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Throughout his running career, Ben Flanagan has been told he stood a good chance of becoming an Olympian. It never felt closer to reality, he says, than this year.
At Drake Relays in April, Flanagan took nearly 20 seconds off his season-opening time in the 5,000 metres of 13 minutes 25.39 seconds, less than 12 seconds off the Tokyo standard with two months remaining in the qualifying period.
"It was a brief moment but [an Olympic opportunity] was right in front of my face," Flanagan told CBC Sports last week. "I was so close and just needed to seal the deal."
On June 10, Moh Ahmed and Justyn Knight — the first and second fastest North Americans of all time in the 5,000 — ran under 13 minutes to secure two of the maximum three Olympic spots available to Canadian men in the event.
The third was up for grabs until Luc Bruchet dipped under the 13:13.50 automatic entry standard two days later, going 13:12.56 for the third fastest time ever among Canadian men.
It was decision time for Flanagan, who had already flown from his Virginia home to quarantine for 14 days in his native Kitchener, Ont., before the Olympic trials. He could either race at trials in Montreal or return to the United States to attempt the automatic entry standard. Flanagan chose the latter.
"In a championship-style race the focus is to win … so going to [Olympic trials] was going to be about winning and not necessarily chasing a fast time," he said. "Given the bar Luc Bruchet set, I felt the only shot I had [to make the Olympic team] was to run faster."
Flanagan entered a June 22 race in Oregon, where world-class pacesetters led the Reebok Boston Track Club athlete through 3,000 metres in Olympic standard pace. But once they dropped off, Flanagan, who had built a substantial lead, was running alone.
Missing Olympic trials 'stung'
"Running from the front by myself is a situation I've always struggled with. There's such a small margin for error and the best results in my career are when I'm racing for the win. I wasn't able to push myself to the extent I was hoping [in order] to stay on pace," said Flanagan, who crossed the finish line first in 13:33.90 but the time quashed any hope of making his Olympic debut in Japan next month. Flanagan is also outside the world ranking qualifying criteria.
It was such a difficult team to make. We're literally sending the fastest group of 5,000-metre runners we ever have. — Canada's Ben Flanagan on failed bid to make his 1st Olympic team
"I haven't been to a Canadian Olympic trials so that decision definitely stung, but I felt it was the best decision to get a spot on the team," said Flanagan, who had planned to watch the men's 5,000 on Saturday night at the Canadian championships, a race Mike Tate won in 14:15.93 at a rainy Claude Robillard Sports Complex in Montreal.
In mid-May, Flanagan also sacrificed an opportunity to improve his world ranking in the 5,000 by taking his "one shot" at the 27:28 Olympic standard in the 10,000 at a meet in Irvine, Calif, where he ran a personal-best 27:49.09.
"I was happy I took a shot," said Flanagan, who won the 10,000 at the NCAA Division 1 championships in 2018 as a fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan. "I feel confident I made the right decisions [along the way].
"It was such a difficult team to make. We're literally sending the fastest group of 5,000-metre runners we ever have. Although I like to think I'm of the same calibre, it took me longer to get into the fitness to showcase that. I haven't been ready to run 13:10, and that's what it takes this year to make the team."
While noting he's "never figured out the 5K," Flanagan feels he is learning how to balance speed and strength at the distance. At Drake Relays and racing a 5,000 in Boston at the end of May, he reached a comfortable speed through 3K in a time resembling those from previous years at the distance.
Too fit to end season
"I've had so much success in the 10K and half marathon because I've found an ability to stay comfortable at a fast pace for a lot of the race and close hard," said Flanagan, who won his one and only half marathon last December in South Carolina. "You can't afford to do that in the 5K. You have to go out aggressive and hold on.
"I think making sure I come through 2K and 3K at an aggressive pace is going to be the last piece of the puzzle."
Flanagan remains in too good of shape, he pointed out, to call it a season and is planning another race or two on the track as the 2022 world championship qualifying window for the 5,000 opens July 1.
On Aug. 15, he will return to the Falmouth Road Race in the coastal town on Cape Cod, Mass., for the first time since 2018 when Flanagan became the first Canadian — male or female — to win in the event's then-46-year history.
"If I continue to progress, the 5K is an option for 2024 [Olympics] in Paris," he said. "I'd love to make improvements in the 10K but there are limited [race] opportunities nowadays. And over the next year or so, if the best shot for me to represent Canada is in the marathon, I'm open to the idea."