Hanover Park woman a Dist. 54 bus driver and world track champ
In her day job, Emma McGowan drives a school bus for special-needs students in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.
On the side, the married mother of two from Hanover Park moonlights as a world champion track athlete.
While the students she drives were enjoying their summer, McGowan, 47, won two gold and three silver medals at the premier masters track and field event, the World Masters Track and Field Championships held in Lyon, France.
"The world masters athletic championships is the Olympics for masters track and field athletes," said Bob Weiner, United States Track and Field National Masters media chairman.
Masters meets are highly competitive events for track athletes who are 30 and older.
McGowan brought home the gold in the women's 100-meter for the 45-49 age group after running the event's final heat in 12.85 seconds.
It was a high-stakes event because of who else was in the race, said McGowan's coach, Clifton Culpepper of Hazel Crest. To win it, McGowan, who hails from France but gained American citizenship in 2012, had to beat the favored French national champion, he said.
But McGowan couldn't bask in her accomplishment for too long.
"When I won the 100, I felt like I was kind of on a cloud, but you have to go back down very fast because you have two other events two days after," McGowan said.
McGowan went on to score silver in the 400-meter and the 200-meter races. The 200, McGowan said, is her favorite distance.
She also ran the first leg for the first-place 4x100 relay team and was part of the second-place 4x400 relay team.
The world championships drew 8,078 competitors from 98 nations. The United States sent 427 athletes and brought home 160 medals overall, 57 of them gold.
McGowan says she tries to clear her mind before running in such a major event.
"You don't want to think too much because that's when you get nervous, so I don't think. I just warm up, focus on my race and I don't think, I just go," McGowan said.
Despite her athletic feats, the students McGowan drives to school know her only as their bus driver.
"I drive the special services bus, so especially these kids, they really don't exactly understand what I'm doing," she said. "They know I'm going to run."
McGowan has worked as a bus driver for more than eight years. The flexible schedule, McGowan said, gives her time to practice on the track and in the gym in the morning, after she drops students off at school, or early afternoon, before she picks them up again.
McGowan started running when she was 11, after her mother encouraged her and her siblings to get involved in athletics.
She didn't really get serious about the sport until she was in her 20s. After she had twins, one of whom has autism, McGowan took a break.
McGowan's son and daughter are now 13, and she said her family has shown great support of her running career.
During her time away from the track, McGowan played soccer to stay in shape. And that led a friend to suggest she return to competitive running.
"Why don't you go back to track, Emma?" McGowan recalled her friend saying. "Because you're killing everyone on the soccer field; they can't catch you."
McGowan began her track comeback in 2012, training on her own without a coach.
What has kept her going when so many other adults give up their passion?
McGowan said it takes a lot of motivation, but she sees running as therapy, and a break from everyday life.
"Track has always been my passion. I'm very confident and I know if I'm going to do good, I've got to find the time," she said.
Sometimes that means getting an indoor workout in at 6 a.m., McGowan said.
Culpepper, who has been coaching runners for 25 years, and McGowan for one year, said her success is a result of the hard work she puts in.
"She has a tremendous work ethic. It's a coach's dream when you have an athlete like that," he said. "Even if I'm not here, I can give her the workout and she'll do it because she knows what's at stake. Those world championships, they're not given to people."