This year, American women turned two of the world’s iconic athletic competitions — the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and the New York City Marathon — into their own historic showcases.
In September at the U.S. Open, all four semifinalists were American — which hadn’t happened since 1985. And in last week’s New York City Marathon, 36-year-old Shalane Flanagan became the first female champion since 1977 to hail from the U.S.
However, neither accomplishment received quite the media attention they otherwise would have because each was immediately overshadowed by urgent national disasters.
The U.S. Open semifinals coincided with Hurricane Irma bearing down on the entire state of Florida.
And news of the Nov. 5 mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas — in which 26 people were killed — broke barely an hour after Flanagan had crossed the finish line in Central Park.
Combine that with Lower Manhattan being where a terrorist attack had killed eight people and injured 11 just five days before the race, and it’s easy to understand how the event’s actual results might’ve gotten overlooked.
Nevertheless, Flanagan’s unexpected victory — her first major marathon win in more than a decade of marathon competition — has made an indelible impact in the running world.
Just ask Rylee Pustilnik, a 16-year-old Spanish River High School track and cross country star who’s been a Flanagan fan her whole life.
“I watched the entire race,” said Rylee. “It was so inspiring to see how each time the other top runners challenged her, she’d surge ahead. She did that from the beginning and kept it up till the end.”
Like most prognosticators, Rylee had discounted Flanagan’s chance of winning. After all, Flanagan had missed more than three months of racing and training earlier this year as she recovered from a back injury. And three-time defending champ Mary Keitany, of Kenya — who would finish in second place a minute behind Flanagan — was the prohibitive favorite.
“I loved that she came back so strong after being injured,” said Rylee. “She showed us all that not only are Americans going to be a real factor in distance events but that if you dream big, you can achieve your goals.”
Spanish River High School assistant track and cross country Melissa Perlman — an accomplished former collegiate runner in her own right — was in New York to watch her boyfriend, Mark Burns, participate in his first marathon. Getting to see Flanagan’s historic victory in person was an unexpected treat.
“I am a year younger than Shalane so I’ve always followed her career – through college and then professionally,” said Perlman. “The way she dominated the race and believed in herself to go after the win, and not look back, is something we can all learn from — whether it be in athletics, your career or any other aspect of your life.”
On the day after the race, Perlman, who was staying at the same hotel as Flanagan, happened to be in the lobby at the same time as the now-reigning New York City Marathon champion.
Perlman introduced herself and congratulated Flanagan on the victory.
“She was exhausted — but still so gracious,” Perlman said. “She’s such a great role model for female athletes.”