Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - July 2, 2010

Title brings Fleshman's career full circle after injury

by Keith Peters

Nearly two years ago, Lauren Fleshman pretty much couldn't run. Just one week ago, Fleshman completed a remarkable comeback by capturing the women's 5,000 meters at the 2010 USA Outdoor Championships.

Just like the track-and-field oval she runs on, the former Stanford All-American has come full circle.

"If you'd have talked to me 12 months ago I was ready to, I don't know, open up a shoe store or something else, maybe move to another state," Fleshman said after winning her second national title in Des Moines, Iowa. "I was very frustrated. I couldn't seem to run more than four weeks without getting injured."

A year ago in Eugene, Ore., Fleshman failed to show up on the starting line of the 5000 at the 2009 USA Outdoor Championships. She had been plagued by a series of mechanical problems stemming from a broken navicular bone in her foot. It was an injury that led to other injuries, so the 2006 USA 5K champ scratched from the race as she was unable to compete. Fleshman, then 27, seriously considered retiring.

Fortunately for Fleshman, she didn't.

Under the patient coaching of Marc Rowland at the Nike Oregon Track Club in Eugene, Fleshman slowly worked herself back into the form that saw her set a Stanford and Pac-10 records in the 5K in addition to winning an NCAA title in 2003. After graduating, Fleshman competed in two IAAF World Championships and ran a personal best of 14:58.48 in 2008.

It was then that Fleshman began suffering her string of injuries, which basically forced her to re-learn how to run.

"I really just started over," she said. "I didn't have Coach Rowland and the Oregon Track Club, I don't know if I would have made it back. I definitely wouldn't have been national champion this quickly. So I'm just full of gratitude for my situation."

Fleshman completed her rags-to-riches story last Friday by winning the second U.S. 5,000 title of her career. She crossed the finish line first in 15:27.70.

"With 200 to go I was dying," Fleshman said. "I probably wasn't looking so good. I don't want to see the video on that one. At that point, I was just like, 'Don't think about anything but the next step. Think about the finish line and I'll do that thing where you wobble and fall over before you get there.'"

Fleshman, who first won this event in 2006, and has been ranked in the Top 10 in the U.S. every year from 2002 to 2008, held off runnerup and four-time Big East outdoor champion Molly Huddle (15:30.89) for the win. Olympic and 2009 World Outdoor Championships finalist Jenny Barringer, who won this event last year, finished third in 15:33.33.

Fleshman was a 15-time All-American and five time NCAA champion while at Stanford.

"This was so sweet," she said. "I mean, I don't know how else to put it. Especially coming into today and the mental side of it that I'm racing against people who haven't had any time off and that can really mess with your head. I was sitting around on my sofa and going, 'Can I run four miles today?' You spend so many months thinking 'I'm on the comeback' and then at one point you just have to go, 'You know what, I'm here.'"

Fleshman ran most of the way in the pack and did not respond immediately to a big surge by Jen Rhines, a three-time Olympian who threw in a 69-second lap with five laps to go. Rhines managed to build an eight-second lead with four laps remaining, and it looked like her strategy would pay off with a title.

With two laps to go, however, Rhines's lead was down to five seconds. Fleshman was working with Huddle to catch the 2002 USA 10,000m champion and, with 600 meters left in the race decided to go for the win.

"It was just knowing that I had enough left to put on a good kick," said Fleshman. "I didn't know if it would be enough to win, but I just got this smirk where I knew I had something left."

Fleshman threw down a 67-second last lap to open a gap on Huddle and the race was over.

Fleshman's finish was as painful as her return. She said that she had to totally reinvent herself.

"I had to first take it day by day, never think more than one day at a time, never get frustrated, try not to think about how good I had been," she said. "It's really all about learning to live in the moment, which is hard to do."

Fleshman won a trail run last September in Bend, Ore., then a road 5K last October. She didn't race on the track again until April, when she won the low-key Oregon Relays 5,000 in 15:42.46. That gave her a qualifying mark for nationals.

Even after arriving at Drake Stadium before her final race, Fleshman wasn't completely sure she was ready to mix it up with the other contenders.

"There was a big part of me which wasn't sure, but there was this little part of me which felt that I might be able to win it," she said. "And that scared the crap out of me."

While her victory in 2006 was satisfying, Fleshman said it had far less meaning. Moreover, the latest one has forced her to perhaps change her summer plans.

"I think my wishy washy summer plans have changed," she said. "Now I may have to go to Europe to find some tough races.

Europe probably beckons a handful of other former Stanford athletes who enjoyed success at the USA championships.

Olympians Erica McLain and Jill Camarena-Williams collected gold medals while Lindsay Allen won a bronze, while Russell Brown, Garrett Heath, Ian Dobson and Sara (Bei) Hall each reached the finals of their respective events.

Allen finished third in the women's 3,000 steeplechase in a season best of 9:59.19 on Sunday while Brown was sixth in the 1,500 with a time of 3:52.20 and Heath went 3:52.80, finishing 10th.

Stanford sophomore Karynn Dunn took home the Junior National title in the girls' long jump.

The 24-year-old McLain, who lives in Menlo Park and still trains under Stanford head coach Edrick Floreal, recorded her winning mark of 46-6 1/4 (wind-aided) on her first attempt, and then fouled four times. Her final jump of 46-5 1/4 is the best legal mark of the season by an American and matched her personal best.

"My goal coming in was definitely American record," McLain said. "It was a little hard, I'm pretty sure my second jump probably was it; maybe a couple jumps in there too where I fouled by a toenail. So I was little upset there at the end. But it's the most courageous performance I think I ever had."

McLain won her second USA Outdoor title and set a Drake Stadium record in dominating the competition. She won in 2005, finished second at the 2009 USA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, and finished third in 2007 and 2008.

Camarena-Williams, meanwhile, produced her championship throw during the fifth round.

"You know, I've been training really well and I knew if I just made a couple tweaks from the first three, I could get a big one and that's what I really focused on in that fifth round one," Camarena-Williams said. "I've been really consistent this outdoor season and just having bigger marks, and I just think really good things are to come in the next few weeks."

The six-time defending USA Indoor champion in the event, Camarena-Williams succeeded in winning her second outdoor title, and first since 2006, after finishing second in two of the three previous years. Her winning heave of 62-9 1/4, a personal best outdoors was more than two inches farther than second-place Michelle Carter.

Camarena-Williams's all-time best of 63-5 1/2 came indoors this season. That ranks her No. 3 all-time for Americans (indoors).

Camarena-Williams made her first Olympic team in the shot put with her third-place finish at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. It was Camarena-Williams's first competition of the 2008 outdoor season and came less than three months after she had back surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Dunn won the junior long jump with a mark of 20-4 1/2. She overtook early leader Andrea Geubelle, of Kansas, who went 20-4 1/4 on her first attempt and held that lead through four rounds. Dunn recorded the winning mark on her fifth attempt.

"My first jump, I actually ended up with a new personal record for the season, with six meters even," Dunn said. "That wasn't that great, but it kept me in second until the finals. I consistently jumped around six meters."

Hall finished ninth in the women's 1,500 with a time of 4:17.87. Olympian Anna Pierce won the race in 4:13.65. Dobson finished eighth in the men's 5,000 with a time of 14:03.53.

The USA Outdoor Championships are the third stop of the USATF Outdoor Visa Championship Series, which concludes Saturday with the Nike Prefontaine Classic at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

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