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.


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