On June 6th, 2018, one lap remained on Hayward Field Track in Eugene, Oregon. This was not just any lap: it was the lap to determine who would be the 10,000 meter NCAA Champion. By the last lap, after the size of the lead pack winnowed down, Michigan’s Ben Flanagan found himself closing in on the lead. “I just wanted to put myself in that position, as long as I was there I had a shot.”
Ben was seeded as the 23rd fastest runner out of the 24 who qualified. Many did not give him a chance. “I talked to [Coach Sullivan] the day before and I told him I thought I could win. I was waiting for him to say anything to give me doubt but he thought I could, too.” That was all the motivation he needed.
Suddenly, Vincent Kiprop of the University of Alabama burst into a full sprint, trying to drop the field and take home the trophy, but Ben stayed right behind him. Three-fourths of the lap was completed, and with 100 meters left to go, Ben found himself in second. “I just told myself I was not going to settle, I had to go for it.” Ben kicked his legs harder, and suddenly he caught Kiprop. Flanagan burst ahead to the finish line excited and incredulous all at once. Crossing the finish line first with joy and shock he yelled the only thing he could think of. “Where’s my mom?!” It was a moment of absolute brilliance, something Disney movies could only dream of making up themselves.
I first heard of Ben Flanagan this past March. I had been a 400 runner for the Michigan Running Club team for more than four months and was beginning to follow the Michigan varsity athletes. My high school career in track and field was lackluster at best, but around that time I had begun to find mild success and joy in the sport I had previously hated. In high school, I wondered why anyone would run, and now my only wonder is why so many avoid it.
After shocking many and winning the NCAA title, it would have been easy to stop and rest in his laurels. For Ben, however, he felt the passion and drive to keep going.
When I met up with Ben a few weeks back, Ben seemed to understand the exact feeling. “Progress is relatable at every level.” When Ben started to compete better in high school, he began to realize that running was something he wanted to continue to pursue at the collegiate level.
After visiting Wisconsin, UVA, and the University of Michigan, he found something special in Michigan that he gravitated toward. “It was very down to earth, I could just be myself.”
When Ben finally arrived in Ann Arbor, he began to struggle through injuries and battled through tough situations. When he struggled he turned to his teammates, his friends, his family, and his roommates. “We all kind of had some injuries, and we supported each other through it.”
However, during his senior year, all of the pieces began to fit in place. After winning the Big Ten title in the 10k, he worked toward qualifying for the NCAA Track and Field Championships. From dealing with injuries, he put together a more sustainable training plan, and was able to avoid setbacks and stay healthy. “I closed the last mile in [the Big Ten Conference Championships] in 4:17 which I had never done before, I challenged Kiprop at qualifiers and felt like I could beat him.”
After shocking many and winning the NCAA title, it would have been easy to stop and rest in his laurels. For Ben, however, he felt the passion and drive to keep going. “I have just been having so much fun with it,” Ben explained. “It has really been exciting to progress like this.”
Ben would go on to break the four-minute mile and sign with Reebok Boston Track Club. He is doing this while also pursuing a Masters in Social Work at Michigan. When I asked about his future, for him it is clear the national title was just the beginning. “I would love to compete in an Olympics cycle, be that the Marathon or something else.”
When we think of our favorite athletes, we think more often of the highs, but we forget or do not always see all of the lows. Sports are some of the most rewarding and the most heartbreaking activities anyone could sign up for. However, what separates good athletes from the great ones is that when they see the bottom, their response is not to give up, but rather to work even harder.
Some may still wonder why anyone would willingly deprive themselves of oxygen by continuously running in circles. It is trivial, long and at times simply too difficult for even the most amazing athletes. For Ben, for me, and for so many others, those circles signify us at our best, when we’re challenging ourselves to be better, to work harder, to shoot higher.
So when he showed up to Eugene that fateful day, nobody gave Ben much of a chance. But Ben would go on to shock the track world, taking the title in a fashion that no one could have seen coming. However, if you know Ben, you know the sacrifices, the passion, and the effort that he puts into track on a regular basis. If you know Ben, this victory was not surprising, it was a long time coming.