I competed for the United States in the 1500-meter Track and Field event at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. As an Olympian and professional athlete who trains on public lands, I am deeply concerned about the movement to privatize or transfer the priceless asset of our American lands. My attachment to Americas open spaces has shaped who I am, not just as an athlete but as a human and citizen. The efforts to discard our lands, including those taking place here in Utah, would result in a catastrophic loss for public access and our shared American heritage.
As a child, my parents didn't have a lot of money, so my earliest vacations were camping in the Sierra Nevadas. Travel and exploration have always been something that my family loved to do, and it began at the national parks. It was an opportunity to get away from the distractions of daily life and connect with the people I cared about.
Since I’ve been exposed to public lands, I have made it a habit to spend time outdoors. My year is filled with running in the summers, and I do all my altitude camps in stunning mountain regions like Lake Tahoe, Park City and Colorado Springs. We have the privilege to train in these areas that are surrounded by protected nature. Not many other countries in the world enjoy the same public freedom to recreate on protected lands that belong to all of us.
It’s amazing to discover just how many places, in every state and region, have public lands that are here for us to explore. And for me it’s more than just places to train — it’s healing. When I'm in a new town on our training circuit for example, one of the first things I do is go to the tourist information booth and get a map of the trails and try to figure out how I can explore as many of them as possible. Whenever I find a trail that surrounds me in nature, I am so appreciative of open space.
Trail running is my meditation. I'm an athlete. I'm not good at sitting still, but for me, when I can be outside in these national parks, when I can be outside and discovering nature, I find a deep sense of calm.
Having this ability to go on a trail run in so many different places is simply one of the greatest gifts we have in our country. I just come out of those runs feeling recharged. It’s why I avoid the treadmill and indoor training as much as possible. It’s shaped me as an athlete. I am able to tap into that memory of inner peace I nurture for the outdoors at the highest level of competition.
As I’ve traveled around the world as an athlete, my attachment to and respect for public lands in my own home country has grown. The United States is young in comparison to countries in Europe and other parts of the world, but we have something greater than architectural history. We have this dramatic natural beauty and a system of protected lands that ensures future generations will be able to appreciate these places.
I can’t help but reflect upon what public lands mean to me, how they shaped me as an athlete, and how I feel the need to speak out against efforts to privatize or transfer our national public lands.
Proximity to nature and open space is what I base my life around and where I choose to live. It’s everything.
These places are sacred and should not be jeopardized for short-term profit. These rivers and meadows and trails and mountains have been set aside for future generations, and it would be a crime to rob young Americans of the experiences that we've benefitted from so much.
Shannon Rowbury is a distance runner from San Francisco who trains in Utah and competed in the 2016 Olympic Games.