Shannon Woods leaves no room for excuses. She is a world-class athlete and internationally ranked rower. She is also a hardworking professional, wife, mother of three and a vegan who’s up before dawn seven days a week. Odds are she has put down her morning workout before you’ve had your morning coffee. However, she isn’t finished yet, and when you meet Shannon Woods, there is no doubt she is in the middle of a lifelong race.
Reflections magazine: How did your athletic journey begin?
Shannon Woods: I started swimming when I was 16. By the time I was 17 and a half, I had an Olympic trial cut. It happened because I was born with a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. What that means is my ligaments and tendons are very stretchy. The syndrome runs in my family and it’s really helpful in the water, but terrible on land. I was a breaststroker, and many top breaststrokers seem to have an element of this condition.
RM: Your background is in swimming. What is it that drew you to the sport in the first place?
SW: You know, swimming is very easy for me. It’s like sleeping. I get in the pool and I feel like I’m in a cocoon of warmth. The flow and the rhythm just feel so relaxing. It feels as easy as breathing or sleeping to me.
RM: You took up rowing as a mom with young kids.
What was that like?
SW: My husband has always had a flexible schedule and has always been really supportive. I got up at 4:00 a.m. every day. Still do. And I was on the water putting my boat in at 4:40 a.m. I am very regimented. I am very funny that way. I would get off the water at 6:30 a.m., and be home by 6:45 a.m. At that time, I would wake my kids up, so my kids never experienced Mom being away except when I had to go to the Olympic Training Center. And then Ray would just take time off work and take care of them. They were never in day care.
RM: What prompted you to start rowing?
SW: I fell into rowing because I learned my dad was a six-time national champion oarsman (UW in ’51 and ’52). He and my uncle Charley missed the Olympic team in 1948 by a bow ball (approximately one inch). My uncle felt like I could complete my dad’s Olympic dream, but that was not to be. Pursuing my dad’s sport was a beautiful, sentimental journey. In a sense, I explored his life through the art and symmetry of rowing after he died in 1992. I began rowing in 1993, after I stumbled onto his gold medals in my mom’s jewelry box. He had never discussed his rowing with me, even as I was moving up the ranks in swimming. It would have been a nice common thread, but my dad was quite humble and private about his athletic accomplishments.
RM: Can you describe your rowing journey up until now?
SW: I retired from swimming in 1985. I got married in ’85 also, and I had my kids in ’88, ’90, ’92. I started rowing very casually in ’93 when my youngest was 1 year old. In 1995, I was nationally ranked. So in ’96 I competed in the Olympic trials, and I was third in a single. I transitioned to indoor rowing and competed in the Indoor Rowing World Championships in ’97. I held the world record on the erg (rowing machine) in ’97 for lightweight women. I did a 7:05. Shortly after, I had to retire in ’98. The reason why I retired was because I started having a lot of rib fractures. It was really hard to train at that level and not be hurt all the time. We weren’t really cross training with cycling and stuff back then. I think that would’ve been really helpful. If you just row five or six hours a day, your rib cage just can’t manage that.
RM: Tell me about your most recent Indoor Rowing Championships.
SW: This last year I only trained on the erg for ten weeks before the championship. I don’t think I trained on it enough to get the German (Petra Schallenberger). She raced me and beat me by seven seconds. She always goes nearly 7:23 every year, so I trained to beat her at a 7:23, but she just went at a blistering pace and ended up going a 7:18. Once I knew I couldn’t beat her but the others couldn’t catch me, I rowed conservatively. But next year I hope to go 7:18. The world record in the next age group is 7:23 or 7:22, so I hope to really have a strong world record and be top ten in the world.
RM: I assume you are a very competitive person.
SW: I am very. I have to curtail it. And the way I do that is I channel my energy into working with kids and trying to help them improve their technique and then improve their speed. When they get better, it makes me feel good to see their improvement. I teach some private swim lessons at the Club.
RM: What would you say to those who find it difficult to be so disciplined?
SW: If you don’t get a consistent routine, your chances of success and sticking to a plan are really low. The only variants that I have in my schedule are that on Saturday and Sunday I get up at 5:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 a.m. I also struggle with seasonal affective disorder, and one of the things that is really helpful to me is training. The most important thing is getting to the gym and getting that good hard workout in. It drives my endorphins up, makes me feel good about myself, and sets the stage for my whole day. Then I’ll end up eating better, and it’s like a mushroom effect. That’s why I train seven days a week, just for the consistent feel-good. So instead of taking a day off, I do an active recovery day. But with swimming I never feel that way. I always feel really consistent. Swimming doesn’t really tear me down the way cycling and rowing does.
RM: You travel a lot for your job. Do you have tricks for staying in shape while traveling?
SW: I have gym apps on my phone. When planning, I not only look for my hotel to be strategically placed near hospitals for my business, but I also look for them to be close to the gym. I also look up where the Whole Foods and the co-ops are so that I can buy kale and hummus. I ask the produce guy to wash it, then I “strip it, roll it, dip it” in the parking lots.
RM: Do you have advice for young athletes?
SW: Yes. Train consistently and put in the time. When I swam, my dues were $25 a month, and I was offered 11 two-hour workouts a week. So 22 hours of water time a week. You can’t build a cardio base on little work. My advice to young athletes is to work on your cardiovascular base; it’s like putting money in the bank. You’re making deposits. You’re building your cardiovascular fitness base for a lifetime. And you’re always going to be able to tap that. That is why I was able to row well, because I had the tank in my chest from years of swimming. You know how to push yourself, how to restrict your breathing. Your body has to put in the miles; it just knows what to do.
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