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Meet Anna Shields, fastest woman in Pittsburgh

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Anna Shields. - POINT PARK UNIVERSITY

There she was. In full uniform, speeding ahead of the competition from the start, maintaining a strong lead, willing herself through the finish line and being crowned victorious. But then Anna Shields woke up, wiping a mixture of sweat and tears from her face as her eyes sprung open in her bed.

The nightmare, she said, was one that she had often. But it was one that she had to shake off and push to the darkest pits of her mind so she could work her day job at a bank in Torrington, Conn.

Though it was maybe a nightmare back then, it's a dream now that's become a positive reality for the 27-year-old Shields, the most decorated athlete in Point Park University’s history after capturing her fifth national championship in track and field to go with the nine-time title of All-American.

It’s a reality that she said she honestly didn’t know if she would achieve before becoming "the fastest woman in Pittsburgh." 

'NOTHING ABOUT IT WAS EASY'

Running came naturally to Shields from the time she was in middle school, she said. By the end of her junior year at Lewis Mills High School, she had won 16 state championships and was the fastest indoor 5,000-meter runner in the country. To boot, her mile was the fourth-fastest in the nation.

With a National Letter of Intent signed to run at the University of North Carolina, Shields’ future seemed certain. But then her senior year happened. Her times dropped. Her confidence dropped even further. A nagging sprained ankle and an iron deficiency kept her confidence from resurfacing to the level it was when she was blowing other girls off the track in New England.

To this day, she said she can’t put her finger on exactly what happened, but she could identify bits and pieces of it.

“I wasn't really eating well to fuel myself,” Shields said. “And when you’re deficient in iron, your body just can't carry the oxygen to your cells that you need. That makes a huge difference, especially when you’re a runner.”

She never made it to North Carolina. Instead, she opted to run at Central Connecticut State University. But, still, she wasn’t the same runner she had been.

“I definitely struggled through my year of running there. I was improving a little bit and I was getting a little better, but I still wasn't anywhere near my high school time,” Shields said. “When I went into college, I gained weight. And I thought if I lost weight I would improve, but I didn’t.”

Doubt took over.

“Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” she recalled thinking at the time. “That was very frustrating because part of what really motivated me as a runner was the chance to improve. So, I had a talk with my coach and he said maybe this was making me miserable and maybe I needed a break.”

Doubt had won. Shields left Central Connecticut after just one season and went back home and took the bank job. Running didn’t serve much purpose for her anymore.

“Nothing about it was easy,” she said of the decision to stop running competitively. “I just thought that I couldn't do it. But I still wanted it. I pretended that it was OK that it didn't work out.”

That’s when she started having the dreams of seeing herself in a track uniform, outlasting the competition, doing what she loved to do. But the truth of the matter was, she had wiped that dream out of her mind. So much so that she didn’t even own a pair of running shoes anymore. The only time she ran was when she would take a quick jog after work, in her “loafers and slacks,” she said.

Competitive racing was done for Shields. It was time to move on.

'WELL, I CAN STILL GO ON RUNS'

It’s funny, Shields said, how your competitive spirit never really dies. It can be suppressed, sure, but something simple can conjure it back to existence.

For Shields, it was a step challenge at her office.

“At first it was just a way to win a competition,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, well, I can still go on runs and I should be able to beat everyone.”

Then it began to click.

“I was just surprised how good it felt to go on a run with running shoes and going out for six miles again,” she said. “I felt good.”

Not long after, she found herself at a local high school track meet, watching the high school girls run the mile. The girl who won, she said, “ran something like a 5:40.”

“I went on the track right after it was over and timed myself,” she said. “I had to beat a 5:40.”

She did. The competitive fire was back.

The spark of confidence led Shields to running road races. In her second half marathon, she won and took five minutes off her previous time.

“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “In my head at the time, I thought, maybe I can try to train for the marathon and maybe make Olympic trials.”

She wasn’t thinking about running collegiately, she said. But her old high school coach saw her improvements and told her to check out the NAIA. In the NCAA, she found out, her clock for eligibility was continuous and had run out. But in the NAIA, she only lost eligibility for the time she spent in college. Shields had three years left to run, so she searched for an NAIA school.

And she found Point Park, the closest one to Torrington.

'HE MADE ME BELIEVE IN IT, TOO'

When Kelly Parsley checked a voice message left on his phone prior to the 2016 season from a number that he didn't recognize, he didn't have any expectations. The Pioneers' track and field and cross country coach listened, but he couldn't make out the entirety of the soft-spoken message on the other end. He missed who the voice said they were, but what followed, he heard loud and clear.

"She left me the time she ran in high school," Parsley said. 

It was Shields, explaining that her times from high school were good enough to be nationally ranked in the 1,000-meter, the mile, the 1,600-meter, the 2 mile, the 3,200-meter and the 5,000-meter.

Parsley was caught off guard.

"I was very impressed," he said, looking back on the ordeal. "I was surprised an athlete of that caliber would be interested in joining a program that at that time was only a (2-year-old) program."

He called Shields back — immediately.

What happened next sealed the deal for both Shields and Parsley.

Despite being out of collegiate athletics for nearly six years, neither Shields nor Parsley had a doubt that she would have success at Point Park. It had little to do with her high school times. It didn't have anything to do with her national rankings. It had everything to do with a shared confidence.

"He got on board with it right away and said, 'I totally support that and think you can be great,'" Shields said of the initial phone call and conversation about her running competitively in distance events for the Pioneers. "He wasn't skeptical and didn't have any doubts that I could do it again. The fact that he was so excited about it, I wanted to work with him. He made me believe in it, too."

When he hung up the phone, Parsley said he knew that he had someone special en route to Pittsburgh.

"It wasn’t just her talent, it was her love for the sport, her belief in me as a coach," he said. "I knew that we connected not just on a coach-athlete level, but on a personal level."

'I'VE ALWAYS BEEN THE FRONT-RUNNING TYPE' 

Since returning to the collegiate ranks, there's been no more doubt in Shields' mind when it comes to running, she said.

It didn't matter that she's almost 10 years older than the incoming freshmen around the NAIA. It didn't matter that she hadn't run a college race in six years. All that mattered was that she was back on the track and that she was part of a team again.

"Anna is a leader by example," Parsley said. "Most days, she trains with our men. She doesn’t seem any older in most ways than the athletes on my team. She values the team and is enjoying the team experience."

Leading by example typically put Shields in the forefront of the conversation, which makes sense because that's exactly how she is on the track, too.

"I've always been a front-running type who goes to the lead and tries to hang on and tries to throw down the best time, but sometimes I get caught at the end because I don't hold anything back," she said. 

It's rare now, though, that anyone will catch Shields from behind. The reigning title of "fastest woman in Pittsburgh," given to her by Parsley, has stood true the last two seasons. Over that time, Shields has won national titles in the 800-meter (2:04.75) and the 1,500-meter (4:14.38 in 2018, an NAIA championship record, and 4:22.35 in 2017) in outdoor track and the 1,000-meter (2:46.22) and the mile (4:37.30) during indoor season.

If you were to take her times during those national title races and compare it to the rest of the female collegiate runners in the city, no one would come close.

Pitt's Miranda Salvo would have lost to Shields by almost 5 seconds in the 800, by 7.30 seconds in the 1,500 and just over 8.30 in the mile, given her best times this past season. Carnegie Mellon's Sarah Cook would have put up a fight in the 800, but she still would have fallen short by just over 2 seconds. No other school in Pittsburgh produced anyone remotely close.

The distinctive title, Parsley said, will be difficult to take from Shields. He's not seen anyone like her.

"No, I haven't," Parsley said when asked if he had ever coached anyone as fast as Shields.

He followed it with: "And I may never again."

'SHE LIVES IT COMPLETELY'

"It is difficult to put into words what she has accomplished, and I still believe her best days are ahead of her," Parsley said of Shields. "Her work ethic is unparalleled. She understands that running is not just a sport; it is a lifestyle, and she lives it completely."

It wasn't always that way, though, Shields admitted.

During her high school years, Shields struggled with nagging injuries and anemia. That, she said, was almost self-inflicted. She didn't know she needed to be paying attention to that kind of thing.

"I think it's common (in high school), and it can even be common on the college level," she said of pushing nutrition to the back burner. "Professionals have their own nutritionists and more resources, whereas school athletes don't always have that and it can be frustrating."

"I know now about how much protein you need and things like that with vitamins and nutrients you need to recover from workouts," she added. "That's a big focus of my training. That's made a huge difference."

College, too, has taught her to be more self-aware about injuries.

"I never used massage rollers or anything," she said. "Now I use them all the time."

The biggest thing, though, is realizing that it's OK to rest.

"I never used to take a day off," Shields said. "Now, a day off can help eliminate a little pain. I've realized that it's worth it to do that every once in a while. I know my body really well now."

Going back to school has also allowed Shields to let her personality shine. So much so that when she left her job at the bank back home to join the Pioneers, she decided to dye her hair different colors whenever she felt like it. She didn't like being stifled in the office, she said.

Shields said her easy-going mentality has kept her loose and has allowed her to really enjoy what she's been able to do on the track.

'RUNNING IS A PART OF MY SOUL'

Legacy isn't a word Shields is ready to talk about. Goals? Sure.

Goals have to continue to grow, she said. Even though she didn't expect the type of success she's had so far, she admitted she plans to push herself to do even better during her senior season next year.

"I couldn't have imagined it, but I did hope that I would be able to beat my high school times," she said. "My goal was to beat my high school personal bests, and I did that in every event my first track season except the mile. My second year, I did beat my mile, and now I've beaten that by 11 seconds."

Originally, Shields said she wanted to break 4:40 in the 1,500 and 2:06 in the 800. She's done both and captured three national titles in those events in the process while being a two-time NAIA Outdoor National Track Athlete of the Year (2017, 2018) and the 2017-18 NAIA Indoor Track National Athlete of the Year.

"The goals are getting bigger than I ever imagined," she said. "But they have to."

Shields said she hopes to garner the attention of a sponsor by the time she graduates from Point Park so she can train for the 2020 Olympics. The goal, she said, is to train with a group of like-minded runners and work toward qualifying during the Olympic trials. She also hopes to coach collegiate track.

But legacy is a word that will follow Shields long after she leaves the Point Park campus.

"It is difficult to talk about her moving on as she has played an integral part of building this program and has made an impact not just on me as a coach, but in my life," Parsley said. "But I am guessing she will be the first-ever Hall of Fame track and field athlete in school history. She will probably be an NAIA Hall of Famer, as well. Her records will probably last forever."

"Not many coaches can say or will say they ever had an opportunity to work with someone like her," he added. "She is truly special."

Shields, however, likely will never own up to the fact that her name could one day be etched inside any Hall of Fame book. She doesn't care about the accolades or where she ranks among the best to ever do it in the city. For her, it was all about a chance to find herself again.

"I've realized that you shouldn't try to shove something away if it's really a part of your soul," she said. "Running is a part of my soul, and I was just happy to be a part of it again when I was doing those road races and timing myself. I didn't realize how miserable I was. I will never do that to myself again."

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