Olympic runner Shannon Rowbury came to athletics through an odd combination of injury and culture: Her future kicked off early with shattered bones and her Irish grandmother.
“I broke my leg in kindergarten,” Rowbury said between workouts at a San Francisco track. “She decided to put me in dancing to strengthen my bones and I fell in love with Irish dancing.”
From the ages of six to 16, Rowbury’s mother curled her daughter’s hair, dressed her in an Irish folk costume, and turned her loose to contact her inner Riverdance. At one point, Rowbury was ranked seventh in the world in Irish dancing. By the time she retired at the ripe old age of 16, she had a room full of trophies.
But her dance career ended. And that left a cavernous void in her afterschool agenda. So the San Francisco native took a swipe at soccer at Sacred Heart High School.
Fortunately, the soccer career didn’t take.
“She was planning on playing soccer in the winter,” recalled Joann Momono, Rowbury’s former P.E. coach at Sacred Heart. “She asked me, 'Do you think I should go out for cross country in the fall?' And I said, 'Sure, it’s a great way to get in shape.' ”
Rowbury never crossed paths with a soccer ball again. With her first foray into cross country, a light had been lit, a course forged on dirt trails and tracks across the city’s urban core.
“I decided I would go to cross country practice and went and did the five mile run,” Rowbury said. “And I was like… this is nothing. Until I got home and couldn’t walk.”
The walls of the Sacred Heart’s gymnasium tell the tale of what happened next. Banners bearing her name trumpet several state championships she earned running. Even a decade after her graduation, former coaches and teachers still speak highly of the former track standout.
“To see somebody so wonderful have the success that she’s having is just awesome,” Momono said. “She deserves every bit of accolades she gets.”
And there have been plenty of accolades. After a successful college athletic career at Duke University, Rowbury qualified for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she came in 7th in the 1,500 meter race. It was the fastest time ever for an American woman at that distance.
Rowbury is now training for the London Olympics later this month where she hopes her path will finally lead to the podium. “Moving forward, I know what it’s going to be like out there,” she said. “Hopefully that will give me an advantage.”
Rowbury’s days are booked solid with a fitness regime that leaves little in the way of free time. Her thin, toned body is a testament to hours of running, carefully curated meals, weight training and finally, rewarding ice baths.
Perhaps not surprising, the Irish dancing of her youth is a frequent reference.
“It’s funny because I realized the length of an Irish dancing step was almost exactly the length of the eight hundred meters, which was my first event,” Rowbury said.
On a recent day, Rowbury ran through the paces of her workout routine on the athletic fields of St. Ignatius High School, the athletic nemesis of her alma mater, Sacred Heart. After a run, she worked through a list of prescribed exercises off a laminated chart.
Rowbury credits San Francisco as a nurturing home base for her athletic career. Its international flavor helps her to feel comfortable any place in the world, she said.
But ultimately, each stride she makes across the global frontier of competition leads ultimately back to her roots – and a wise Irish grandmother whose sage advice went a long way.