By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
The cross-country running season is over, but Ben Flanagan still has a lot of distance to cover in the coming months.
The Grade 12 St. Mary’s High School student and Tri City Track Club standout is narrowing down his options for college and three remain — the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin.
That means lots of late nights and miles to trace as the reigning Canadian junior silver-medallist balances official visits, late-night recruiting calls, practices and homework.
But as of yet, and true to his future biology-majoring brain, Flanagan does not mind being a lab rat as collegiate coaches try to study and dissect his future plans.
“It’s overwhelming a bit,” Flanagan said from Victoria last week, where he was visiting family following the Canadian junior cross-country championships. “My buddies and I would be studying the night before a test, or something, and I’d be getting anywhere from two to four phone calls on these certain nights.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It’s cool to talk to these schools, but man, sometimes I just need to focus on school stuff right now.”
It helps that Flanagan is somewhat used to the attention, too.
The 17-year-old distance runner has been turning heads since Grade 9, when he finished third in the OFSAA junior boys cross-country final and won bronze in the 3,000-metre midget boys event at the OFSAA track and field championships.
Four years later, and Flanagan has seven OFSAA medals and counting, the latest acquired last month when he finished first in the senior boys cross-country final in Brampton.
But Flanagan is still breaking ground.
A month after OFSAA, with his main goal of winning provincials already accomplished, Flanagan earned a spot at his first world junior cross-country championship next March in Poland with a second-place finish at nationals.
Flanagan finished the Jericho Beach course in Vancouver in 24 minutes, 32.38 seconds — 6.02 seconds off the pace of 19-year-old Newmarket native Dylan Brown.
The results capped off an “ideal year, where everything worked out” for Flanagan, who was hampered by an SI joint injury in 2011-12 and missed the podium for the first time at the OFSAA cross-country championships (he was sixth).
“I came out here with some confidence from OFSAA and everything, and I knew I was in a spot where I could make the team,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, as long as I’m out here in Vancouver I might as well win the thing, too, right?
“I’m thrilled I came second and the race went fantastic. At the end of the day, I made the national team and this season panned out perfectly.”
It took a lot of hard work to get there, though.
Flanagan spent countless hours working on his form with Tri City Track Club coach Peter Grinsberg, who transformed Flanagan from a stiff-armed, rigid runner into an athlete with a smooth, natural and rhythmic stride.
St. Mary’s coach Krestena Sullivan takes care of the rest.
A former world junior-calibre runner and NCAA All-American at Villanova University, Sullivan has been a part-time strategist, psychologist and advisor, as well as a close friend to Flanagan.
Their families share the occasional breakfast together and Sullivan has become such a trusted confidant that Flanagan feels he can talk her about anything.
“She’s gone through it all,” he said. “And she’s not just a mentor in the whole athletic sense, she is also there for me in school, any kind of issues I’ll definitely go to her because she’s always got great advice.”
The downside is Flanagan’s time at St. Mary’s is coming to an end, with little more than one semester and the track and field season left to go before he graduates.
Although it was Flanagan’s sisters, Jamie and Kristen, who dragged him out to cross-country practice four years ago, it was the team environment that kept him coming back for more.
“It’s going to be sad leaving,” he said. “Once I started running, I didn’t have a second guess or a doubt in my head about continuing. It just felt so comfortable and so easy being there.
“It’s easy to develop into a strong athlete, because of all the encouragement and team bonding.”