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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

This distance runner has guts

August 16, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — Shalane Flanagan was hesitant to believe her own eyes, confused by the chaos of the lead runners lapping slower ones as the women's 10,000-meter Olympic run came to a spectacular conclusion Friday night at the Bird's Nest.

She looked toward the stands for her husband or her coach to confirm what she thought had happened, but she couldn't find either of them, and her uncertainty lingered.

Four days after a bout of food poisoning weakened her while she trained at the U.S. track team's camp in Dalian, China, and only one day after she summoned just enough strength to manage a mild, six-mile jog, she had rallied in the last 800 meters of the first track final at the Beijing Games.

She thought she might have won the bronze medal but wasn't sure. So, as she slowly raised three fingers in the air, a puzzled expression played across her face.

"I had no idea what place was what," she said. "I thought maybe it was third, but I had no idea. I didn't want to celebrate just then because I thought maybe I was fourth."

The clear winner was world champion Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, who set an Olympic record of 29 minutes 54.66 seconds. The silver medalist was Elvan Abeylegesse, a native of Ethiopia who competes for Turkey and battled Dibaba shoulder to shoulder with four laps to go.

Dibaba, her long legs rapidly gobbling up ground, made a characteristic late run to get past Abeylegesse, who finished in 29:56.34.

Flanagan, who had been 12th at the 2,400-meter mark and 10th at 4,400 meters, passed runner after runner on a warm and still summer night and crossed the line in 30:22.22, more than 12 seconds faster than the U.S. record she had set in May at Palo Alto.

"We kind of hardnosed it," said her coach, John Cook.

Finally, someone on the track -- she didn't remember who -- told her that yes, she was third and had earned the first medal by an American woman in the 10,000 since Lynn Jennings' third-place finish at Barcelona in 1992.

Only then did Flanagan allow herself to relax and savor the moment, to grin and wrap herself in an American flag while she celebrated her greatest and most unlikely achievement.

"There was a point in the middle of the race where I thought, 'This could go really well or really bad.' It started to hurt," said Flanagan, who grew up in Marblehead, Mass., and lives in Pittsboro, N.C.

"And I just found my happy place and thought of my favorite run at home: 'What am I holding it back for? There's nothing to hold it back for, forever. I'm just going to let it go.' "

Her success continues an upswing in the fortunes of U.S. distance runners, who have become factors internationally after a long drought.

The tide began to turn with Meb Keflezighi's silver medal in the men's marathon and Deena Kastor's bronze in the women's marathon at the Athens Games.

It was lifted by Kara Goucher's bronze medal in the 10,000 at last year's world championships and raised even higher by Flanagan's gutsy third-place finish Friday.

"The emotions we went through, we were just going to tough this thing out. And she did," Cook said. "She was just a soldier."

Flanagan could not have predicted this a few days ago, when what she delicately referred to as "gastrointestinal issues" weakened her so profoundly that Cook begged a doctor they knew in Florida to fly to China to help her.

Fearful of giving her banned substances that might cause a positive doping test, they relied on fluids, an over-the-counter stomach remedy and electrolyte pills.

She had six unspeakably bad hours early in the week and some setbacks when she tried to jog. She was too weak to leave the camp in Dalian and fly to Beijing on Wednesday.

Still, Cook said they never discussed having her withdraw, and he was encouraged by her resilience toward the end of the week and in the minutes before the race.

"We were very positive," he said. "She was very positive in the warmup area. She didn't even want to wear an ice vest. It was very good karma."

And maybe it was good that the illness allowed her to sleep instead of stressing over the 10,000 and her prospects in the 5,000, which starts Tuesday.

"There's something to be said for forced rest," said her husband, Steve Edwards. "It got her mind off the race and onto getting healthy again.

"Good for her eating the poisonous food, I guess. It all works out in the end. I wouldn't have changed anything."

Nor would Flanagan. Every step, however unsteady, has led her to the forefront of a generation of talented distance runners who will be heard from again during these Games.

"It all started, for my era, with Deena Kastor winning a medal in Athens in the marathon. I think that made us really dream big," Flanagan said.

"Kara really solidified it and reinforced it. It just takes one person. Kara's a great model for me and the rest of the U.S. women.

"I'm excited. I think that this is the beginning for the U.S. women. There's going to be a lot of good things happening."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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