Meet Gabi Rooker And Her Unconventional Path To The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

By Owen Corbett

January 22, 2024

Ahead of the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on February 3rd, CITIUS MAG is sitting down with some under-the-radar candidates to make the team. We recently spoke to Gabi Rooker, who made waves with an 11th-place finish (fourth American) at the 2023 Chicago Marathon. The 36-year-old Rooker arrived late to the sport, but has an outside shot at making the Olympic team in just two weeks. We talked with Gabi about her new contract with Nike, her incredible improvement over the past few years, and her mindset going into Orlando.

Gabriella RookerGabriella Rooker

Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

CITIUS MAG: We're a little over two weeks from the big day: the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. How are you feeling about the race? How has your training been going?

Gabi Rooker: I'm feeling good. I'm getting excited. I’m getting to that point in training where the end is in sight; there’s a couple more big days and then taper starts. So I'm looking forward to all that.

CITIUS MAG: Do you know when you are heading down to Orlando?

Gabi Rooker: We are in Austin and will be here until January 28th before heading over to Orlando.

CITIUS MAG: So you are avoiding the Minnesota winter right now?

Gabi Rooker: Yes. It's very cold right now. It was a pretty mild start to the winter, but it's really cold now. Alex [Rooker], who's my husband and my coach, is going to drive home to get my dad, be home for about a day or two, and then fly down and join my training partner Kim [Horner, 2:36:43 PB], and myself.

CITIUS MAG: You mentioned your training partner. Do you guys have a group or is it just the two of you? What does that look like?

Gabi Rooker: We actually have two groups that we're pretty lucky to be a part of. Both Kim and I are on Mill City Running, which is our local running store race team. It's kind of a big herd; it’s a huge collective of all sorts of runners with all sorts of different goals and intentions. There are people who do run/walk training for a 5K, all the way to Kim and I who are training for Trials along with our other teammate, Heather Kampf [Four-time U.S. Road Mile champ, 2:36:33 PB], who's a former 800m/1500m pro. It’s all shapes and sizes, all different backgrounds, all are welcome. Then we also have our actual training group, which is called Raev Endurance, which my husband Alex coaches, and there's eight of us.

Gabriella RookerGabriella Rooker

Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

CITIUS MAG: The big news recently: signing the pro contract with Nike. If you can tell me, how did that come together?

Gabi Rooker: Over the past couple of years, as goals have been evolving, Alex and I have talked off and on about what things would look like. Up until this point, I've worked full time as a physician assistant in a hospital in Minneapolis. But training was becoming more and more intense, and that was hard even with a nontraditional schedule that I have.

Before Chicago, we were really talking about what goals were going to look like if Chicago went well. Chicago went as well… if not better than I could have ever hoped for [11th, 2:24:35]. Life felt like it changed overnight where all of a sudden we were signing an agent and talking about working with different shoe companies. I made it pretty clear early on I wanted to work with Nike and there was mutual interest. It worked out pretty quickly as we realized we had similar goals and a similar focus going forward. It was a pretty smooth process as far as I've been told.

CITIUS MAG: You ran Chicago in the Nike kit. Was a deal already in place at that point?

Gabi Rooker: That was a stroke of good luck and bad luck, and having some of the right friends in the right places. Because I didn't have an agent, the communication with the elite field was a little bit trickier than everyone else who was working with an agent. I didn't realize my race kit, which has “Mill City Running” very big across the chest, wasn't allowed until the week of the race. I got the packet that had those rules the Tuesday before the race. We scrambled and were able to find, like I said, a couple of right friends in the right places and the day before the race I got that kit. I wasn’t planning to race in it but it was a very surreal moment to be able to do that.

CITIUS MAG: You definitely haven’t taken the traditional path that most athletes with a big shoe sponsorship take. You ran track a little bit growing up, but you only started racing competitively in your late 20s and early 30s. At this stage, signing a professional contract for the first time, do you feel like a veteran or more fresh compared to someone who may have been in this system for a decade plus?

Gabi Rooker: That's a good question. I think I feel both, like the idea of not knowing anything about the kit. If I had been on a team where there are other pros, that probably would have come up sooner, we would have known those types of things. Little things like that or not knowing exactly how to pick an agent – the “I don't know what I don't know” phase – really felt brand new and overwhelming in a good way.

Luckily, I've been able to have some really supportive guides along the way who have helped make sure Alex and I were steering in the right direction. So in terms of those aspects, I certainly feel like a newbie. This is my first Olympic trials, my first swing at any of it. But also I am 36, I'm pretty established in my career as a physician assistant, so I think having the background of eight years in a different profession gives me a perspective that would be different than someone who's younger, coming at this from a more traditional way.

CITIUS MAG: When you started on this journey of racing competitively and becoming a professional runner. Did you imagine that it would take you this far? What were your dreams?

Gabi Rooker: I wanted to get as fast as I could, and I would still say that is my dream. How fast can I run? I think the ultimate dream has stayed constant, but the needle as to what that looks like has continued to move forward. One of the things that Alex and I have always kept in focus is just making sure that it stays fun, this stays positive, mental health feels good. Physically I'm healthy, it's the right balance in our life, that has shaped how things are. Certainly I never, ever thought I would be an elite runner or a Nike runner or any of these very exciting changes.

CITIUS MAG: In five career marathons, your PB has dropped significantly every time. Do you see a limit? Can you put a number on how fast you think you can go?

Gabi Rooker: I don't have any idea of any limit. I know that I'm still feeling like I can get faster and that I'm still stacking bricks. And I'm excited to see where that continues to go.

CITIUS MAG: Growing up and through college you were involved in gymnastics at a high level, all the way up to a Division III national champion in college. If I had told you when you were growing up that someday you would have a chance at becoming an Olympian, would you have thought that that would have been in gymnastics. Was that ever a path that you wanted to pursue?

Gabi Rooker: I think if you told six-year-old Gabi that someday she would have a shot at making it to the Olympics, she certainly would have thought as a gymnast. Any little girl or boy that's in gymnastics and falls in love with it… you see the Olympics on TV, it's one of the big sports that gets really broadcast. I think she would have died in heaven, but if you told six-year-old me, it would have been as a gymnast.

CITIUS MAG: You mentioned that your husband Alex is also your coach. He competed in his own right but as a sprinter. Was it difficult for him to learn how to coach a marathoner?

Gabi Rooker: Alex is one of the more curious people I've ever met. He was a college sprinter and then after college started cycling and really dove into the physiology side of what makes a cyclist fast and healthy, and better, and stronger. When he started coaching me in 2019, he started applying a lot of those principles.

Since then he has continued to read and continued to learn. He spends most of his evenings reading literal research articles on niche things like nutrition and blood oxygen; all sorts of things that I'm not as curious about, but he certainly is. So it has worked out really well.

CITIUS MAG: You've mentioned that you have a full time job as a physician assistant while also being a professional runner. Has it become easier to balance the two as you've had more experience? What was it like right at the beginning?

Gabi Rooker: The beginning and the end have been the most challenging. I recently dropped down to 60% [of my previous working hours] and currently I'm on a leave of absence for the month of January. My work has been incredibly supportive of all of this, which has been very lucky. But in the beginning, it was trying to find that balance.

Then as we got closer to big races like Chicago, when I was trying to run more and more, increase the volume, increase intensity, it did get to be really hard again. When I was in the in-between zone, it felt really manageable. I'd say these last six weeks since we've been down in Austin and I have been able to fully commit to training, rehab, stretching, nutrition, sleep, and all those things that are really hard when you work in a hospital. It has been pretty game changing in terms of the ability to recover and just have more consistent days.

Gabriella RookerGabriella Rooker

Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

CITIUS MAG: No races since Chicago. You race pretty sparingly in general. Is that a product of your working schedule or is that more about still adjusting to being an elite runner?

Gabi Rooker: It's all of the above. If a race happens to be on a weekend that I'm working, it has to be a pretty big race, like a marathon, for me to try and get it off because I have to swap with coworkers. So I'd certainly say work is a big piece of it. And then over the past couple of years, I’ve been really focused on consistency and getting in volume. I feel – not in a bad way – but I'm behind on volume in comparison to most of the other runners out there. Just focusing on consistent improvement and working. I'm hoping to get in a few more races in the next few training cycles, but it's a balance of what works with life, training, and work.

CITIUS MAG: The marathon Trials in general seem to have either a surprise winner or a surprise name to make the team, every time. What do you think it is about this event in particular that it lends itself to those stories?

Gabi Rooker: I'm not entirely sure. It could be just that it's a long day, a long race, a lot can happen. But at the same time, I think we have, both in the women's and men's but especially in the women’s, so much depth that you could name one of 20 people and if they have a good day, they're going to be up there.

CITIUS MAG: Do you consider yourself more of a favorite to make the team or an underdog? Regardless of the outside noise. What do you think personally?

Gabi Rooker: I'd certainly say I'm an underdog. Up until Chicago, probably not in a bad way, but very few people knew my name at all. Now, in just the last week, more people have learned a little bit about me. I don't mind at all being in an underdog spot, I'm going to go out there, run my best race, and lay it on the table.

CITIUS MAG: Does that affect your mindset going into the race? Or even your plan on the day?

Gabi Rooker: No. I feel pretty good about where things have progressed over the past couple of years. I feel confident in myself, my training, and Alex and our team. Whether I was ranked first or 50th, if I felt like I had a shot, I think I'd go for it.

CITIUS MAG: In a race where a top three spot is so important, does that affect your race plan?

Gabi Rooker: My race plan right now is to go and have a great day. I can't predict what others are going to do with surges and pace, so I'm just going to focus on having a great day.

CITIUS MAG: If you end up making the team, what do you think you will be able to attribute that to?

Gabi Rooker: I think I've been really consistent. This will be my fourth pretty consistent training cycle in a row. Volume is consistently getting higher and workouts have gotten faster. I think that my biggest thing right now is slow and steady consistency.

CITIUS MAG: If you end up coming in first, second, or third and people are just learning of your name on race day, what is one thing that you want them to know about you, either as a runner or as a person?

Gabi Rooker: I think that finding a running community was the biggest piece that's changed everything for me. When I'm asked the question, “What would you tell other runners?” I always think it's to find your community and you'll find a place where you fit in. That's what I attribute a lot of my success over the past few years to was just finding a community and feeling like I fit there.

CITIUS MAG: Good luck, Gabi! Thank you for doing this with us, we’ll be rooting for you!

Owen Corbett

Huge sports fan turned massive track nerd. Statistics major looking to work in sports research. University of Connecticut club runner (faster than Chris Chavez but slower than Kyle Merber).