First came the crutches. Then, the pool and the stationary bike. Finally, the elliptical.
This was how Shannon Rowbury rehabilitated from a stress fracture in her hip. She ran last September for the first time since April. On Thanksgiving, the 2007 Duke graduate placed second at the Seagate Elite 5K in her professional debut.
And then, just six months later, she shattered her personal best and left the global competition in the dust to become the odds-on favorite to represent the United States in the 1,500-meter at the Olympics. Her time of 4 minutes, 1.61 seconds at the adidas Track Classic May 18 clocked in as not only the fifth-best in U.S. history and the fastest American time in the last six years, but the fastest 1,500-meter time in the world in 2008.
Romania's Liliana Popescu ran a 4:00.35 May 24 to subsequently nab the top global time, but the title of "fastest female 1,500 runner in the world" was, at that point, not yet Rowbury's goal. After all, she was forced to overcome a crippling injury and wasn't supposed to be in this position.
"I didn't think of the bigger picture when I went into the race, I just focused on what I had to accomplish," said Rowbury, who shaved six seconds off her previous best to attain her time that day. "It was afterwards that it really kind of sank in. It was like, 'Wow, that goal was a pretty big one.' More than anything, it was just a big sigh of relief."
In order to be eligible for the Olympics, an athlete must break the Olympic time standard over the season-the "A" standard is 4:10 for the 1,500-as well as place in the top three during the official trials July 3-6. Rowbury's sole focus May 18 was to break the standard to position herself as a serious contender in the trials.
Her record-setting performance was just an added bonus.
And an especially impressive one given where she was this time last year: sidelined with a stress fracture in her hip that made Rowbury dependent on crutches and unable to run at all.
Rowbury had redshirted the entire 2006 season-her senior year at Duke-to prepare and train for 2007. Continuing her Duke education with a master's in humanities, she placed first and second in the NCAA indoor championships to start 2007. But a nagging pain in her hip was diagnosed as a stress fracture in April. It ended her fifth year and final outdoor season.
"Of course I was devastated at first, but having that diagnosis, I finally knew what I was dealing with," said Rowbury, who won All-American honors and broke Duke and national records in her Blue Devil career. "I made it my goal to do everything I could to get healthy, to fix whatever problems caused my injury in the first place and come back stronger than I was before. I never looked back."
Rowbury combined her own motivation with the support of coach John Cook and her teammates to stage an improbable comeback. Cook mentors athletes for Nike and trains the close-knit trio of Rowbury and former North Carolina runners Shalane Flanagan and Erin Donohue.
So began Rowbury's comprehensive rehabilitation process. Months of training later-at high altitudes in Mexico, with Cook in Sarasota, Fla. and at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.-Rowbury was back.
"Some of my biggest successes have been after my biggest failures or most upsetting moments," Rowbury said. "The stress fracture I had in the spring of '07 was heartbreaking for me, but at the same time, it made me much tougher and taught me what I was made with. I think it's important with something like that to find the silver lining in it and make a promise to yourself that you'll be better."
And Rowbury is a woman of her word.
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