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Shawn Forrest: Living The Dream

Forrest finished strong in his professional debut this past weekend. Photo:
Forrest finishing strong in his professional debut. Photo:

Australian impresses in his professional road racing debut.

Written by: Chris Lotsbom
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

With a smile as big as the Atlantic Ocean, Shawn Forrest proves that dreams can come true. On Saturday at the TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Forrest finished sixth in 28:16.3–his professional road racing debut.  Not only did he finish near the front, the 27-year-old was in the lead pack for more than half of the race, the only non-African able to handle the pace.

“I was simply just having fun,” said the six-foot Australian.

Forrest had traveled a long road before his good showing this past weekend.  It all started with a dream.  When he was thirteen, in his first year at Vermont Secondary School in Victoria, Forrest discovered running as a way to escape.

“We [students] got the day off from school for a track meet,” recalled Forrest slyly.

Running the 1,500 meters, Forrest ended up making the state track final.  Without much training, he set the state record while running in basketball shoes.  After all, basketball was his first sport.

“A kid in my school two years ahead said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good, you should train.’  So I said, ‘ya, I like being out of school, it was fun. Why not?'”

After talking to the track coach at his high school, Forrest began to run instead of play basketball, and hasn’t stopped since.

At that point, Forrest, still 13, began to rise as a junior athlete, making a name for himself.  In high school, the Melbourne native ran times of 3:48.0 in the 1,500 meters, 8:07.50 in the 3,000 meters and 13:57.74  in the 5,000 meters–winning state titles in the 1,500 and 3,000.

As the 2000 Sydney Olympics came around, Forrest was one of the best juniors in his native Australia.  Idolizing Olympians Craig Mottram and Lee Troop, as well as other local athletes he competed against, Forrest was inspired.  At the age of 17, he was given the opportunity to be a basket carrier at the Olympics, seeing his heroes up close and in person.

“We would have fun, and be like ‘Aw what basket do you want? And I really wanted [Haile] Gebrselassie’s basket,” Forrest recalled. “So I got to carry his basket for the 10,000 final.  That experience, seeing the athletes, that’s when I knew this was what I wanted to do, to run.”

Of course, that was the classic duel between Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, the closest 10,000-meter final in Olympic history.  Both former world record holders, Gebrselassie and Tergat battled back and forth, with Geb ultimately taking the gold in 27:18.20 to Tergat’s 27:18.29.

Engergized by his Olympic exposure, Forrest began training like a man determined to be the best.

“It took me a while as a junior,” Forrest said. “In Austrailia, a small country, unless your the very best, it’s very tough to make it.”

Working part-time in a food court and not attending school, Forrest was solely focused on running as a career.  Despite his successes, his dreams of making it big seemed to be getting bleaker and bleaker.  He felt his career was stalled.

That’s when Forrest found out about attending college in America and competing in the NCAA.  Along came a scholarship offer to attend the University of Arkansas, where he could run under the eye of legendary coach John McDonnell, while continuing his education and obtaining a degree.

“He gave me four years to continue running,” said Forrest. “Coming to college, it’s a big change.  The first three years were really adapting and just getting used to it. It made me grow into running.”

After redshirting in 2007 due to an achilles injury, Forrest began to shine.  At the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Campionships, he was the runner-up behind Texas A&M Corpus-Christi’s Shadrack Songok by less than a second in the 10,000 meters, clocking 28:47.08 to earn his first All-America honor.

His success continued in 2009, where he won the Stanford Invitational 5,000 in a personal best 13:28.81, and the SEC title in the same event.  But his most memorable race was the NCAA Outdoor National Championship 10,000-meter final, where Forrest gave the University of Oregon’s Galen Rupp a legitimate scare.  Forrest was the only competitor to stay with the highy-favored Rupp through the final mile.  Ultimately, Rupp’s second-to-last lap of 58.01 seconds was enough to shake Forrest, but he proved he had what it took to challenge anyone.

Since that race, Forrest has graduated with a degree in kinesiology and now continues to pursue his dream.  Coming off of a stress fracture in his hip, Forrest said he is now ready to roll.  Coached by Nick Bideau and training with recent Wisconsin graduate Jack Bolas, Forrest is hitting the roads, having the most fun he ever has had.

“The roads are fun. There’s no pressure, and no running around in circles,” Forrest said.  “I loved to run on the roads when I was younger, and when you’re in college it’s something you don’t get to do.  Every week, you’re running with Kenyans, and it’s just fun to keep up with them.”

That’s just what Forrest did on Saturday, catching the attention of Joan Samuelson, the race founder and Olympic gold medalist.

“I went in thinking just go in and have some fun,” Forrest said. “I like being in the front, and I tried to stay with them as long as possible.”

Up next for Forrest will be the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, and while he hopes to try a marathon down the road, he will still hit the track as often as possible.

“I am just trying to stay healthy and make [world] teams for my country,” he said. “I just love running.”

With a smile still on his face, Forrest repeats, “I just love running.  It’s a dream. Sport is fun, and that’s what it’s supposed to be.”