Coaching a State Champion
As a high school runner at Lowell, I watched the people who won at the California State Track Meet and thought, “Wow, they’re fast.” While the team manager at UCLA I got to meet some of these people and listened intently whenever they talked about their experiences at the state meet. Later, as an assistant coach at Lowell I met more of those ‘fast people’ who won state championships. They seemed normal enough but the idea of coaching a state champion was still nothing more than a dream.
In 1998 I became a first year head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Shannon Rowbury was a freshman on the cross country team. Together we embarked on a memorable journey through four years of high school athletics that concluded this past June with Shannon winning her 2nd State Championship. But there is much more to the story than championships, national rankings and personal records.
Shannon came out for the cross country team freshman year just to get into shape for soccer. She was an accomplished Irish dancer but had never run competitively before. Her first training runs were nothing out of the ordinary so it came as a bit of a surprise when she placed 2nd in her first race, a 2.0 mile junior varsity girls race in 14:22. As her freshman season continued she kept getting better and better. First she moved on to the varsity team. Then she became our number one runner. By the end of the season she was the league champion.
I don’t know if there was ever a point during that first season when I felt she was going to be the national level runner she became. She was clearly a good runner with potential but I refused to speculate on the “how good can she get” questions I was often asked. Her competitive strength was a terrific kick at the end of races (and you know what they say, you can’t teach speed). What she needed to learn was to train at a higher level and to push harder in the middle of races. During track season I focused on making her a well-rounded runner, racing her in the 800, 1600, 3200 and/or 4X400 at various meets. We debated numerous times what her best event would be. I seemed to change my mind weekly depending on what event she had run most recently. Thanks to my ‘sheltering’ (we ran at meets all over the Bay Area, she was in a lot of relays and all different events so no one really knew who she was yet) and numerous strong runners in our section, she flew under the radar right up until the Central Coast Section (CCS) Championships. Her goal for her first track season was to qualify for the state meet in the 800, which meant a top 3 finish at CCS. I had her training with CCS as her peak race. It was that season we developed our favorite 800 preparation workout, 2 sets of 300 meters at a relaxed race pace, followed by a 100 meter walk, ending with 300 meters hard. (If this sounds familiar, you may have done this workout on a Thursday night.) At the CCS Finals she shocked everyone by not only qualifying as one of the top 3 finishers, but by winning the race outright. It was one of the most incredible moments. She hung back for the first lap and then with 300 meters to go ‘powered up’ and took the lead. The crowd and the announcer literally gasped when she surged to the lead on her way to a 2:13.30 (a 5 second PR). I think that was a defining moment in her running career, her arrival.
Looking back now I realize so many little things occurred in the first year that shaped the future. She had a lot of trust in me, which is vitally important for an athlete to have in their coach. Even as a freshman she liked to have detailed race plans. We meticulously planned out strategies for races and she would carry them out to a tee. Yes, Shannon has some special abilities that allow her to run fast, but just as important, she has tremendous race instincts. She learned quickly a strong sense of pace, to pass on the straight not the curve, and she always seemed to be able to find an extra gear to cross the finish line before her competition. We seemed to talk about everything during her first year, training principles and race tactics as well as how to talk to reporters and the importance of being humble and a good sport.
I was a first year head coach so this was all new to me, too. It was during this learning period that I established philosophies that would guide me in my coaching. I promised never to get so caught up in Shannon’s doing well that I would ignore the rest of the team. It was always team first. When picking meets to attend, I made it a point to not get caught up in the hoopla of coaching a fast runner and try to show off Shannon…Shannon, just like her coach, went to some cherry pickers, too! I never let her focus on just one event. I think that tends to make running boring. Instead, I challenged Shannon by running her in some longer races that she didn’t really enjoy but that made her stronger mentally, and that made the 800 seem really short. The training, too, was always varied and resting was an important component of our training plans. I think all this contributed to her becoming, possibly, the most versatile high school distance runner in the nation (800 in 2:08, 1600 in 4:51, 3000 in 9:38 and cross country 5K in 17:52).
Shannon continued to improve during her sophomore year. Our goals changed from getting to the State Meet to placing there. Her number one commitment was now running. She was no longer playing soccer and at the end of her sophomore year she cut back on her Irish dancing to focus more of her time on running. This was a decision that she came to herself. I had suggested that doing two activities at a high level could be asking too much of the body but I never forced her to pick one or the other. I increased her mileage a little bit but not a lot. She was running faster because she was getting more experienced.
A little known fact is that she actually ran in the state meet 3200 as a sophomore. At the state meet, there are trials in the 800 on Friday with the top 9 advancing to Saturday’s final. In the 3200, all 27 competitors run together in the final on Saturday. After not qualifying for the state meet finals as a freshman, I felt she really needed to experience a state meet final as a sophomore. I was not yet confident enough to feel that Shannon’s qualifying for the 800 final was a foregone conclusion so I had her running the rather unusual 800-3200 double just to make sure she had a Saturday race. As it turned out, she qualified for the 800 final where she placed 5th and then 50 minutes later she was back on the track running the 3200.
During the summer after her sophomore year we attended a USA Track & Field Junior Development camp in Texas. I think the most important thing she learned at this camp was to see herself as part of a special group of ‘elite’ young runners.
We always focused on improving each year and doing things that gave her the best possible chance for success. I felt that if this was done, winning championships and running fast times would take care of themselves. I preached that if it came down to the last 200 meters and she was in the race with a chance to win, neither she nor I could ask for anything more. Coming into her junior year, I think both of us knew a state championship was a possibility. After she finished 2nd at the state meet in cross country, I was reminded just how difficult and precious winning a state championship is. In the middle of her junior year of track Shannon made a name for herself nationally by winning the 800 at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational, in what was, at that point in the season, the fastest time in the nation for a high school girl. Having the words ‘national leader’ attached to your name is an honor but it also seemed to add pressure. As her coach, I tried my best to keep it fun and diffuse pressure and expectations. At the state meet that year, I was just as nervous as she was. We always warmed up together before big races and this would be one of the most nerve wracking 45 minutes of both of our lives. As was her habit when nervous, she just kept repeating the race plan over and over as we warmed up together. The last things I said before she went out to the track from the warm up area for the race was, “I believe you can do this (win state). Do you?” Shannon answered, “Yes.” “Then that’s all you need,” I replied. It was the first time either one of us addressed her winning a state title. Confidence is so important. I wanted her to know I believed it could happen and I wanted to hear her say it out loud too. She proceeded to run and win a treasured State Championship in the 800.
Senior year of cross-country was a little stressful due to a variety of circumstances, including the college recruiting process. Finally on a November afternoon during the NCAA signing period, she signed a full athletics scholarship to attend Duke University. We were down to the last season of the Chan-Rowbury era. One of my greatest joys from our final season is that we took time to enjoy it. I was well aware that our journey together was coming to an end and I made sure we savored the memories. I teased Shannon about signing autographs on the magazine cover that she was pictured on, and she told the reporters that interviewed her how silly I was at practice.
Towards the end of the season she had marks in both the 800 and 1600 that ranked amongst the best in California. We would have to make a decision about what to focus on for the state meet. As with all decisions made during the four years, we did it jointly, weighing the pros and cons of each event. In the past the 800 seemed to be her best event because the length of time it took her to run two laps around the track also corresponded to the length of her Irish dance routines. She was used to focusing and giving a hard effort for that amount of time. But as Shannon developed as a runner, her ability to focus for longer periods of time improved and she evolved into what I consider a natural miler. At this distance she had time to strategize and her finishing speed was an even greater asset. After weeks of playing coy with everyone about what event she would run at the state meet, Shannon announced she would not defend her state title in the 800 but instead try for the state title at 1600 meters. In her last race in the SHC Fightin’ Irish uniform, she won the 1600 state championship.
Now that my time to coach Shannon is over, I can look back on the things that transpired. I don’t know if I had a grand plan for this extraordinary athlete. I think it was really about some basic training ideas, and about providing a great high school sports experience. Those are things that apply to everyone on the team, not just Shannon. I am proud that I made the sport of running fun for her and I hope that she continues running for many many years. Each season I increased her training load but with the idea that I didn’t want to burn her out. It is possible that over-training was never a threat because of SHC’s physical location in San Francisco. The school has no home track to train on and running near school consists of dodging cars and trying to make green lights on Franklin and Gough Streets. There weren’t a lot of bumps in the road for her but when she did have a disappointing race or workout we always sought something positive from it and made sure we learned from the experience.
At SHC, Shannon averaged about 25-30 miles per week with a high of 40, her longest run ever is 12 miles and she is used to no more than 2 interval sessions a week. Duke is getting a very balanced person who is not obsessed with running. They’re getting someone blessed with great running ability and perhaps even greater racing skills. They’re getting the girl that made my dreams of coaching a State Champion come true.
Thank you, Shannon.