God bless Shalane Flanagan. At a time when just about everything in this country seems to be going to seed, along came Shalane Sunday to show us how to set your mind on something, fail, ultimately succeed, and then show unabashed joy and pride over it.
I have a confession. I first met Flanagan, and her mother Cheryl (Bridges) Treworgy, when Shalane was a junior at Marblehead High School. Her mother and I struck up a friendship, and ever since I’ve always followed Flanagan with special interest — long before she became a national celebrity. And if there’s one thing I’ve always admired about her, it’s her ability not only to focus on her goals, but express honest emotion when she came up short. This is a woman who goes all out — and is willing to let you see how much it hurts her when it doesn’t work out.
Four years ago, Flanagan ran the Boston Marathon and finished with a better-than-decent showing. She was long gone from the scene when terrorists exploded two bombs at the finish line.
Flanagan’s anger was palpable. We were all angry, of course, but she turned hers inward. She felt that her race had been desecrated. And she set a marvelous example of “Boston Strong” by immediately signing up to run in 2014.
Not only did she run, she almost won. She broke out ahead of the pack and maintained that pace until she hit the brick wall on the Newton hills.
Afterward, in the post-race news conference, she was asked (by me) how it felt be so close, particularly since one of her great friends, Meb Keflezighi, had become the first American since Greg Meyer in 1983 to win the men’s division.
She tried to answer the question, but couldn’t finish without her voice cracking. She took it personally, and that’s OK. Maybe more people should take what they do personally.
That’s sports, though. Every time you go out there, whether it’s baseball, football, long-distance running, whatever, you’re putting yourself on the line, in front of people, many of whom would like to see you fail. You’re alongside people who are actively working to make sure you fail. You do this knowing in advance that there are all kinds of variables that can keep you from success.
Yet you do this anyway. That in itself takes a tremendous amount of courage, which is why I can’t get as upset over strikeouts with the bases loaded as some people seem to get. That’s sports.
I do get upset, though, when athletes don’t seem to care. I don’t mean I want them all to stomp around and throw things when they strike out. But I’m one of those people who truly believes that the hurt in failure spurs you on to the greatness to which you aspire. It’s supposed to sting. But it also motivates you to work harder.
I remember Larry Bird once saying — after the Celtics were swept out of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks — that he was going to go home over the summer and “punish” himself so that he’d never have that experience again. The following year, 1984, it was Bird who blew a gasket after the Celtics were run out of the building by the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the NBA finals. He said the Celtics “played like sissies.”
The Celtics got the message, loud and clear, that Larry Bird was not going to allow his teammates to embarrass him like that. In the next game, Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis and whole series changed. The Celtics won the title in a 7-game series.
In 2004, Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, the Yankees might as well have been hitting off tees the way they were launching balls out of Fenway Park. They won the game, 19-8.
The Red Sox managed to avoid the sweep in Game 4 (thanks Davids Roberts and Ortiz), and when Pedro Martinez — another one who took what he did fiercely personally — took the mound the next night he buzzed Hideki Matsui extremely up and in (Matsui had been killing the Red Sox). Let’s just say the Yankees didn’t dig in quite as freely after that.
I don’t suggest Flanagan would ever clothesline Mary Keitany, or throw a baseball at her head, but I do say that she possesses the same type of mental toughness, or, as the song says, the eye of the tiger.
If you’ve followed her at all, you knew this would happen eventually. And in a week where we had two mass murders; we were still reeling from a third such incident in Las Vegas a month ago; and where we must be wondering whether we can do anything in this country the right way anymore; there was Flanagan to show us it’s still possible.
Her reaction crossing the finish line, and her wrapping the American flag around herself, was genuine, honest emotion reminiscent of Jim Craig in 1980. And as a man who was in the room when she got so emotional after losing the Boston Marathon in 2014, I got emotional watching her win, and seeing her reaction afterward.