Flanagan shatters personal best and earns NCAA title
With 100 meters to go in the men’s 10,000-meter national championship race, Ben Flanagan was in second place and on the move.
Trailing pre-meet favorite Vincent Kiprop of Alabama, the fifth-year senior on the Michigan men’s track and field team found an extra gear. He began to accelerate, narrowing the gap with each stride.
With just 10 meters to go, Flanagan overtook Kiprop, and he held on to win the race by 0.46 seconds, completing the race in 28:34.54.
After beginning the race as the No. 23 seed in a 24-man field, he was the national champion.
And the first thing he wanted to do was see his mom.
“As soon as I crossed the finish line, the first thing that crossed my mind was I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to share this moment with my mom so bad,’ ” Flanagan said in a conference call Thursday.
“She gets so nervous for these races and having her here to watch that performance and obviously my dad and my uncle as well, meant so much to me. But that was the first thing I thought about as soon as the race was over. I was like, ‘I gotta go see my mom, because I know how much she’s gonna enjoy this moment and I really want to share it with her.’ ”
A gritty race from Flanagan was a fitting end to a collegiate career riddled with adversity. He shattered his previous personal-best time by 39 seconds.
“Obviously this was a huge breakthrough race for me, and I’m so ecstatic about it,” Flanagan said. “But going into the race, I knew that I really did believe I had a shot at it… It was just an amazing day.”
Flanagan’s run to the national title was long — longer than he ever would have imagined. After a strong 2016 season that culminated in 14th place at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 10,000-meter, he found himself battling through a foot injury the following fall. Then he was diagnosed with a sacral stress fracture in his back, and his hopes of improving on his 2016 placing were dashed.
But he kept working, fighting to stay positive throughout his rehab and find his way back onto the track. It paid off, and he now embodies Bo Schembechler’s iconic quote, “Those who stay will be champions.”
“In those moments when things are at their toughest, at the peak of the injury when you don’t really know what the future holds, and things are a little bit uncertain, you’ve just gotta take those small victories and those just kind of start to snowball on each other,” Flanagan said. “Luckily, things really started to come around this season.”
Things started coming around when Flanagan began his postseason campaign with a Big Ten title in the 10,000-meter — his second title in three years in the event after earning his first in 2016. He shaved more than a minute off that Big Ten-winning time at the NCAA East Region preliminaries — going from 30:23.86 to 29:17.24 — to place third and set up his chance at a national title.
“I think the biggest takeaway I had from my injuries is that you just can’t take any moment for granted,” Flanagan said. “That was kind of my mentality this entire season after the setbacks and the adversity and coming back, and then having another setback.
“At Big Tens it felt great, regionals it felt even better, and I just went into every single race like, ‘You know what, we’ve got another day, the body’s cooperating again, just enjoy the moment and have fun with it.’ And coming into nationals, still feeling healthy and ready to roll, I just really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity and have as much fun and enjoy the moment.”
Several of Flanagan’s teammates joined him at the NCAA outdoor championships — fifth-year senior Grant Cartwright, junior Andrew Liskowitz, junior Taylor McLaughlin, and redshirt sophomore Brandon Piwinski.
Cartwright and Liskowitz both competed in the shotput, placing 11th and 14th, respectively. Cartwright tossed a career-best 19.61m in the semifinals but missed qualifying for the final by just two placings.
“He’s always been a leader. He’s always come through in the clutch situations like 90% of the time and he sure did it in this championship phase of the season,” said Michigan coach Jerry Clayton. “To perform well at the Big Tens, then come back to the preliminary rounds with a personal best, and then come here to the NCAA meet with another personal best. … That mark would have probably made the final any year previous to this.”
Piwinski battled wind and rain in his high jump final and finished in a three-way tie for 18th, earning him honorable mention All-American honors.
“Brandon coming in just getting to the meet was quite an accomplishment with what he did at the preliminary round,” Clayton said. “Then coming in here competing under pretty adverse conditions with the rain, I thought he did a good job. … I feel that he competed well under those conditions and that’s all you could ask and that’s the best he could do.”
McLaughlin placed second in the semifinal of the 400-meter hurdles to qualify for the final, then took more than half a second off his qualifying time to place fifth with a time of 49:59 — his career-best time in an NCAA championship.
Flanagan’s win and McLaughlin’s placing earned the Wolverines a total of 14 points toward the team title — placing them 20th out of 69 teams.
More than 12 hours after winning his title, Flanagan could not contain his excitement over the result.
“It was awesome to finish my collegiate career in the best way I could ever imagine, I’m so excited about that,” Flanagan said. “(NCAA competition) has been such a high priority for me the past five years, my dedication to Michigan’s program and doing everything I could to represent the Michigan block ‘M’ to the best of my abilities.”
And there’s no better way to represent the block ‘M’ than by winning a national title.