From SHCP to Beijing: The Makings of an Olympic Athlete
CATHEDRAL HILL, SAN FRANCISCO Former Fightin’ Irish stand-out athlete at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) and recent inductee into the San Francisco Hall of Fame, Shannon Rowbury ’02 qualified for the 2008 Olympic Track and Field Team by winning the Olympic Trials 1500 meters on Sunday, July 6, in 4 minutes, 5.48 seconds.
This victory is just the latest in what has been a year of terrific racing. Rowbury has gone from ‘off-the radar’ to a USA Indoor National title, followed by achieving a time (4:01.61) that ranks her as the fifth fastest American woman for 1500 meter in history. And now, she’s on to the Summer Games in Beijing.
“The last two months have been just amazing,” says Andy Chan, her high school coach at SHCP. “I feel blessed that Shannon and I crossed paths back in 1998 and developed a great athlete-coach relationship. What Shannon accomplished in high school was enough to make any coach proud. But the fact that she has continued to achieve even greater things is just off the charts.”
Coach Chan, who attended the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon to cheer on Rowbury admits that he was quite nervous the day of the race. “I’ve had July 6 circled on my calendar for a long time. My wife, Malinda Walker, and I got married last summer but didn’t take a honeymoon. We were saving money and vacation time to take a big international trip if Shannon were to qualify. Then we realized we couldn’t just pick-up and go to China for the Olympics at the last minute. It would take time to get a visa, to figure out our travel plans, and to get Olympic tickets. So we pulled the trigger in January of this year and committed to traveling to Beijing for the Summer Games. I guess it all worked out.” Coach Chan’s feelings were expressed on a sign he held up after the race:
Hotel in Beijing – 10,875 Yen
Tickets to the Olympic Track Meet – $520
WATCHING THE KID YOU COACHED IN HIGH SCHOOL RUN IN THE OLYMPICS – PRICELESS
While many may be surprised by this 23-year olds’ rapid accent, we at SHCP are proud and excited to witness such success from an alumnus of our school. In August, Beijing and the world will get to see this athlete who we were lucky enough to know up close and personal for her four years (1998-2002) of high school.
When Rowbury entered SHCP as a freshman, she had no previous running experience. She had broken her leg in kindergarten and had taken up dancing to strengthen her leg. She started off with ballet but switched to Irish Step Dancing, which she became quite accomplished in. “I still remember her first day of school,” recalls SHCP Athletic Director and PE teacher Jo Ann Momono, “She told me she was planning on trying out for soccer and asked me if she should try-out for cross country.” Fortunately, Momono directed Rowbury to Coach Chan, the school’s then first-year head coach.
Her first training runs were nothing out of the ordinary and Coach Chan was pleasantly surprised when Rowbury’s first race was a 14:22 for second place in a 2-mile junior varsity girl’s race. She kept improving and eventually moved up from junior varsity to varsity, won the league championship, and helped the team qualify for the California state meet for the first time in school history.
During her freshman year of track, Coach Chan raced her at all different distances (800, 1600, 3200, and 4X400). “I changed my mind almost weekly as to what her best event was,” said Chan, “In the end, we decided to have her focus on the 800 because the time it would take her to run the 800 was about the same length of time as an Irish Dance routine.” In May of 1999, Rowbury emerged on the Central Coast Section (CCS) scene, winning the section championship in the 800 with a :05 PR of 2:13.30. It was the first of many tactically sound races. 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 this relatively unknown athlete surged to the lead on her way to what would be the first of four consecutive section championships at 800 meters.
Rowbury continued to develop as a runner, improving her PR’s every season. After her sophomore year, she gave up Irish Dancing (she never did play soccer at SHCP) to be able to focus more on running. She attended the United States of America Track & Field (USATF) Junior Elite Camp twice, where she met other junior athletes and received tips from high level coaches like Tom Heinonen (then the University of Oregon coach) and Patrick Shane (BYU coach). Among the people she met at these camps were would-be future peers including: Clara (Horowitz) Peterson, Alice Schmidt, and Sara (Gorton) Slattery. One of the messages the college coaches gave all the young ladies at this camp was “to see themselves as elite.”
Rowbury took that message to heart and during her junior year, she moved from being a section-level athlete to a state and national-level prep runner. In cross country, she ran 17:52 on a 5K course, to place second at the state meet. Then in April 2001, Rowbury made a name for herself by winning the 800 meters 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 (2:08.52). She would go on to finish the season undefeated at 800 meters, winning the California State Meet and the Adidas National Outdoor Championships.
Rowbury’s senior year included national level marks in three events, the 800-2:08, 1600-4:51, and 3000-9:38. After weeks of thinking about it, Rowbury decided not to defend her state title in the 800 and instead would move up to the 1600. “As Shannon developed as a runner, her ability to focus for longer periods of time improved, and she evolved into what I considered a natural miler,” said Chan, “At that distance she had time to strategize, and her finishing speed was an even greater asset.” In her final high school race, Rowbury would win the 1600 meters at the California state meet.
Rowbury was certainly more than just an athlete at SHCP. Richard Sansoe, her AP U.S. History teachers recalls, “She was always determined, and focused. She handled the class as well as she performed as an athlete.” Her grades were so good that her French teacher, Don Moe recalls, “She did not miss, was never even late on, a single homework assignment all year. She had a B on one quiz during second quarter. Every other grade all year was an A or A-.” Dr. Ken Hogarty, now the Principal of SHCP, worked with Rowbury in the DePaul Scholar program. “Shannon, was an excellent writer who loved literature,” says Hogarty. In junior English honors class she, “interacted wonderfully with her classmates, and wrote thought-provoking essays about the literature. Additionally, she showed excellent creativity, composing her own poems and stories.” With the academic background and encouragement provided by the teachers at SHCP, it was no wonder she would go on to graduate Magnum Cum Laude in English and Theater Studies, earn a Certificate in Film/Video/Digital Studies, and a Masters in Humanities with a Film Studies and Women Studies emphasis from Duke University.
Shannon’s mother, Paula Rowbury, recalls being approached by different people during Shannon’s high school career wanting to know why Shannon chose SHCP. “One of the people that I talked to believed that any coach could have molded Shannon into the athlete that she has become,” says Paula, “I adamantly pointed out how wrong she was. I knew that it took a selfless coach, a person of character, to work patiently in developing an athlete’s talents. Andy’s main focus was on helping her develop a love and passion for her sport.”
Chan, who just finished his 10th season as the head track & field and cross country coach at SHCP, still maintains a close friendship with Rowbury. “Fate brought us to SHCP at the same time, so we started our journey together in 1998,” says Rowbury, “I was new to running and he was new to being a head coach.” Looking back, Rowbury says, “I was very fortunate with my high school experience. Andy recognized that I might have a future in running, and he made sure to think of my development in the long term. He was conservative in my training, taught me the value of recovery, and above all made sure running was fun. While I may not have as many records as a result, I feel I owe a lot to Andy for creating in me a healthy and positive outlook towards running.”
“Shannon was incredibly coachable,” says Chan, “She asked lots of questions, and we always had detailed race plans. Her strength was her ability to find the finish line. Numerous times she found a way to kick just enough to pass a runner in the final meters of the race.”
“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.”
As Rowbury went through high school, the goals kept changing to bigger things but her training stayed more or less the same. She averaged 25-30 miles a week. An interesting note about Rowbury’s high school training is that she had all this success at a school that has no track facility or nearby place to run (SHCP is located in the heart of San Francisco, less than a mile from downtown and City Hall).
For two years, the common question around SHCP has been, ‘Is Shannon Rowbury going to make the Olympics?’ “I can’t tell you how many times I was asked that question,” says Chan. Now, amazingly, the hot question around the SHCP community is “Can Shannon Rowbury win a medal at the Olympics?” Only time will tell, but we members of the SHCP community will be following the Olympic women’s 1500 meters (August 19, 21, and 23) very closely, rooting for Shannon! Go Shannon and Go Irish!