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Q&A: New 1,500m American record holder Shannon Rowbury

"I’m thrilled I got the American record in a race where I beat Jenny by a second over the last 100 meters. It makes it that much more meaningful that I was in a race with the other top American and was able to definitely beat her and set the record. I want to earn whatever I get."

On July 17, at the Monaco Diamond League meet, Shannon Rowbury of the U.S. found herself kicking down the final stretch of the women's 1,500-meter run well behind Ethiopia's Genzebe Dibaba, who was on her way to a stunning world record of 3:50.07. Swept along, Rowbury would finish third in 3:56.29, breaking Mary Slaney's U.S. record of 3:57.12, a mark that had stood for 32 years. SI caught up with the new American record holder before she heads off to Park City, Utah, and Japan for altitude training ahead of next month's world championships in Beijing. 

SI: Has the title of “American record holder” settled in just yet?

ROWBURY: It’s something I’ve had way back in my mind since 2008, when I ran 4:00 [4:00.33 at Paris] for the first time . I was like ‘Oh wow. Maybe the American record is something that I am capable of.’ Last year I saw Jenny Simpson come very close to achieving it in a race in Paris, where I ran sub-four for the first time. I was pleased, but I was still two seconds behind her. This year, I'm happy to be able to run not just an American record but to run 3:56 and get it by almost a full second was a bit of a shock, even though it’s been something I’ve dreamed of and have been working toward for so long. When it actually happens, it was such a surprising joy.

SI: How did you celebrate?

ROWBURY: My post-race consisted of trying to get approval from the drug testers to let me do a cool-down, jogging a bit, getting a flush in legs, going in for drug testing and enjoying the room service that my coach Pete Julian’s wife ordered for me before the kitchen closed. We all had room service together and then I went to bed. I didn’t get much of a celebration because I had to fly out to the U.S. the next day. Tonight is actually a little dinner with some of my [Nike Oregon Project] teammates.

SI: At what point do you switch the gears and focus on preparation for next month’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing?

ROWBURY: Right after the race, by getting in a good cool down and some treatment. It was odd because I was overjoyed by the race and how it turned out. Worlds is a month away and I’m very  faithful to trying to get back on the podium. I had a full travel day after the meet. I gave myself an easy Sunday. Once Monday hit, I was back to training and back to a regular routine.

SI: With the title of American record holder and several medals, is your career 100% fulfilled?

ROWBURY: If it all ended today, I would be thrilled with the way my career has been. I hope I have a couple more years ahead of me. I’d love to get back on the podium at a world championship. My biggest dream would be to come home as an Olympic medalist. Placing at the championships is something I’m working and striving towards. I do feel very grateful and blessed for everything I’ve accomplished thus far. A couple years ago, I think I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to check some goals off my list.

SI: You’ve been among the top U.S. 1,500-meter runners for several years now. Aside from staying healthy, what are some other keys to your consistency?

ROWBURY: Being in a training environment where I have people to train with and coaches to watch me on a daily basis to plan my training, help me understand what it means and translate it into racing has been great. Having a support staff that includes a weight coach, good physiologists, and a sports psychologist to work with us and that sense of support has been a big change. It’s a team effort to try and get me to achieve these big things. That takes a lot external stress of planning, organizing and travel off me, so I can focus on what I do best—that’s going out there and racing. 

SI: You were coached by John Cook for a while. Now you’re with Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. What’s been the biggest difference under Alberto that has allowed for you to take this step forward in your progression?

ROWBURY: Alberto and Pete Julian plan all the workouts between the two of them. We have a weights coach who coordinates with Alberto and Pete. We have our sports psych, who coordinates with them as well. It’s a very integrated system. I think that’s been beneficial for me. I’ve always had these different components but they weren’t all connected through the head coaches. I was at the center of that to figure everything out. Now I’ve got a group that works together to support me. I’m not having to be a coach and an athlete at the same time. 

SI: With everything that has gone on with Alberto over the last month, it appears things have calmed down. Has a sense of normalcy returned to training?

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ROWBURY: Yeah. All of the athletes are kind of all over the world. We have some in Portland and some in Europe racing. Usually in the fall and the winter, we get our regular training schedules and meet with each other all the time. With summer racing, everything has been back to normal. Which is very nice to not have as much noise to deal with and to focus solely on achieving my goals. For me now that I’ve made the team, I’m doing all that I can to represent my country and try to bring back a medal for it.

SI: Pete Julian has taken over a lot of the hands-on coaching at meets in Europe. What was your communication like with Alberto after the American record?

ROWBURY: Pete talked to Alberto as soon as the race was over. Alberto and I communicated a bit through text. We’re having a team dinner tonight so I’m going to see him there. Mostly for me, it was a sense of gratitude to be a part of a group that makes me feel so supported. It makes a challenging profession fun and has brought joy into it for me. Hopefully the feeling goes both ways and there’s more to life than just running.

SI: Back on the subject of Monaco, Jenny Simpson had some interesting comments about how the race played out. How would you characterize the competitive nature between you two? Rivalry is a strong word and Jenny was quick to say that you haven’t beaten her in years and so it has not been a back-and-forth contest. 

ROWBURY: We went back and forth in 2012. I made the Olympic final and placed sixth there and she didn’t even make the final. I beat her at the U.S. Championships in that year as well. In 2011, I was injured. In 2012, I performed better than her. In 2013, I did the 5K and she was placing well, and she medaled again. Last year, she ran faster than me. I don’t really count the Zurich final, because I feel that I was tripped there. 

To her credit, she’s run very well over the years but I’ve never thought of her in a category as better than me. I just understand the sport as being something with its ups and downs. I’ve been one of the top Americans since 2008 and I’m very proud of that consistency. I appreciate having other women to push me to being better. Having Jenny beat me by two seconds in Paris last year was a good reminder of how much work I needed to do and where I needed to be, if I want to be the best in the world. Growing up in California, to even make the state meet was a huge challenge because of great depths of talent. I like the challenge. 

I’m thrilled I got the American record in a race where I beat Jenny by a second over the last 100 meters. It makes it that much more meaningful that I was in a race with the other top American and was able to definitely beat her and set the record. I want to earn whatever I get.

SI: Among some of the other competitors whom you’ve faced are the two Turkish athletes who took gold and silver at the 2012 London Olympic 1,500-meter final. They’ve disappeared from competition since then and essentially run away with the medals. As a big advocate for a clean sport, how does their absence make you feel?

ROWBURY: That will always be something that frustrates me. It was hard for me emotionally after the 2012 Olympics to wrap my head around the fact that two of the women ahead of me had previously served drug bans and a third person had a highly questionable progression in that one year. It was hard for me to know I came in sixth and three of the people ahead of me, maybe should have not been there. At the end of the day, I have to accept the fact that I can’t control those aspects of the sport. The only thing I can control is my approach, which is to work as hard as I can in a clean and honorable way while accomplishing all that I can in those given parameters.

SI: The previous world record and several times by Chinese women in the 1,500-meter run are highly questionable. Does it feel right to have someone like GenzebeDibaba atop the all-time list with her new world record of 3:50.07?

ROWBURY: To be honest, I thought 3:50 was a time that no one would ever run. To see it with my own eyes was something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime. Once again, I just hope for the sport that we can eliminate as many of the people who are cheating and competing in an unfair way as possible. I hope that the people that are achieving things in the right way by working hard and fully committing themselves to a clean sport will be the ones accomplishing great things. 

SI: Is a little part of you relieved not to see her running the 1,500-meter race in Beijing next month for Ethiopia?

ROWBURY: I saw that report that she wasn’t selected, but at the end it said that maybe she would be selected. I’m reserving judgment until it gets a little closer to the championships. One way or the other, I can’t control what she does. I’ve seen people that no one thought would win championships, come out on top. When Jenny won in 2011, no one predicted her to be the world champion. I know how championship racing can be and you never know what can happen. I’m focused on preparing for the rounds, a good finish and whatever might happen. My preparation remains the same, whether she’s in the race or not.

SI: Has Monaco stirred up some medal hopes again?

ROWBURY: I think the medal hopes have been there for some time. Last year, I felt I should’ve won in Zurich and I felt I was performing well in the Diamond League races. That was really motivating to me. Coming into this year, the goal all along has been to do what I need to, so I have a shot at medaling. The great thing coming out of Monaco is that I feel that much more confident. Seeing how much my fitness has progressed gives me the confidence that I have the ability to race with the best in the world. That’s what it will take to get on the medal podium.