Sunday, December 30, 2018

Where It Lands

2018 Reunions with Three of the Sport's Finest:
Shalane Flanagan, Julius Yego, 
and Tshepang Makhethe

Copyright 2018. Mark Cullen/Trackerati.com. All Rights Reserved.
Continental Cup Celebration
Ostrava, Czech Republic
"You never know where it lands," I said many times during my 41 year career in education. Students I thought might return vanish, and ones who surprise me  come back and repeat what I said in class one day 30 years ago. So it was in 2018 as I encountered Shalane Flanagan (13 years), Tshepang Makhethe (4), and Julius Yego (3) some considerable time after our first memorable meetings.

Julius Yego, Kenya
2015 World Javelin Champion; Africa Team Co-Captain, 2018 Continental Cup 
Africa Team Co-Captain Julius Yego
2018 Continental Cup
Ostrava, Czech Republic

photo credit: Mark Cullen/trackerati
My path had crossed in person with Julius Yego only twice. The first was when he won the World title in Beijing in 2015, notable for the fact that an African won the javelin for the first time. I ran some stats to put this historic event into a global and cultural context in Watching History:
http://www.trackerati.com/2015/08/watching-history.html

Two years later, at the Prefontaine Classic, I ran into Yego in person - almost literally at first - as we were both leaving the athletes' hotel. I worried for him as he left at dusk for a nearby shopping mall.

It was - and remains - a time of intense concern for the safety of young black men in America, and I was deeply concerned for his; Dusk on America:
http://www.trackerati.com/2017/05/dusk-on-america-sunset-ineugene.html

I waited for him to return to his hotel and would not leave until I was assured of his safety. Athlete and writer no more; instead, two people looking out for each other.

On Friday in Ostrava, at the captains' press conference the day before the competition began, I spoke with Yego for the first time since that evening.

He looked me in the eye and our eyes didn't budge.

"Yes, I remember."

Shalane Flanagan, United States
2017 New York City Marathon Champion, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000m, 2011 World Cross Country bronze medalist
Shalane Flanagan
Winning the 2017 New York City Marathon
photo credit: New York Road Runners/TCS New York City Marathon
Flanagan was fresh off her memorable NYC Marathon victory when she ran the 3000m at the Husky Indoor in Seattle on January 13.

I had not interviewed her directly, but was part of many mixed zone interview scrums over the years. I very much wanted to talk with her now, yet it was not clear to athletes that they were to go to an interview area – much less where that interview area was – as soon as their competitions were complete. 

After a strong 3rd place in the 3000m, Flanagan disappeared to the other side of the arena. I watched a number of runners put on sweats and exit outside for a warm down run.

It was close to 5:00pm and I had been on my feet much of the day. I was ready to eat and had nothing with me. A wave of fatigue came over me.

Flanagan was nowhere to be found, and suddenly it dawned on me.

"That’s it," I thought - Flanagan must have been with them. I couldn't have been more disappointed than to miss her. The reward of this long day was supposed to have been a minute with Flanagan – then I’d have the capper to my story.

I looked down, arranged my backpack and got ready to leave.

My inner voice. “Dude. Look up.”

“Hi, Shalane.”

She’s 5 feet in front of me.

It’s awkward. Her runner's duties are done. A child is climbing all over her.

“Do you have a minute, please?”

A gracious yes, but a minute would be a good idea.

“I remember the last time we spoke,” I said.

I have her attention.

“On the ferry from Talinn to Helsinki the day after the end of the 2005 World Championships.”

“NOOOOOO WAAAAAYYYY!!!”

And the interview was on.

It took me awhile to realize just how valuable it is to build relationships with the athletes over time. Our Gulf of Finland meeting took place a full 8 years before I began Trackerati. I realize now that having been in and of this track and field world as a spectator and fan for over 40 years before I began Trackerati is its own reward, one I never expected.

The interview lasts 2:04.

See? 

I got double-time with Shalane.

Tshepang Makhethe, South Africa
Hammer Throw, 2018 Africa Continental Cup Team

Tshepang Makhethe
2014 World Junior Championships, Eugene
photo credit: Mark Cullen/trackerati
I didn't tell Tshepang Makhethe that I'd be at the Continental Cup. In fact, I didn't know for certain that he'd be there until final entries were confirmed.

Four years ago, just a year after starting this website, I covered my first World Championships - the 2014 Juniors - in Eugene, OR. I met Makhethe when I was taking photos of athletes who were looking at their names on display boards in the fan zone.

I wrote one of my earliest stories, and my first of what are now many about hammer throwers, in As Good As Gold:
http://www.trackerati.com/2014/07/as-good-as-gold.html

Four years later, as I was readying my "I hope you remember..." introduction in Ostrava, both Makhethe and Sean Donnelly (US) came into the Continental Cup's interview area at the same time. A welcome smile and handshake from Donnelly, while Makhethe was his exuberant self and almost flew over the barriers to greet me.

Donnelly looked quite surprised and, on a day that hadn't gone well for him, we had a brief interview in which he said how pleased he was with the entire season - "I rewrote my top ten list" - in spite of a disappointing day in Ostrava.

"You either win or you learn," he said, ruefully.

Donnelly and I were joined forever by an errant hammer throw of his at the 2018 US National Championships. My photo essay, such as it was, went crazy online and he shrugged his shoulders the next day at his sudden infamy; Scene of the Hammertime Crime:
http://www.trackerati.com/2018/06/scene-of-hammertime-crime.html

I gestured to Makhethe and said to Donnelly, "In case you're wondering, Makhethe was my first hammer article."

"Ahhh..." A knowing nod and he leaves us to our reunion.

Replied Makhethe to me, "And you were my first international article."

Ahhh.

We never know where it lands.






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