Bound for the Olympics, these athletes aim to shine
Bill McCarthy wondered if Shalane Flanagan's spindly seventh-grade muscles could keep the impossible pace she had set for herself. It was her first mile race, but she started with a fury, outkicking all of the girls and most of the boys after three laps.
“God," thought McCarthy, then the track coach at Marblehead Middle School, “she's killing herself."
She eventually finished second overall, just four seconds behind the fastest boy on the track, Tristan Colangelo, who would later become a high school state champion miler at Gloucester High.
Still, she was upset.
“I remember her mom telling her, 'Remember one thing: All you have to do is beat the girls,' " McCarthy said. “That was a classic line. I separated the boys and girls for every race after that, and she won every race."
For the better part of two decades, Flanagan has maintained a desire to beat everyone on the track. Now she's a Team USA's gold medal hopeful in the marathon.
She is one of the seven athletes with local ties — along with Methuen High graduate Sean Furey (javelin); Sarah Scherer (air rifle) and Travis Stevens (judo), both of Woburn; former Somerville resident Natalie Dell (quadruple sculls); Elliot Hovey (quadruple sculls) of Manchester-by-the-Sea; and Kayla Harrison (judo) of Marblehead — who will compete at the Summer Olympic Games in Great Britain later this week.
From places just north of Boston, they all carved their paths to London, leaving indelible impressions on local coaches and teammates who knew them long before their shots at international glory.
Shalane Flanagan was always a natural athlete.
Sue Guertin's earliest memories of her: as a swimmer at the Marblehead/Swampscott YMCA. Guertin coached Flanagan from the time she was 6, watching as she developed the strength and aerobic ability that would later give her a head start on her fellow runners.
“She could have been a phenomenal swimmer," Guertin said. “When she started doing cross-country, even though it was a different season, she had to just focus on her running. It was clear that's what she should do. She would win everything."
Flanagan was dominant at Marblehead High in cross-country and the mile and continued her stellar career at the University of North Carolina. She won bronze at the 2008 Olympics in the 10,000-meter event, and now 31 years old, she has transitioned to the marathon.
In London she will run in her third-ever 26.2 mile race, but back in Marblehead no one will be surprised to see her on the podium. Just elated.
“I had no clue she'd be an Olympian," McCarthy said. “But every time she's gone to a different level, she's succeeded. She's just a special kid. To me she's still a kid."
Furey is another local high school product who has made his way into the upper echelon of his sport. As an uncoordinated freshman who aspired to become the starting varsity quarterback at Methuen High, no one could have predicted he would someday be ranked among the world's elite javelin throwers.
“I wouldn't say he was awkward," said Methuen track and field coach Roger Fuller. “But he certainly hadn't grown into his body yet. You know, like most high school kids at that age."
Within two years, under the guidance of then-coach Larry Klemis, Furey grew into a broad-shouldered 6-foot-2 kinesiological marvel, turning technical fluency and physical power into long, majestic throws. He put on shows in practices where his peers would gather around just to watch his javelin hover for what seemed like an eternity.
As a junior, his state championship toss that traveled over 190 feet was the buzz of the meet.
“I remember saying, ‘He threw 190-what?' " said Kevin Alliette, a teammate of Furey's who went on to become an All-American runner at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“I was so psyched for him because it couldn't have happened to a better kid. He worked so hard. He was always one of the last ones at practice because he wanted to do so much. He'd do hurdles and high jump, and then when everyone was done, he'd go throw."
Furey earned the starting quarterback job his senior year, but javelin was his calling. He won a national title as a senior and then made his way to Dartmouth, where he set the program record (242 feet, 3 inches) and earned his degree in engineering, along with being the junior varsity QB.
He is hoping to crack the top 12 in London.
Then there's Scherer, who picked up her sport as a 9-year-old growing up in Woburn. She and her older brother, Stephen, joined the Massachusetts Rifle Association facility in town and quickly learned to love shooting.
Solomon Kraner, a longtime member of the rifle association, remembers Scherer as a better shot than many of the male members.
“She would stay for hours, practicing the details," Kraner said. “Usually kids are more distracted, shooting some, then talking some. She was practicing, going for a goal and analyzing every practice what she did right and wrong. From the way she was approaching it, I knew right away she would be a master. She wasn't practicing for mom or dad, she was doing it for herself and that's a big difference. I could see that she was very different."
Scherer was home-schooled by her mother, Susan, and now competes for Texas Christian University, where she's experienced both joy and unimaginable pain. In 2010, seven months after she helped lead TCU to the first of its two NCAA team titles in the last three years, Stephen, a 2008 Olympian in Beijing, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Those who remember Scherer from her days practicing in Woburn know that her focus and her passion for the sport helped guide her to the success she's had since.
“She worked hard, but she was always smiling, always so friendly, so polite," Kraner said. "She deserves to be there."
So too does Harrison, 22, who also overcame tragedy to make it to London. Growing up in Ohio, she was sexually abused for several years by her judo coach, Daniel Doyle, who was eventually sentenced to serve 10 years in prison and banned from coaching USA Judo.
Harrison's mother pressed charges and moved her then-16-year-old daughter to Massachusetts to train at Jimmy Pedro's Judo Center in Wakefield as part of the USA under-23 judo program.
Harrison arrived with talent on the judo mat, but the Pedros’ priority was to help her get the emotional and psychological guidance she needed.
The transition to her new life in Massachusetts was difficult, but as she trained and competed, she built strong relationships with Pedro, his dad, Jim Sr., as well as her fellow trainees — like Stevens, who has trained there after finishing ninth in the 2008 Olympics — and eventually she felt at home.
“It took trust and time and sharing experiences and a lot of back and forth,” said Pedro, a four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist. "With what happened, it's hard to trust anybody, right? We earned her trust and she understood that whatever decisions we're making were in her best interest."
Under the Pedros’ guidance, Harrison has become one of the favorites to come home with the gold medal.
Winning any medal seemed like a faraway dream for Natalie Dell when she resided in Somerville. Unlike her current Team USA teammate, Hovey, (who honed his skills at the Salisbury School under coach Dick Curtis and competed in the 2008 Olympics), she considered herself very much a novice back in 2007.
She had just moved to the area to earn her master’s degree in public health from Boston University, with an eye on some day having the chance to compete for Team USA, even though her highest level of competition came while a part of the club crew team at Penn State.
She joined the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge and made the switch from a rower (holding one oar) to a sculler (two oars). After hours of training in between classes and studying, she then graduated and had to find time on the water to work around her full-time job at the Bedford VA Medical Center.
In December 2010 she made the national team and has lived in New Jersey to train with her Team USA teammates.
“She always had that drive," said her coach, Tom Kiester. “She had found real racing aggression, and she didn't accept where she was and she always had her eyes on where she wanted to go."
London has always been the destination.
But before London, for these seven athletes, there were places north of Boston where the memories of their pre-Olympic lives are still fresh in the minds of many and the source of great pride.
Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.