Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Little and Latta

Camille Little and Ivory Latta will be remembered as two of Carolina’s best women’s basketball players. I interviewed them before practice at Carmichael Auditorium in January 2004. Although just freshmen at the time, they didn’t play like it.

They see each other every day. After all, they are roommates. They have classes together. They have study hall together. They nap at the same time. They also practice together at Carmichael Auditorium. Meet Ivory Latta and Camille Little, two freshmen on the UNC basketball team who don’t play like it’s their first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Latta, a 5-foot-6-inch point guard, and Little, a 6-foot-1-inch forward, have helped the team climb in the national rankings.

While they exude confidence, Latta and Little say they never expected to perform as well as they have.

“I wanted the opportunity to be on the floor as a freshman, but I had no idea what the outcome would be,” Little said. “All my friends were like, ‘Are you going to start?’ I was like, ‘Well, I hope so. I hope I get to play.’”

Although they grew up two hours apart – Latta in the small town of McConnells, S.C., and Little in Winston-Salem – before coming to UNC, a similar dedication to the game brought them to this point.

The youngest of seven children, Latta “has always been a special child,” says her mother, Chenna, who saw her first dribble a basketball at age 5.

Even with asthma, Latta was a hyperactive child. Around the same time she outgrew her asthma at age 7, she began playing organized baseball, which, according to her parents, she played better than basketball. Often, players and coaches from the opposing baseball team didn’t realize the best player they faced was a girl, because Latta wore a hat over her short hair.

But her talent and love for basketball was obvious. When she was in fourth grade, Latta's two older sisters played junior varsity basketball at York Comprehensive High School, and Latta came to the practices. Head Coach Arsonia Stroud said Ivory could handle the ball at that time as well as any of the varsity point guards at York.

By middle school, Ivory’s game was at a higher level than her peers’, a result of always playing against her older siblings. She also played against older competition AAU basketball, which her father Charles coached from the time she was 11 years old.

In seventh grade she scored 40 points in her first game and was soon moved up to varsity, but scoring wasn't the only reason for her promotion. Her mother Chenna had to leave town for several months for her job and Ivory's sister, Iris, was a senior on the York team. The move made it more convenient for Charles to pick up his daughters up after practice.

That year, Latta came off the bench. The next season she was the leading scorer on a 27-1 team. Not a bad hoops resume for a player about to enter high school.

Then there was the full court – the one Charles built in the backyard so Latta could play basketball whenever she wanted. Before the court was built during her freshman year in high school, the next closest court was 14 miles away. Latta practiced on the court four or five hours every day after school.

“It reminded me of a job,” said Charles. “She would have practice after school and then come home and practice alone.”

The courts had no lights, but that didn't stop Latta. Many nights, Charles saw Ivory shooting by herself in the dark, and he would have to tell her it was time to go to bed.

Her talent and steady improvement attracted every top college program in the nation. Coach Stroud received so many calls from college coaches that she changed her home phone number.

Ivory never got caught up in the recruiting. She was too busy.

“She didn't go out and party like a lot of girls her age,” Chenna said. “It was just school and basketball.”

Latta says she was tempted to go out with her friends then, but she has no regrets now.

Little made sacrifices as well.

Her father, Robert, had the greatest impact on her as a basketball player. During the summer and days off from school, Camille went to a nearby reaction center, where Robert worked. Camille shot by herself or played pick-up games with the boys. Robert, a former North Carolina Central University standout and Harlem Globetrotter, recognized her talent.

So when she was 8, he signed her up for organized basketball and began giving her drills to work on at the recreation center.

Like Latta, Little had strong family support and encouragement. Her mother, Elaine, says she’s only missed three of Camille’s games. Little met Latta when they began playing together on an AAU team in high school.

As a freshman at Carver High School, Little played volleyball, which helped her jumping ability and timing for rebounding on the basketball court. And the team needed help. Before Little arrived, they won just two games in three years.

“They usually don’t let freshmen play on the varsity team,” Little said. “And when I did that, I was like, ‘Wow, they must be expecting something out of me.’ It was kind of a shock to other teams because they kind of heard about me, but they weren’t sure exactly.”

Her opponents discovered her ability in her first high school game. Little made three consecutive drop-step baskets to seal the victory against the best team in the Mary Garber Tournament. By mid-January, Little was also the defensive stopper on her team coached by Gerald Carter, whose man-to-man defense resembles UNC’s defense.

Carver High lost in the state finals that year and won the title Little's sophomore year with a recored of 30-0. Carter praised Little not only for her tremendous talent, but also for her desire to become better while encouraging and helping her teammates. A team leader, Little missed just one practice during high school because of a sprained knee.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” Carter said about coaching Little. “There will not be another Camille through here ... I would generally give her a team that couldn’t possibly win at whatever we were doing and more often than not she’d make up the difference. She’s as determined a person as I’ve ever seen.”

Stroud felt similarly about Latta. In the state championship game her junior year against powerhouse Dreher High School, Latta scored all 33 of her points in the final three quarters to help York win its first state title 64-61.

After the win in March 2002, Dreher Coach Scott Long told The Herald of Rock Hill, S.C., “We tried to box her, tried a 3-2 zone, man-to-man, every defense I know. I never thought one player could beat us. I’m a believer now. She is a great player.”

Playing for Team North Carolina, Latta and Little won a pair of AAU national titles. But more importantly they became close friends, traveling to tournaments all over the country. During recruiting visits, Latta immediately fell in love with UNC and it was close to home so her parents could come to all her games.

Before the two players visited UNC, Little was leaning to go to North Carolina State University. When Latta found out, she told Little that she wouldn’t go to UNC without her, and threatened to sign with Connecticut. After numerous conversations with Latta and a recruiting visit together in Chapel Hill, Little chose UNC. They both made their decision early in their senior year, the last year of two great high school careers.

Latta’s stat sheet speaks for itself: 4,319 points, 570 3-pointers, two-time State Player of the Year, and the 2003 Morgan Wootten/McDonald’s National Girls’ High School Player of the Year.

Little’s high school stats were just as noteworthy: 2,168 points, 1,110 rebounds,
470 steals, 209 assists, 260 blocks, and two-time State Player of the Year.

Numbers, however, don’t say everything about this pair of precocious players, and basketball talent alone isn’t the reason they both have a day named after them in their hometowns, or the reason Latta was voted homecoming queen and Little voted prom queen.

“She’s unselfish, works hard, cares about the classroom and cares about other people,” Carter said about Little.

During high school, Latta woke up at 8 a.m. every Saturday and coached girls age 5 to 11 in a recreational league. She enjoyed it as much as the girls she instructed did.

Latta scored 70 points in her final game at York. But what Stroud remembers most is how Latta had the opportunity for an open 3-pointer, which would have given her team 100 points. However, Latta was just as happy to pass the ball to senior Felicia Hemphill, who drained the shot in front of a usual sellout crowd.

Latta and Little have become more popular in Chapel Hill since the basketball season began. Three freshmen, who had a class with Latta, wore homemade “I Love Ivory” T-shirts to the game at Duke.

“She’s really nice and really humble, especially for being so good,” said Sarah Murphy, one of the three freshmen.

It’s this humble attitude and eagerness to help the team improve that made the jump from high school to college less difficult than it could have been. They also credit their coaches and teammates for helping them make the transition.

“They helped me out a whole lot, especially Leah Metcalf on the point guard position,” Latta said. “She was telling me things to do, how you set picks, how you run off of them, how you get the ball up the court. But I enjoy it. I love it.”

Watching Latta, whose game resembles her role model Allen Iverson, you see a player that thrives on UNC’s uptempo style, using quick crossovers, no-look passes and her patent three-point shots. Calling out plays and her frequent smiles on the court are
signs of her passion for the game.

Little has that same love, but rarely cracks a smile during games. Little’s style of play is less flashy than Latta. She uses her quickness and superb instincts to score in the paint and rebound, and she has a good shooting touch on the perimeter. They are the top scorers on a nationally-ranked UNC team, yet they still have things to improve.

Charles says Ivory thinks about her missed shots too much, and Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell says Ivory’s biggest weakness is man-to-man defense. Hatchell commends Little’s team defense, but says she may have to keep adding strength to her slender frame despite becoming stronger since high school. Little’s mother, Elaine, says her daughter is playing too unselfish.

“There’s no one that can guard her one-on-one,” Elaine said. “When she gets comfortable with the system, you are going to see Camille really play.”

Considering she has been named the Rookie of the Week in the ACC several times this year, that’s scary news for her competition. In the first conference game, Little’s 28 points and 13 rebounds, along with 30 points by Latta, helped Carolina beat Wake Forest. And just a few days earlier they led the way in a victory over then 10th-ranked Penn State.

So how do they rank among other UNC greats?

“It’s probably too early to say,” Hatchell said. “But they have potential to be two of the best we’ve had here because they’re getting to start as freshmen. As long as they stay hungry and keep improving, then there’s not telling by the time they graduate what’s going to be in their record book here at Carolina.”

Both freshmen hope to play in the WNBA after college. Latta says she loves working with children, and she might pursue a career as a pediatrician. Little says coaching might be in her future. But, for now, their primary concern is progressing so the team can win.

“I didn’t want to be a cheerleader,” Little said. “I wanted to come out here and bring something to the table ... I wanted to contribute to the team. I think I have done that, but I have so much more that I want to do.”

Latta feels likewise.

This story first appeared in the Blue & White Magazine in February 2004.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Clemente Legacy

No athlete had the combination of integrity, honesty, compassion, and greatness like Roberto Clemente. His word was gold. He loved playing baseball, even with a chronic bad back. He felt like it was a privilege to play the game. He always wanted to give the fans his best performance. He dealt with learning a second language. He wanted to help people. He was a gentleman, a baseball star and a humanitarian. He was a hero.

Clemente was born on Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the youngest of seven children. He helped his father, who worked as a foreman on a sugar plantation and manager of a grocery store, load and unload trucks. But his passion was baseball, and in Puerto Rico, he played year round.

Major League Baseball scouts noticed Clemente’s skill. He became the starting rightfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 20. He struggled learning the English language just like I am having a tough time learning Spanish.

Clemente was the best rightfielder ever. His throwing arm was like a gun. He won 12 Gold Gloves. He also was a great hitter. He won four batting titles and hit safely in all 14 World Series Games he played in, helping the Pirates win two Series. In 1966, he was the National League’s MVP. Still, he was a humble man.

Clemente told a reporter, “I believe we owe something to the people who watch us. When we don’t try 100 percent, we steal from them.”

Before game 7 of the 1971 World Series, which Clemente batted .414 en route to the series MVP, he told writer Roger Angell, “I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time – all season, every season. I gave everything I had to this game.”

During the winter of 1972, Clemente began developing a sports city for the youngsters in San Juan. An earthquake hit Managua, Nicaragua, on Dec. 23, 1972, killing thousands and leaving more than 250,000 people homeless. Clemente took charge in sending relief to these people. Clemente worried about the fate of a 14-year-old orphan who had lost both legs. He worried about supplies being sent promptly and efficiently to the needy. He barely slept and refused to open Christmas presents, instead working 14-hour days for the relief effort.

Supplies were being intercepted by the Nicaraguan Army, so Clemente decided to do the job himself. He boarded a small supply plane with four others on New Year’s Eve. Shortly after takeoff, the plane exploded and crashed into the Atlantic. Clemente’s death was tragic, but represented the man he was.

As Clemente put it best, “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

UConn vs UNC Preview

Before UNC beat a tough Georgia Tech team on Sunday, Connecticut romped then-ranked No. 6 Oklahoma. It was the Huskies best defensive performance of the year, holding Oklahoma to just 27 percent from the field. Head Coach Jim Calhoun’s team certainly demonstrated why it is on top of the college basketball polls. While the Tar Heel players are becoming more familiar with Roy Williams's system and playing better, the Huskies are also no longer the same team that squeezed by Yale in the season opener and lost to Georgia Tech in November.

In last year’s contest, UNC jumped out to 20-3 lead over UConn, which proved critical in a three-point UNC victory in the Dean Smith Center.

“We were extremely disappointed with how we didn’t win the game there last year,” said UConn Assistant Coach Tom Moore. “Not taking anything away from UNC, but we didn’t feel that the type of team we had last year, which was a final-eight type of team, should ever be behind 20-3 ... I think it will be a strong incentive for us to play much better.”

Calhoun’s teams have a history of slow starts in games. Two years ago, a struggling Tar Heel team traveled to Storrs, Conn., and held a 11-2 lead before being demolished by Caron Butler and company.

Both teams have topnotch talent and athleticism, but UConn has a significant advantage in its frontcourt with four athletic guys listed at 6-10 or taller who can shoot and rebound. It will be interesting to see how Omeka Okafor and Sean May play against each other. These two big men are at the top of their game. UConn freshman Charlie Villanueva is the first player off the bench, usually replacing starter Josh Boone. At 6-11, Villanueva has the skills of a guard, which make him the most talented freshman in the nation. The Huskies have not lost with him in the lineup. Calhoun’s biggest team ever should pose mismatches all game, but the guard play will be the most exciting to watch.

The Backcourt Matchup

Ben Gordon is Calhoun’s best jump shooter since Ray Allen. The 6-2 Gordon squares up, is on balance and releases the ball with perfect form, which is why he has made half of his three-point attempts this season. He has the athleticism to match his skills. His explosiveness was on display when he soared in the air for a windmill dunk against Ball State a few weeks ago, bringing the fans to their feet.

Gordon’s backcourt mate, Taliek Brown, is a four-year starter at point guard and fits Calhoun’s uptempo style. Both guards are from New York, Gordon from Mount Vernon and Brown from Queens. How well does UConn’s backcourt match up with UNC’s backcourt?

“I think it is a really good matchup with two exciting players on both teams,” said Gordon via e-mail.

“It’s four very good players, and they all bring different things to the table,” Moore said. “Ben Gordon obviously offensively and with his quickness and his explosiveness is good. Taliek might be the best defender. Raymond might be the quickest with the ball and putting pressure on you. Rashad is the strongest and best around the basket and might be the best scorer.”

Judging by last year’s game, the difference was McCants’s 27 points and Okafor remaining in foul trouble. Also, Gordon missed all of his three-point attempts on his way to just 5-19 from the field.

Felton’s offensive ability is far superior to Brown, but look out for a solid offensive performance by Gordon on Saturday. From a fan’s perspective it is going to be fun to watch because both teams thrive on an uptempo game. Moore said sharpshooter Denham Brown, along with guards Rashad Anderson and Marcus Williams, might provide UConn with more depth than UNC. Connecticut’s backcourt might be able to wear UNC’s backcourt down, Moore said. However, UNC fans could argue that Melvin Scott, Jackie Manuel and David Noel provide plenty of depth. Either way, look for high intensity from both teams from the tipoff.

“Last year we got down so far and had to work real hard to get back in the game, but had no margin for error,” said Taliek Brown via e-mail. “I think we will go into this year’s game determined not to let that happen again.”

UConn: Not Always a National Power

Since the days of Head Coach Frank McGuire and scoring machine Lennie Rosenbluth, UNC has been a national powerhouse. McGuire, a New York native, recruited so many players from the New York area that the newspapers called it the underground railroad in reverse. Once Dean Smith took over, he recruited some New York players, but not as many as McGuire. In recent years UNC hasn’t had any New York players, losing some recruits to teams such as UConn like Taliek Brown and Gordon.

“I looked at UNC, but I chose UConn because it was closer to home and being closer to my family made it an easy decision,” Gordon said via e-mail.

Brown also said being close to home made it an easy choice, but this shows how far the Husky program has come. UConn was winning Yankee Conference titles when UNC was winning ACC titles. It wasn’t until a decade after it joined the Big East in which UConn became a national powerhouse like UNC. That 1990 season, UConn made it to the Elite Eight, losing to Duke in overtime on a Christian Laettner buzzer beater.

If there was a day that marked UConn’s turnaround, it came on Jan. 27, 1990, where it played at its new on-campus home court, the Harry Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies beat No. 15 St. John’s in the new 10,167-seat gym in Storrs, Conn. The Hartford Civic Center seats 16,294, and is located in downtown Hartford, about a half hour from the UConn campus. Since Gampel Pavilion opened, home games have been played in both gyms. The Civic Center is more of a professional atmosphere with the Hilton and a few restaurants open. It has a large jumbotron and steep seating in the upper and lower decks. Fans in the nosebleed section are better off watching the game on television.

“UConn has actually been booed in the Civic Center because they are it for the state of Connecticut,” said Matt Eagan, who is in his third year covering the men’s team for the Hartford Courant. “So people take it hard when they don’t play extremely well.”

About 2,400 tickets are distributed to the Connecticut students for all home games, Eagan said. Gampel Pavilion is consistently more noisy than the Civic Center because it has a collegiate atmosphere. Some students sleep in tents the night before big games because there is general admission seating in Gampel Pavilion. And as Eagan says, “It’s Storrs, Conn., in the winter. It gets cold.”

Game Day

Both teams had a chance to win the games they lost this season, so expect a nail-biter toward the end of Saturday’s game. With UConn, there is a revenge factor and proving they are the nation’s best team. With UNC, there is pride and the possibility of moving up in the top 10. UConn will have to come out strong and keep the crowd quiet if it doesn’t want a repeat of last year. UNC has to shoot the ball well and try and get Okafor in early foul trouble.

Should UConn win? Yes. One thing is likely: both teams will be pumped up.

“North Carolina is a magical name for basketball fans, coaches and players,” Moore said. “As soon as you get down in that area you realize how important basketball is there – how they manage the game, how the administration manages the game, the fans, the newspapers and media are first class. So when you go into that environment you can’t help but have the juices flowing more than other regular season games.”

This story first appeared at in January 2004. Rashad McCants hit a 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left to give UNC a 86-83 victory over No. 1 UConn.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Interview with Marcus Ginyard

After watching Marcus Ginyard practice and talking to him for the first time on Jan. 5, my primary impression leaving Bishop O’Connell High School was: he is a player any coach or teammate would love to have on his or her team. A 6-5 combo guard who has good shooting form to go along with his lanky, athletic build, Ginyard looks to pass first, encourages his teammates and heeds advice. If anything, he’s too unselfish, which is reflected by his modest stats.

Ginyard, a junior, committed to UNC on Aug. 29. His head coach is Joe Wootten (son of former legendary coach Morgan Wootten) who not only keeps an upbeat practice, but most importantly teaches players after a mistake or job well done. Ginyard’s brother Ronald is an assistant coach. Ginyard grew up in Prince William County, Va., and now lives in Alexandria, Va. He honed his skills playing AAU mostly in Maryland and Virginia.

In the first game of the Beach Ball Classic on Dec. 27, Ginyard sprained his ankle, and sat out the third and final game against national power St. Raymond’s (N.Y.), which Bishop O’Connell lost to by three points. However, watching him put back his own shot with a vertical, two-handed dunk during a drill showed me his taped left ankle isn’t affecting him much. After practice, I sat down and talked with this young man who will most likely be a fine addition to Roy Williams’s system and has a chance to be a special player in Chapel Hill.

BG: Who helped you develop your game?
Ginyard: Well at first, it was my parents – mostly my mom and my brother. My brother is an assistant coach now. It was her and my brother up until about 9 and 10. Then at that point it was just playing AAU, just playing against better competition all the time.

BG: What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses?
Ginyard: Earlier last year and the year before my weakness was definitely my shooting. And now I think that’s gotten a lot stronger, but I still got a long way to go with that. Defense, I think, is one of my strengths, that and just getting after it out there on the court, going 100 percent.

BG: What are your goals in high school?
Ginyard: I definitely want to win the league. We haven’t done that here at O’Connell, I think, ever. We never won the league. I definitely want to win States again, and be All-American and all that good stuff.

BG: Do you have any goals for college?
Ginyard: Basically just to play in college everybody wants to win a national championship. And win the ACC. Here at O’Connell, the biggest accomplishment is winning the league, just to show the teams in your league that you’re the best in the league. So then if you’re the best in the league – there’s only so many leagues in the country – so then you’re automatically in that top 20 basically, especially for college.

BG: How good is your league? Is it one of the most competitive?
Ginyard: I think it’s the best league in the country.

BG: Is that the main reason you came here?
Ginyard: Yeah, it’s just competitive. Every game in the league is competitive.

BG: How’s your ankle?
Ginyard: It’s doing a lot better. As you can you see, I’m pretty much 100 percent. I think I’m 90 percent right now. Hopefully by tomorrow I’ll be about 95, maybe 100 percent. I’m getting up really good now. The game that I sat out – the game before actually I played and it was really weak, it was really bothering me, so I decided to take the next game off and let it heal. I got a good six days off from the game. I think today might actually be my seventh day not playing (in a game).

BG: Was it a sprain?

Ginyard: Yeah, I sprained it. I had a grade A sprain. It was just really bothering me. So that week off gave me some time to strengthen up again.

BG: Since you’ve committed to UNC, do you feel like there’s more pressure on you?
Ginyard: At the same time you have pressure, but then again it’s a relief. It’s a relief that you can go out and play your game every night. You’re a little more relaxed out there. But at the same time, you have a lot of people gunning for you now. People say, ‘Hey, I want a piece of the UNC guy,’ which is good though because that means you raise your level of competition every day.

BG: Do have examples of that during games where players are tougher or coaches are changing their strategy?
Ginyard: Not in particular. It’s more of a personal thing to some people. I know personally when I was a freshman and I heard about some good player – not necessarily whether they had committed or not, but just knowing that they’re good – you want to go out and show everybody in the stands that hey, I can compete with this kid too. So a lot of players take it as a personal challenge.

BG: Is there some trash talking in the league?
Ginyard: Yeah, it gets there, but it’s good though. It keeps the competitive level high.

BG: Has the media treated you differently since you committed to UNC?
Ginyard: Not really. It’s about the same. It’s just something that they get to talk about. But other than that I don’t think it’s really changed that much.

BG: How do you feel when critics say your not a good enough player to commit to a top program like UNC at such a young age?

Ginyard: That’s just motivation to keep getting better and to eventually show them that I am good enough for that. I think anybody in the world would take that on as a challenge if somebody were to say, ‘You’re not good enough to do this.’ Not a lot of people would back down, especially athletes. And so that’s just motivation.

BG: Who do you talk to mostly for personal advice?
Ginyard: Probably my brother. Definitely my brother. Being the assistant coach he sees a lot of the floor as a coach that most spectators don’t see. There are some people out there that know the game, but he sees more than most spectators. And also being my brother it’s good because you have him at the house, you can talk to him all the time, and he sees things on the court. So I think he’s the most influential when it comes to advice and stuff on basketball.

BG: Did he play?

Ginyard: He did play in high school and he played one year in college at Pace University before he decided that he was going to give basketball up and just go to school.

BG: How many years older is he?

Ginyard: Five and a half. So he just turned 22 in December.

BG: Who are your role models?

Ginyard: Definitely I have to say my mom because she just goes out and does what she has to do. She’s not worried about what anybody else says. She’s just doing what she’s got to do. So that’s good to see. And then, everybody around you that you see succeed, and it’s good to see that and you feel like, ‘Alright, people around me can do it, I can do it too.’

BG: Who do you seek for basketball advice? Is it your brother, and is he your best friend?
Ginyard: Yeah. He’s still not old, so it’s not like he’s one of those guys that you can’t approach, but at the same time he’s still got that experience.

BG: What are your hobbies?

Ginyard: Just playing basketball and staying focused, hanging out with friends, just trying to stay relaxed. I don’t like to get all tense and stuff. Anything that’s fun, we’ll go out and we’ll do anything. Go bowling, stay home and play PS2, anything to have fun.

BG: Do you know what you’re going to study in college yet?
Ginyard: I definitely want to study business. Owning my own business is definitely something that interests me. I want to study business and I really enjoy math.

BG: Who are you’re favorite pro athletes?

Ginyard: Tracy McGrady. Kevin Garnett. All the tall skinny guys that can jump and play the perimeter basically.

BG: Where are you looking forward to playing in college?

Ginyard: Anywhere on the perimeter. I really feel comfortable anywhere on the perimeter. I think he’s got good enough judgement to put me where I need to be, wherever that has to be I’ll be comfortable.

BG: How many times have you talked to Roy and what have you discussed with him?
Ginyard: I’ve talked to Roy I think personally twice. I talked to Coach Robinson and Coach Holladay a couple times. Basically it’s laid back conversations, talk about how you’ve been doing and stuff like that – what the coaches ate at the barbeque – just laid back conversations.

This story first appeared at

Sunday, January 4, 2004

Keeping Things in Perspective

I interviewed Shalane Flanagan a week before she defended her national collegiate cross-country title in the fall of 2003. Certainly one of North Carolina’s greatest athletes, she turned professional after that school year. The profile I wrote tracks her rise, beginning as a preschooler insisting that she could run with her parents, Steve Flanagan and Cheryl Treworgy, around the block.

She will go to never-never land and put herself in a world of hurt to beat you. She'll do whatever it takes.

~ Steve Flanagan

She handles her success with a grace and style. She's kind of naturally humble. She doesn't say it. At the end of the day, it's still just running.

~ Steve Flanagan

"She" is not dressed to run. There she is chatting away with her teammates, who are all donned in their practice gear, sitting in the bleachers outside Eddie Smith Field House in Chapel Hill. Her short blonde hair is neatly combed. She's dressed in stylish blue jeans and tan shoes she bought in Europe last summer, which match the tan pocketbook she has draped over her right shoulder. Could this be the University of North Carolina distance runner who has won so many races that it has become expected? Could this be the senior whose intensity and drive resemble those of other Tar Heel athletes, say Michael Jordan? So why does she look like she's headed to Franklin Street on a weekend night while her teammates are dressed for running practice?

As her coaches and teammates are well aware, Shalane knows Shalane best. Shalane Flanagan knows on this particular Monday, coming off yet another win, her body needs a break. No, she's not wimping out. Don't let her pretty outfit and contagious smile fool you. She's as tough as they come.

Born in Boulder, Colo., some of Flanagan's earliest memories include her parents, who were national-class runners, waking up in the mornings for their daily runs.

"It was almost like a lifestyle for them," Flanagan said. "Having seen other parents that don't run at all is kind of weird for me because I've had it since I was born."

Even as a preschooler, she begged her parents to let her run with them, convinced in her mind she could run as far as them. Flanagan's parents, Steve Flanagan and Cheryl Treworgy, would tell her she couldn't run with them, but after her insistence they would let her run around the block.

At age five, Flanagan moved to Marblehead, Mass., where she would develop into the nation's top female distance runner. But running wasn't her only sport. She swam and played soccer. In fact, Flanagan had visions of someday putting on soccer cleats instead of track shoes at UNC.

"Soccer is so much fun and I never thought of Carolina as being necessarily a running school," she said. "I thought of it more along the lines of women's soccer, and Mia Hamm and all that. So I wanted to be a part of that instead of dorky running. I definitely thought that soccer was really cool, but I just knew that my natural abilities lay in running."

To this day she says she still misses soccer and has "a hard time coming and watching (UNC) games because I start to get jealous."

Her parents taught Shalane the importance of being a well-rounded athlete and student, encouraging her to participate in a variety of sports and avoid burnout from participating in exclusively one sport. When she was in middle school, Treworgy took Shalane down to the Junior Olympics in Texas to show her that kids her age were performing well on age-group teams, but that many would be burned out by high school due to overtraining.

"I wanted her to keep that in the back of her mind that there's always going to be somebody better, and you're always going to have to be pushing to the next level," said Treworgy, a former marathon world-record holder for two years. "I wanted her to keep it in perspective. She was good locally, but there was more to it. I know she hated getting beat because she felt all she really had to do was train harder."

As a child, her parents realized she was different than her peers both physically and mentally. At the end of soccer games, Shalane wasn't tired. In addition to her remarkable cardiovascular endurance, she had a rare competitive drive. Steve says that Shalane's younger sister Maggie has the same physical gifts as Shalane, but what separates Shalane from her sister, and most elite runners, is her passion for training. In middle school, Flanagan beat many high school runners at a meet mainly because she ran more than them. While observers recognized her innate ability for distance running, a team sport like soccer might have suited her personality better.

"With soccer, I just enjoy the team aspect, whereas with running it is kind of a lonely sport at times," she said. "I do have teammates and it's better in college, but in high school it was very lonely -- just trying to keep myself motivated to get a scholarship and get to that next level where I could be recruited."

It's 1996. As a freshman at Marblehead High School, Flanagan sat the bench on the soccer team because there were so many players. She hated sitting. Treworgy's words of advice echoed what she was thinking at the time: "If you tried cross country, you wouldn't have to sit the bench." That was her last year on a soccer team.

Flanagan's eagerness to jog around the block with her parents as a child and her dedication that helped her beat high school runners as a middle schooler were signs of what came next. She won her first cross country state meet. At that moment, she began thinking about earning a running scholarship in college. Her continued improvement only reinforced that notion.

The summer before her junior year, Flanagan stayed with some childhood friends in Colorado, and ran part of Pike's Peak Marathon, up as high as 10,000 feet.

"Did the altitude bother you?" Treworgy asked.

"No, not really," Flanagan said.

"Then is when I knew that ... cardiovascularly she was really blessed," Treworgy said.

Her ability far exceeded that of her high school teammates. Practicing with them was not a challenge. So in order to satisfy her desire to constantly improve, Flanagan sought advice from her father and researched workout routines from some of the world's best distance runners, like Joan Benoit Samuelson. The summer before her senior year, Flanagan attended a Nike-sponsored running camp at Lyndon State College in Vermont. Through the notes she took at the camp and the books she read, she found the support she was lacking at Marblehead High.

"I was kind of a dork and I would just look at what they wrote down for their workouts," she said. "I couldn't necessarily be them because they were world-class athletes, but I would always try to draw motivation and inspiration from other athletes and read books on them."

Before each cross country season, Flanagan had a new workout regimen she had constructed on her own. While all the other girls ran together, Flanagan stuck to her routine. Training nights and weekends didn't always make her the most popular friend, but she couldn't let peer pressure keep her from her lofty goals. Each year, Flanagan told her mom that she was going to take 10 seconds off her mile time. And each year she did it, which isn't easy when you're approaching a 4:40 mile. But when you have strong family support, sometimes the unbelievable becomes believable. As Treworgy says, "Who am I to say? I'm not going to put limits on her."

Surrounding herself with people outside her home that understood what she was trying to achieve also helped her reach those goals. When Flanagan went to the prom, she had to be up early the next day for the state meet. She had to be home early in order to perform well. So she always went with a guy who was in the same predicament.

Flanagan's dedication hurt her popularity among her peers, but those close to her, like the girls on the swim team, knew how much she valued her teammates. Quitting the swim team her senior year at Marblehead High in order to train for the U.S. Cross Country team was difficult for Flanagan because she had swum with that team since she was eight years old.

"She was a part of that team and she was an integral part too," Treworgy said. "And they counted on her and she felt she was letting them down. And I had to tell her, 'Well honey, I'm sorry, but you're not going to get a scholarship for swimming, but you might in running. So it's OK."

By her senior year, Flanagan was eager for another challenge since she was dominating the high school competition. She joined the North Shore Striders, a local track club coached by her father -- guys in their 20s and early 30s -- and they would run, for instance, quarter-miles in 75 seconds with a minute break in between each one. She was ready to go with just a 45 second break, making the workout even tougher, which the guys enjoyed as much as Shalane. They still remember the high school girl that raised their workout level. Steve was at a party in November and some of those guys that ran with Shalane joked, "I used to hate it when you used to bring her over."

Her perseverance paid off. She was a three-time state cross country champion, was the 2000 U.S. junior cross country champion, won the mile at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships and was named All-Scholastic Runner-of-the-Year by the Boston Globe and Boston Herald in 2000. But one indicator of how great she really had become came at the U.S. trial for the Junior National team on Feb. 13, 2000. It was a cold, rainy day in Greensboro, N.C. In that 6,000-meter race, Flanagan beat a field of the top college freshmen, including heralded Stanford runners Erin Sullivan and Lauren Fleshman.

"I told my mom, 'I think they let me win,'" Flanagan said. "To beat them, I was totally flabbergasted, and it was probably one of the greatest sports moments for me because here I was, just some little punk out of high school."

Like the guys at the track club, her college competitors acknowledged how she had rubbed off on them.

"I was impressed with her toughness on a muddy, challenging course," said Fleshman, who is now running professionally for Nike and is friends with Flanagan. "Her performance inspired me to raise my level of performance at the Junior World Championships, where I finished ahead of her, but not by much. Ever since then, we have gone back and forth."

With her good grades, running success and friendly demeanor, Flanagan had the option of earning a scholarship to any college in the nation. Her choices narrowed to UNC and Stanford. But instead of being a part of Stanford's storied tradition, Flanagan wanted to build a legacy in Chapel Hill. She chose to run for UNC Coach Michael Whittlesey because she thought he was an underrated coach. She also saw the Tar Heels as a program on the rise.

Whittlesey had his recruiting eye on Flanagan since the first time he saw her run as a junior at the National Track and Field High School Championships. Flanagan didn't win that day, but Whittlesey knew "she was the best one out of the whole bunch."

Flanagan's disposition is suited for her sport, always on the go and at a faster pace than those around her. She even prefers standing to sitting during an interview. Competing at an elite level on a daily basis can wear some people down, but she says she gets bored when she has too much down time.

"Everything she does, she just kind of does hard," said Carol Henry, a teammate and close friend of Flanagan. "She gets out there and has really intense runs, she goes out and parties like a fiend. She goes for whatever she's doing at the time."

So what motivates her desire to be better than America's top distance runners?

"I love intense competition," Flanagan said. "I think there's just something to say about the feeling of an accomplishment that when you think something may not be attainable and then when you do attain it, I think that's just one of the best feelings in the world. It's addictive. I think people who play sports feel almost like it's a drug. They have to keep doing it. So that's how I look at it. I look at it like running is my drug. It keeps me motivated and I think it gives purpose and meaning to my life."

In the fall of 2000, she found a new purpose and meaning as a UNC freshman. For a person who smiles about national championship races, using phrases like "I'm so excited" and "I can't wait," it is obvious she made the right decision.

During her time in Chapel Hill, she has been named the best national female cross country runner the past two years. Her face has appeared in national publications like Sports Illustrated. She was voted most popular female athlete last year by the student-body, which gave her a warm surprise. But looking at headlines and photos of herself is not something she gets caught up in.

"These past four years have been the best experience I've ever had in my life," says Flanagan, who has mainly pictures of family and friends in her bedroom. "I value this school and my family the most. I care about what my teammates and my coach and my family think and that's really it."

While her individual success in cross country and track has earned her national acclaim, her UNC teammates say Flanagan has helped them become better runners.

"She's very team-oriented, just not all about herself," Henry said. "She's really motivating. We all look up to her for advice."

The admiration her teammates have for Flanagan was obvious after UNC won the ACC title on Nov. 1. UNC freshman Meghan Owen told The Daily Tar Heel, "I love her. She is an awesome captain. I think this meant a lot to her, coming in and winning this as a team. She does so much for the team that we thought we should come in and work hard and give back to her."

Owen's words were apparent during the conclusion of that race in Winston - Salem. After capturing an ACC record fourth straight individual cross country title, Flanagan cried tears of sadness because she thought her team had initially lost. Moments later, she found out that UNC edged N.C. State for the conference championship with a sudden switch to hugs and smiles from her teammates.

Even her rivals say they admire the way she handles herself. At Nationals and Regionals, the top 25 runners are honored, standing next to each other after their names are called. Flanagan is the only runner Whittlesey ever sees congratulating and shaking each person's hand.

"A male or a female, they don't come out as better competitors than Shalane Flanagan," said Whittlesey, who says she is also the best athlete he's ever coached. "Her consistency at the level she has been is absolutely amazing, and the grace with which she handles herself at every major competition is hard to come by. It's something that I know our program is going to miss. I know I'm going to miss it."

At times, Flanagan used to be able to help her teammates more than herself.

"I have felt pressure, but it's always come usually from me," she said. "It's usually never from anyone else. I mean, I do care what people think about me. I want people to want me to win. I like that, I enjoy that and I want to be the favorite out there. In the last year I've said this before in some interview I guess, the only person that can hurt me out on the course or the track is me because I'm the one who will put the pressure on. If anything, I mess up it's me. I put all responsibility on my shoulders for messing up and putting too much pressure on myself."

That pressure may have been at its highest during her sophomore year, when many people expected her to win the national cross country title after finishing fourth in her freshman year at UNC. She now admits she was too serious and tried too hard, finishing in 22nd place. The fire that brought her to this point burns brighter than ever, but her appreciation has changed. The wins leading up to that disappointment didn't feel as rewarding as the ones that came after it.

"Maybe it was a blessing in disguise," she said. "That's what I always say. If I don't do well I'm like, 'Well, maybe I just wasn't supposed to do well.'"

We're back to the woman with the pretty clothes -- smiling now in races and relishing the wins.

Flanagan has her sights on the 5-kilometer race at the Olympic Trials this summer. She will red-shirt her final semester so she can concentrate on training for the Trials, where she has to finish in the top three with a time of 15:08 to qualify, which is 12 seconds faster than her best 5-kilometer time. She says she is excited about wearing her Tar Heel jersey during the nationally televised Olympic Trials.

Her dream entering college was to win a national championship. She now has three. Her senior year at Marblehead High, Flanagan quit the swim team in order to concentrate on making the U.S. National Cross Country team. She qualified. She was one of the millions of middle school students that talked about running in the Olympics someday. But she wasn't just running her mouth.

"Last year, when people asked me, I said, 'Well, it's too early. I don't know,'" said Steve Flanagan, emphasizing how he feels about Shalane from a runner's perspective and not a father-and-daughter perspective. "This year when people ask me, I say, 'Yeah, I believe she is going to make the Olympic team next year.'"

Her dream after graduation is to run professionally for a living.

"My goal is to be a name as common here eventually like Marion Jones, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan and Julius Peppers," Flanagan said. "I want to be known as someone like that."

As a history major, Flanagan understands how one person can be remembered for his or her greatness. But whether she runs professionally or not, her impact has already been felt. Steve has encouraged Shalane to meet other runners and coaches after competitions because she may want to potentially coach in the near future.

"She needs to look at the next opportunity because you're only one injury away from being yesterday's story," Steve said. "Not too many people make a living (running). If that's what you want to do, improve your network."

Improving her network shouldn't be a problem.

This story first appeared at in January 2004.