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From giving tours of the athletic facilities to interviews — and from administrative meetings to conversations with student athletes — Penn Director of Athletics and Recreation Alanna Shanahan says she does not stop moving the entire day. Rest, relaxation, and the word "no" do not appear to be in her vocabulary, Shanahan and colleagues told The Daily Pennsylvanian.

As the AD for a Division I university, Shanahan holds one of the most powerful positions on campus. Even more significant, she is one of the few female athletic directors in the country. Of the 5,883 currently employed athletic directors in the country, 78.2% are men, meaning only 21.8% are women. Among her many responsibilities, Shanahan manages almost 1,000 student-athletes, 33 intercollegiate teams, and roughly 400 employees, including coaches and administrative support staff. 

Despite her significant responsibilities, Shanahan says some still fail to grasp the concept that a woman could lead the athletics department of a university.

“You know, sadly, I probably still feel like it’s [the] mindset of a high percentage of our population …” she reflected when asked about the biggest obstacles to gender equality in sports. In recent years, women have been engaged in national debates about equal pay and media coverage. “I’m proud that I can be that example, but I’m also so disappointed that we still have to talk about me being an example because there are so few.”

Shanahan also said that when she tells people she is Penn's AD, many assume she only directs women’s sports, or a specific area of sports. In reality, Shanahan controls an organization worth $70 million.

Shanahan said she chooses to ignore these mindsets regarding her capabilities. Citing her enthusiasm, colleagues said that she consistently goes above and beyond to ensure the happiness of her athletes and employees alike. Her energy is unmatched, and her passion for both sports and caring for others is evident from a football field away, colleagues say.

Amy Coffey, recently named the director of the Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy, recalled that one of her fondest memories with Shanahan was during the annual New York retreat for Penn athletes. Calling it a “high pressure simulated rescue mission,” she said that Shanahan eagerly participated alongside the athletes. The retreat involves sleeping outside in tents, setting up a campsite, and hiking for 10 miles per day.

“I thought that spoke volumes about her willingness to connect with our student athletes, to understand what their experience was …" Coffey said. "I think [what the athletes] love about Alanna is that she’s physically present.”

Shanahan dedicates equal attention and celebration to Penn sports, with John Yurkow, head coach of the baseball team, reminiscing on the time she flew to a game to surprise the team with a post-game party, where she served food herself. 

“I don’t think there’s a lot of athletic directors that would do something like that. And I know it was like a small thing, but I think at least to me and I think the guys on the team, it meant a lot,” Yurkow said. He also especially values Shanahan's hands-on leadership style and open-door policy, which makes Penn Athletics an enjoyable place in which to work.

Some of the most demanding aspects of Shanahan’s job include budgeting, Title IX compliance, academic services, and alumni relations to ensure the continued success of the athletic department. Despite her busy schedule, Shanahan still makes time for her student-athletes, squeezing in meetings with them to guarantee they experience an enjoyable yet prosperous season at Penn, coaches said. 

“I think that a lot of people don’t really even realize how big of a job Alanna’s job is. You know, it’s a massive undertaking; it’s time consuming,” Colleen Fink, head coach of field hockey, said. “She's demanding, she’s high-achieving, she’s successful. And she sets a great example for the female athletes at Penn.”

Though Shanahan champions all sports teams at Penn, she recognizes her responsibility to, as Coffey put it, "make sure that the women’s sports here shine as much as the men’s sports do". 

Across America, women’s sports still suffer a lower attendance rate than men’s sports. Due to an inequality in marketing, 66% of United States sports fans watch more men’s sports, while only 3% prefer watching women’s sports. According to Coffey, Shanahan takes steps to ensure that at Penn, both men’s and women’s sports receive parity in the PR department. 

The energy that allows Shanahan to run from meetings to phone calls to surprising a team with a celebration party is a major part of her personality, sources that the DP spoke with said. As a child, she was always enrolled in activities to expend this energy, beginning with dance but quickly switching to gymnastics due to an inability to “sit still.”

Her dance teachers concluded that “[she] didn’t have the temperament for dance.”

Growing up in Upper Darby, Pa., Shanahan continued gymnastics until her preteen years. Upon entering high school, she was exposed to team sports. She largely credits her parents and their sacrifice to send her to private school, as well as her high school athletic director, as her biggest influences in getting her where she is today. “My high school athletic director … she helped me understand … that sports could be a really important part of thinking about next steps and thinking about a college experience.”

Her embrace of team sports allowed Shanahan to reconsider her future, opening her mind to the possibility of continuing sports in college. Shanahan enrolled at Penn, becoming the first person in her family to attend college, and upon arriving on campus she joined the Penn women's lacrosse team. As a long-time sports enthusiast, lacrosse naturally became a big part of her college experience. 

Inching closer to her graduation in 1996, Shanahan said she still felt lost when considering her future. 

“I definitely fell into it backwards,” she said about the beginning of her professional athletic career. Upon the encouragement of a fellow student who worked in the athletic offices, Shanahan accepted an internship after graduation, thus beginning her 20-year career at Penn.

Shanahan began her career as assistant, then interim head women’s lacrosse coach. After transferring to sports administration, Shanahan became an associate, then senior associate athletic director. Along the way, she continued her education by earning a doctorate of education and a master's degree in higher education administration from Penn’s Graduate School of Education. From 2012-16, Shanahan served as deputy director of athletics and senior woman administrator, as well as executive director of the Penn Relays from 2011-16.

After 20 years at Penn, Shanahan moved to Johns Hopkins in 2016, where she accepted the position of director of recreation and athletics. During those years, she led the school to some of its most successful years in University history: 37 conference titles and three consecutive top-ten finishes in the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup standings, including a No. 2 ranking for the 2018-19 season. While Shanahan loves winning games and championships as much as the next person, she also values the interpersonal relationships with athletes.

When considering her favorite moments throughout her career, Shanahan chose the meetings she has each season with the team captains of each sport.

“The moment at the end of the meeting where I [ask] ‘If you could, would you do it all over again?’ and they say ‘yes’ … those are the moments that are the most fulfilling, because you feel like you really delivered on a comprehensive experience.”

In 2019, for the first time in 23 years, Shanahan left athletics to serve as Johns Hopkins’ vice provost for student affairs. She considers this one of her biggest learning experiences of her career, teaching her to take more risks: “That is something I would never have considered … but … I am a much better athletic director today because I did that." 

2021 saw Shanahan’s return to the Quakers, this time as AD. Former Provost Wendell Pritchett called her “the ideal leader to chart the future of Penn Athletics and Recreation,” while former Penn President Amy Gutmann praised Shanahan for her “vision, experience, expertise, and energy” that will ensure that “Penn Athletics continues its commitment to excellence both on and off the playing field.”

Since returning to Penn three years ago, Shanahan has become one of Penn’s most successful ADs. In addition to nine regular season conference team championships and five post-season conference titles, Shanahan has revamped the administration of the athletics department. In three years, she has launched a fundraising campaign for women’s sports, Power the Next 100; hired the department’s first mental health professional, Dr. Liz Nobis; and hired the first full-time athletic dietician, Cat Hammer.

Before Shanahan’s tenure as athletic director, sports nutrition wasn’t appreciated as its own field. Head Sports Dietician Cat Hammer praised Shanahan for her dedication to the athletes’ physical health. 

“Alanna, since she’s been at Penn, has done a really, really great job being really a promoter of the nutrition department," Hammer said. "She recognizes the need for more actual nutrition for athletes.” 

Shanahan’s list of accomplishments could go on endlessly: “I definitely have a bit of a love affair with progress and … executing on something and feeling like I was able to bring something to fruition.” While she chuckles at this admission, this drive led the athletics department to raise more than $60 million in just her first year.

“Setbacks, as they say, make for comebacks,” she quips.

Yurkow attested that Shanahan's positivity has empowered his own confidence as a head coach. Hammer chose ‘determined’ was the best way to describe Shanahan, because “when she is confronted with some type of challenge or growth opportunity, she’s going to get it done.”

With 28 years of athletics under her belt, Shanahan said she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

"My day to day — that’s another great thing about my job — is all over the place," Shanahan said.

Sports Associates Tyler Ringhofer and Conor Smith contributed reporting to this story.