeah, I've been to Hawaii a few times before and run there… it's so gorgeous there, but it can get pretty hot in the middle of the day so I need to get motivated and get up early enough to run. Last time I was there, I never got up early enough and had to run at night when it was dark and I kept twisting my ankle.

The Duke coaches basically made my whole summer running schedule. They've already been really cool about it, though. They gave me the schedule and told me to take a day off if I feel tired and to let them know how I was feeling. They are pretty laid-back and open, like my coach in high school was, and that's really important to me. As I get older, I want to have a coach who I can communicate with, not one who is going to dictate everything.

Have you jumped up a lot in mileage in preparation for college cross country?
SR: I've increased my mileage a little bit this summer, but nothing drastic. I hope to gradually increase it over the next few years. Kevin is into having us use heart rate monitors and scientific equipment like that, so it's been interesting adjusting to that. He wants to gradually improve me over time. I have four years -- he wants me to be at my peak at the end of those four years, not at the end of my first year.

On another intriguing subject, we've read that you are an accomplished Irish dancer. Are you still dancing?
SR: I competed in dancing until the middle of my track season junior year, and by then I knew I really wanted to focus on doing as well as I could with running. When I started running freshman year, I'd give about equal time to both running and dancing, but by junior year I knew it would be important for college to be successful in track. It had gotten to the point where I just couldn't do both dancing and running and still do well in school. So I don't go to dance classes or anything anymore, but I have a dancing room in my house so I still practice there on my own. I've been dancing since I was six so it's kind of hard to just not do it anymore -- it's such a big part of my life.

How did you get involved in Irish dancing?
SR: Actually, I broke my leg when I was in kindergarten, and my grandma wanted me to start dancing because she thought it was something that would help strengthen my bones. First, she put me in ballet but then the teacher left and one of the girls in the class told me she had decided to try Irish dancing and that it was really fun. So I went with her and I ended up loving it and sticking with it. I got to meet a lot of people and travel all over the country and to Ireland. It really gets you used to being onstage and performing in front of people -- this made public speaking in school a lot easier.

It was a really great thing to get involved in. I was really glad I didn't start running until I was a freshman because I think I would have gotten really burned out. It was nice to do something like dancing that kept me active and in good health because that set me up to do well in other sports. I got into soccer in elementary school also. I think soccer and dancing helped me develop an ability that later exposed itself in running.

Do you know of anyone else you used to dance with who later tried running and proved your theory correct?
SR: Yes, it was weird -- I started doing really well and then all these other dancers started joining their high school teams. When I did well, the local newspaper would have something about it and the parents would tell their kids about me and that I did both dancing and running. I've definitely noticed that the girls I knew from dancing who later became runners have done really well. I think the two must just complement each other.

Michelle Gallagher (Sacred Heart's #2 runner behind Shannon this year) was a dancer when she was growing up, too, and started running her freshman year like I did. She did very well during her freshman and sophomore years even though she was running for a school that did not have a really strong running program. My mom convinced Michelle's mom (and Michelle) that she would like going to school and running at Sacred Heart, so she transferred there as a junior. She improved a lot in cross country and track and helped our team out a lot. She is also one of my really close friends.

We've read that last fall's cross country season (2001) wasn't the easiest for you, personally and running-wise. What are some of the challenges you had to overcome before accomplishing your goal of winning a second state track championship later in the year?
SR: A bunch of stuff went on that fall. On August 13, I was in a car accident coming back from a team camp. My boyfriend and closest friends were all in the car with me. It was a head-on collision. I got the least of the injuries, somehow -- I don't know how I was so blessed -- but there were two broken backs, one broken neck and a broken wrist and hand. My boyfriend broke his ankle and got his eye cut open. It was a pretty traumatic experience. It was also tough having the people I normally ran with -- and my support crew -- taken away from me. That season, I had to get to know new people to run with, which was sort of like starting from scratch. On top of that, I found out that I was iron deficient and had anemia.

Then, my aunt died of cancer right around Thanksgiving time, so it was one blow after another. She lived about an hour away from the city and we would go up there pretty frequently; of all my aunts I was closest to her. She was my mom's best friend, so it was really tough on all of us. It was just really hard to get through the whole season and stay motivated, not to mention pick a college. I was pretty stressed out by all of it.

Was there somebody in particular who helped you get through that tough period?
SR: Everybody was really understanding and compassionate toward me, but it was really something that I had to figure out how to get through on my own. It was just really hard for me to deal with everything, but eventually -- by track season of senior year -- I had a new passion for running. I had to re-evaluate everything: why I wanted to run, why I was doing what I was doing… that was important for me and really put things in perspective. It was good at least in that respect. It's definitely not something I ever want to experience again, though.

Are the friends who were in the car with you recovered from their injuries?
SR: The two girls who were in the back with me were the ones who broke their backs -- one of those girls broke her neck, too -- may not be able to run again. They can walk and everything, but the effects of their back injuries will be with them forever and still feel pain when they run. My boyfriend is back into running and he is going to run at UC-Irvine next year. He's really excited about that. He's actually always been the most motivated out of all of us, so he keeps me motivated. The one other person who was in the car and broke his wrist and hand decided that he doesn't want to run anymore.

The amount of talent, especially in the middle distances, among California girls, has been astounding in recent years. Do you think that having such a high level of competition at meets helped you to set higher standards and achieve your goals?
SR: There are so many amazing girls in California. Each race brings a new great time. I think it depends on how you think about it -- it can be overwhelming. For me, there were times when I thought to myself, 'If only I was in this state… I'd be winning everything with no problem,' but more than anything, it's really great having the competition. It just forces you to improve and to do your best, and then you get better and better times. It forces the best to come out of you.

Are you and your competitors pretty friendly (once the race is over, that is)?
SR: For the most part, everyone is really nice and easy to talk to. All the girls have something great to say if you get a chance to sit down and talk to them. I never went to any of the [post-season] invitationals all that much, so I didn't get to know that many people.

Was it mostly your decision not to go to some of those bigger meets, or your coach's decision?
SR: I put so much energy into each season that once it was over, I just wanted a rest. Going on for another week or two or three was just too much. My coach supported that -- he could tell what I was thinking and would usually think the same thing, too. I just needed a break after each season.

Do you ultimately see yourself as a middle-distance runner? You've had success in longer distances, too. [Editor's note: Rowbury ran 9:38 for 3000 this spring.]
SR: I really like the mile. I focused on the 800 a lot as a freshman because that was where I had the best chance to do well, but then it was nice to finally try out the mile at State senior year. I just have always really liked the mile. For me, it's just the right distance -- not too long and not too short. If something goes wrong, you have time to fix it, yet you aren't stuck on the track forever getting frustrated. At first, I couldn't stand doing the two-mile at all on the track. But my focus is definitely getting better -- I don't mind the laps so much and I'm starting to enjoy the distance events more. But I still think I like the mile the best.

Which races stand out in your memory (good or bad)?
SR: The mile at the state meet this year was just so awesome. I had focused so much on the 800 during my freshman, sophomore and junior years, so it was pretty tough to let go and only focus on the mile. Even as I watched the 800, after I had won the mile, I felt a little funny. I missed it. But I knew that the mile would be the best thing for me to focus on. After my junior year when I won State and then the national 800 title, it was kind of like, 'Where do I go from here?' Everything would almost have been expected of me, and it wouldn't have been as enjoyable or rewarding if I hadn't done something different.

So when I won it, it was just so neat. In the few weeks leading up to the race, I had gotten such an outpouring of support from my family and friends. They gave me letters and notes and inspirational things. It just really helped to motivate me. When I won, it wasn't just my accomplishment -- I shared it with my family and friends who had helped me so much.

And my freshman year, at my section finals, I ran the 800 and it was the first big race I ever won. I came from behind with 300 meters to go and ended up winning it. It was really exciting. My coach always said that was the race that brought me on to the running scene. It gave me a big sense of accomplishment.

When I won the 800 at Arcadia junior year and ran my PR (2:08.52), it was pretty awesome, too.

Your parents seem really supportive of your running. Do they plan to come and watch any of your college meets?
SR: My mom is at all the meets. I couldn't keep her away even if I wanted to! (laughing) She's going to try and fly out for one or two cross country meets, and I'll be racing at Stanford. She's excited about that.

Do you try to keep up with how your competitors are doing during the season by visiting Dyestat and some of the other running Web sites?
SR: I've never really been too into looking on the Internet for running stuff or doing a lot of research on my competition. I get so much of [running] during the week at practice and on the weekends at meets that I try to focus the rest of my time on schoolwork and spending time with friends. I don't want to get too obsessed with it -- I try to take a break from the running scene when I can.

What about academics? Do you have any idea about what you want to major in?
SR: I'm thinking of doing an English major -- nothing scientific. I think that will make it a little easier on me. I'm going to try and focus on subjects that I'm passionate about and that come naturally to me. It's hard to know right now what I want to do, though -- I'll probably have considered ten different scenarios by this time next year! I'm sure it will be tough at times, but I try to think of the positives.

Becky Orfinger is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer and runner.

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