It was 31 years, 11 months, 21 days between July 26, 1983 and July 17, 2015.
That’s how long Mary Decker Slaney’s time of 3:57.12 stood as the American record.
Shannon Rowbury, who would be the one to better that record, more than 31 years later, was born nearly 14 months AFTER Decker set that mark.
First, let’s go back to July 26, 1983. Decker (then known just as Mary Decker) was just a week shy of her 25th birthday. At the time, she was the queen of USA track and field. In 1982 she won the Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the US. In 1983 she was the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year and the recipient of the Jesse Owens Award, which is USA Track & Field’s highest honor. At one point in the mid-1980’s she held every American record from 800 meters to 10,000 meters.
July 26, 1983 was day one of a two-day dual meet between the US and a Scandinavian All-Star team. It was a tune-up meet for athletes in preparation for the inaugural Track & Field World Championships that would take place in Helsinki, Finland in August 1983. At those World Championships, Decker won gold in both the 1500 and 3000 meters, a feat that would become known as the “Decker Double” and the reason she won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award that year.
Decker was looking to improve on her own American record of 3:59.43 which she had run in Zurich, Switzerland on August 13, 1980.
There is not a lot of information on Decker’s 1500 meter race but thanks to Mike Fanelli and the extensive track & field archives and memorabilia stored in his garage, I was able to see a newspaper clipping about the race.
She went to the front of the race immediately and came through the first 400 in 62.2. Her 800 meter split of 2:07.0 was still more than one second under American record pace. At 1200 meters her split was 3:08.50, which meant she needed to run the final 300 meters in 50.9 seconds to get the record. Decker kicked and ran the final 300 in 48.7 seconds to establish a new American record of 3:57.12. That time that would stand for more than 31 years. In addition, it still stands as the stadium record at the historic Stockholm Olympic Stadium.
Now we fast forward to July 17, 2015. The place is Monaco. The women’s 1500 meters was paced/rabbited by Chanelle Price to set-up a World record attempt by Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba.
Price led the first lap in 60.31 seconds. Dibaba came through right behind her, followed by Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, a second pace maker (Tamara Tverdostup of the Ukraine), and then the Americans, Jenny Simpson and Shannon in fifth and sixth place. Shannon’s estimated first 400 was 61.7.
At 800 meters it was Price in 2:04.52, followed closely by Dibaba and Hassan. Tverdostup led Simpson and Shannon through the 800 in approximately 2:06. At this point, both pace setters dropped out.
Dibaba surged and Hassan stayed with her. The two of them opened up about a 2.5-3.0 second lead over Simpson and Shannon in third and fourth place. With 400 meters to go Dibaba was at 2:50.28 and needed a 60 second last lap for the World Record. It’s difficult to see on the video because they are not on the screen but I estimate that Simpson and Rowbury were around 2:55 at 1100 meters and needed a 61 second last lap for the American record.
At 1200 meters, Dibaba was at 3:04.61. Again, Shannon is not on the screen when she crosses the 1200 meter mark but I estimate that she came through in the 3:09-3:10 range.
Dibaba ran an incredible race and, cheered on by the crowd, ran the last lap all alone to set a new World record. Her time of 3:50.07 bettered China’s Qu Yunxia’s 3:50.46 from 1993). Hassan fell back a lot in the last lap and Simpson and Shannon were gaining on her. With 100 meters to go, Shannon shifted gears and went by Simpson, putting one second on Simpson in that last 100 and almost catching Hassan (who herself was running a Netherlands national record of 3:56.05). Shannon crossed the finish third in 3:56.29, with Simpson fourth in 3:57.30 (the second fastest time in her career).
Every since Shannon ran 4:00.33 in Paris in her first season as a professional runner in 2008, I knew that setting the American record in the 1500 was not out of the realm of possibility. Over the years, every now and then, I have given in to the temptation and thought about how proud I would feel if she ever broke the American record in the 1500. But on July 17, 2015, I was not thinking about records. I was looking for signs that Shannon was taking a step towards peaking for the World Championships next month in Beijing.
Instead, we were all treated to a race for the ages. In a matter of seconds a 21 year old World record went down and then the oldest American record in the books, 31 years, 11 months, and 26 days, became history! Congratulations, Shannon!
|Mary Decker||Shannon Rowbury|
Breaking through barriers, both literally and figuratively, is an important part of life. My friend Mark Hermano teaches a lesson in his physics class where students literally break through a wood board with their hand. The lesson includes the physics of actually breaking a board with your hand and also the life lesson of how sometimes you can do more than you think and the importance of breaking through figurative barriers. The keys to this are focusing, planning, putting energy into it, following through, and believing. Click on this hyperlink for a video of Mark’s full explanation of the exercise.
For runners, breaking barriers usually involve beating a certain time. Usually, but not always, it’s a time with a zero in it. For example, 5:00 in the mile or 1:30:00 in the half marathon.
For Shannon Rowbury, breaking through the four minute barrier in the 1500 has been a goal of hers since she ran 4:00.33 at the Paris meet in 2008. From 2010 until this past weekend, Shannon had PR’s in the 800, 1500, and 5000 that are remarkably close to time barriers – 2:00.47, 4:00.33, and 15:00.51. That’s a total of 1.34 seconds away from three major barriers — sub-2 in the 800, sub-4 in the 1500, and sub-15 in the 5000.
In the spring of 2012, Mark did the wood breaking exercise with me, Malinda, Shannon, and Pablo (Shannon’s fiancé). It was an opportunity to get together for dinner and have an activity that also related to the mental side of running. Part of Mark’s exercise is that you write a barrier that you want to break through on the piece of wood. Shannon wrote “:00” on her piece of wood, indicating her desire to break through the 2:00, 4:00, and 15:00 barriers. It took some time, some good coaching, and some perseverance but by the end of the evening, Shannon broke through her piece of wood.
Two years after breaking through that board, Shannon took care of breaking the 4:00 barrier in the 1500 at the 2014 Paris meet. Malinda and I watched the race on our computer and Shannon seemed to be perfectly positioned and paced it very well for a shot at breaking four minutes. There were a couple bumps with other runners but Shannon stayed on her feet and the chase was still on. As Shannon raced down the final straightaway, I counted the time off in my head – 3:56, 3:57, 3:58, 3:59, 4:00. The clock stopped for the winner at 3:57 so we would have to wait for the results to flash up on the screen. I knew it was either 3:59 or a real low 4:00. But which was it? It seemed to take forever as the broadcast shifted to the high jump to cover a Blanka Vlasic attempt. Then finally the results popped on the screen. 3:59.49! The barrier was broken. Shannon later told me that, “good things come to those who wait” and they sure did on this day.
Shannon breaking 4:00 for the 1500 got me thinking about her first sub-5 in the 1600 when she was in high school. I must admit I had to dig around to find it. It was March 16, 2001 at the Piedmont Distance Carnival. Shannon ran a negative split race: 78, 77 (2:35), 74 (3:49), 67 (4:56). Really pretty amazing that she went 2:35 for her first 800 and 2:21 for her final 800 including a blistering 67 for her last lap. All this as a high school junior. She needed every second that last lap as she narrowly beat her future Duke teammate Clara Horowitz, 4:56.7 to 4:58.7.
Looking at the results from the above hyperlink, the fifth place finisher in the Boys 1600 was a senior from De La Salle who dabbled in both track & field and soccer. I believe he had a high school PR of 4:15 but chose to focus on soccer after high school. It’s worked out for him pretty well. You may know the name. He plays for the San Jose Earthquakes and played in the World Cup this summer. He’s the one who had the ball on his foot just yards from the goal late in regulation time in the Belgium game and just couldn’t quite convert. He is Chris Wondolowski.
Advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals. Now that would have been a barrier breaker for the US Men’s team! Be patient, USA, good things come to those who wait.
Shannon Rowbury ’02 has burst on the national and international track & field scene. Her time for the 1500 meters has improved from 4:12.31 to 4:01.61, making her the fifth fastest American woman in history. While many may be surprised by this 23-year old’s rapid accent, we at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (SHCP) are proud and excited to witness such success from an alumnus of our school . The world is getting a first glimpse at an athlete 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 the school’s then first-year coach, Andy Chan.
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. Then in April 2001, Rowbury made a name for herself 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 (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 championships.
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).
A common question around SHCP is, “Is Shannon Rowbury going to make the Olympics?” Well, no one knows the answer to that, but Chan believes so strongly in Rowbury that he and his wife Malinda Walker have already made plans on being in Bejing to cheer her on. Says Chan, “I know that Shannon is leaving no stone unturned in her preparations for the Olympic Trials in Eugene in July. The 1500 meters is 3 and three quarters laps around the track. I believe that with one lap to go in the race, Shannon will be one of four or five women with a chance to place in the top 3 and thus qualify for the Olympics. At that point, it will all come down to the next 60 or so seconds.” The SHCP community will be cheering hard those 60 or so seconds, hoping one of our own can make the 2008 Olympic team.