By Matt Jenkins
---- — Legendary American distance runner Steve Prefontaine once said, “A lot of people run a race to see who’s the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.”
Prefontaine passed away long before Marblehead’s Shalane Flanagan and Peabody’s Catarina Rocha were even born. But if he had the chance to see either run, it’s unlikely that he would have paid much attention to their times.
Flanagan was a rare talent for the Marblehead Magicians, dominating in cross country and on the track before graduating in 2000. She was a three-time All-State champion in cross country and still holds the outdoor All-State meet record in the 2-mile (10:24.21), among many other records and accomplishments.
Rocha was equally impressive for Peabody High, wrapping up a record-setting high school career last spring. She won two All-State championships in cross country, was a two-time All-American after placing seventh (junior year) and second (senior year) at the Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals in San Diego, and holds the indoor All-State mile record (4:49.14).
During their high school years, they each carved out their place among the best female runners in Massachusetts high school history, both on the track and on the cross country courses of the North Shore and beyond.
They share many similarities, from the records they set, broke, and re-broke, to their family histories that make it seem like running is in their blood.
But ask anyone who watched both run in high school and “guts” — as Prefontaine put it — is the special ingredient that everyone comes back to.
So what would happen if you could take the senior year versions of both Shalane Flanagan and Catarina Rocha, put them on an empty cross country course and just let them go?
Their natural skill and speed would make it a race any sports fan would love to see. Mix in their determination to conquer the course in front of them and the opponent beside them, and it would become epic.
“You think you’ve seen mental toughness and then you see Shalane and/or Catarina,” Peabody High School athletic director and former girls cross country coach Phil Sheridan said. “It’s a different level of toughness. To have those two race, that would have been unbelievable.”
Of course, the racing versions of Flanagan and Rocha look different than their everyday selves. Away from running, Flanagan has a more outgoing, bubbly personality while Rocha is very friendly, but more of an introvert.
Once the starter’s gun sounds, however, they both share a laser beam focus that drives them.
“She’s really quiet about it and unassuming. You wouldn’t know it looking at her or talking to her before or after a race,” Catarina’s mother Gina Rocha said. “She’s really self-motivated and self-determined. It’s a bit surprising because she’s unassuming, but you watch her race and there’s a toughness you only see when in that athletic arena.”
Dave Jellerson has been coaching cross country and track at Beverly High for over 20 years. He’s seen all kinds of runners during his tenure, many of them blessed with natural ability. Flanagan and Rocha are two he’ll never forget.
“When you’re talking about distance runners, you see how they maintain and fight and their determination. That’s what separates them, the mental side,” Jellerson said. “So many kids could be All-American, but they don’t have the mental toughness and heart to do the work and fight through the pain. Both those two had it — and they knew it. I guess they weren’t afraid to make it hurt, and you can’t teach that. It’s in your heart.”
Part of the routine
The Shalane Flanagan and Catarina Rocha stories begin long before they reached high school ... long before they were born, really.
You don’t have to look far to find the source of inspiration for two of the best runners the North Shore has ever seen, whether they realized it or not. It’s hard to say exactly how much genetics have played a role in the success of Flanagan and Rocha, but it’s obvious they played some role.
Flanagan’s parents are Cheryl (Bridges) Treworgy and Steve Flanagan, both former United States World Cross Country Champion participants and marathon runners. Treworgy held the marathon world record for two years, while Steve Flanagan’s marathon PR was 2:18.
Rocha has a similar family history. Her parents, Gina (Braz) and Joe Rocha, were runners at Boston College, as was her uncle Fernando Braz. Joe Rocha and Fernando Braz still hold the top two 10,000 meter times in BC history. Joe Rocha qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters, while Gina Rocha qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2004.
Is it a coincidence that the offspring of talented runners have followed in their parents’ footsteps? Probably not.
“If you were talking to a concert pianist and there was a grand piano in the house and he had 3-4 kids, there’s a pretty good chance one would be musically inclined and maybe even really good,” Steve Flanagan said. “Shalane grew up thinking everybody’s parents ran. It was no big deal to her; it was part of the daily routine.”
It was all part of the routine for Rocha, too. Joe Rocha has been the girls cross country and track coach at Peabody High for several years now, and before that he coached at Lynn English. Gina Rocha often helped out, which meant a young Catarina Rocha would be accompanying her parents to many afternoon practices.
Rocha was surrounded by running and runners from an early age, so it just seemed natural. She knew her parents were pretty deeply involved and had a history with running, but she didn’t dig too deep for information.
“This (past) year she really started appreciating more the tradition of running,” Joe Rocha said. “Growing up she knew we ran in high school and in college, but we wanted her to develop her own identity as a person and an athlete.”
It may seem like Flanagan and Rocha were born to run, but that theory may be overblown.
“I know that obviously the genes play a part. Joe Rocha was phenomenal and Gina was special, but it takes that something inside to be the kind of champion (Catarina) is,” Sheridan said. “It doesn’t come in genes; it comes in your own will to win. The genes help, but it’s the inner drive you only find in real, true champions.”
No pushing, just support
One thing that may have been more important than getting a good genetic makeup is simply getting good parenting.
It seems fair enough to say that, while Flanagan and Rocha may not have been born to run, they do have running in their blood. But instead of forcing running on their children, both Cheryl Treworgy and Steven Flanagan, as well as Joe and Gina Rocha, allowed their children to discover what they liked on their own.
For a while, Flanagan and Rocha gravitated to other sports.
Perhaps the strangest of all coincidences is that neither ran cross country as freshmen in high school. Both already had a small taste of competitive running by the time they left junior high, but their athletic interests were spread out. Each opted for soccer in the fall of their freshmen years, and Flanagan was also a swimmer for Marblehead.
Rocha was one of five freshmen who made the Peabody varsity soccer team in the fall of 2009. That was a class that helped the Tanners win the state title in 2011.
“Four years ago this summer, going into freshman year in high school, if I was asked if she’d run I would have said no,” Joe Rocha said. “That was my honest opinion. We never talked about it. Whatever she decided to do, we would support.”
Neither Rocha nor Flanagan were focused on running when they entered high school; they were simply competitors trying to help their respective teams to victory.
But that doesn’t mean signs of their running ability hadn’t seeped through in junior high. Rocha, for example, stood out for the Higgins Middle School cross country team.
“It was really a low-key program with a couple days a week of practice,” Gina Rocha said. “She won a couple of Northeastern Conference championships, I think in the seventh and eighth grade, with hardly any running. She enjoyed it, but even at that time she was really focused on soccer.”
Flanagan’s first competitive race was run in junior high with boys and girls going off at the same time, in an effort to save time. Flanagan led for three laps before getting out-kicked by Gloucester’s Tristan Colangelo, who ended up being one of the best male runners in Fishermen history.
Flanagan came running over to her parents in tears before her mother reminded her that she only needed to beat the girls.
The whispers of her potential preceded the arrival of her actual footsteps at the high school.
“It’s kind of funny, I remember the Marblehead coach when Shalane was in seventh or eighth grade — and the (NEC) mile record was 5:08 then — saying they’ll all be broken. I didn’t know who they were talking about,” Jellerson said. “They knew she was destined to do well.”
True competitors are always striving for improvement, always aiming for a higher goal. In racing, where the opponent is just as much the clock as anything else, there really is no way to limit what a competitor can shoot for.
Flanagan and Rocha, with a strong competitive spirit burning inside both of them, could only stay away for so long.
It’s all about drive
Lining up all the record-breaking times and accomplishments of Flanagan and Rocha can make your head spin.
For one thing the times are difficult to comprehend, like the outdoor All-State meet record Flanagan set in the two-mile (10:24.21) in 1999, or her school record two-mile time (10:23). Then you have Rocha’s indoor All-State mile record (4:49.14) set this February, or the 17:29 she ran at the Foot Locker Cross Country Nationals last fall, which was good for second place.
When comparing high school accomplishments, it’s difficult to find any clues about which runner would have an advantage in this mythical race.
They were both All-American runners, Rocha being named All-American in cross country in both her junior and senior years while Flanagan earned All-American status in the two-mile and mile at the Foot Locker Outdoor Nationals as a senior.
They each received prestigious awards as well. Flanagan and Rocha both have Gatorade Athlete of the Year Awards on their respective resumes, and were each two-time winners of the Moynihan Lumber Student-Athlete of the Year Award, proving they were more than just terrific athletes.
Of course, neither one ever got involved in running because of the accomplishments and awards it might bring.
“She really loved that it was her against the clock. It’s one of the true objective sports and she liked that part of it,” Gina Rocha said about Catarina. “‘If I work really hard, the clock is right there and it doesn’t lie.’ The harder you work, the more success you have. That was a big motivator.”
The clock may not lie, but sometimes it hides the truth.
The one course and event that makes for an easy comparison between the two is Bradley Palmer State Park, host of the Northeastern Conference Cross Country Championship. Flanagan set the course record of 17:45 in 1999, and it stood for 13 years until Rocha shattered it last fall with a time of 17:22.
The times are the times; they can’t be disputed. But those times don’t tell the whole story. History has a way of erasing certain details, like what the conditions were when Flanagan set that mark.
Rocha’s time was set in excellent conditions, and the Peabody harrier also had Flanagan’s time as a measuring stick; it was something she was aiming for.
Unlike all of the other fantasy matchups in our current summer series, this one is completely individual. It’s virtually impossible to identify weaknesses in either Flanagan or Rocha.
For this duo, it was all about drive. The end result from this race would take a backseat to what each runner would bring out in the other.
“She always had it,” Steve Flanagan said about Shalane’s competitive nature. “If it was a card game or a sport, it didn’t matter. It’s kind of innate.”
Joe Rocha points to Catarina’s win in the All-State two-mile in June. Rocha ran 10:34.25 to beat Hingham’s Julie McConville, who clocked 10:38.11.
“It was 96 degrees and came down to the last lap,” Joe Rocha said. “The girl from Hingham put a move on with 15 meters to go, but Catarina just refused to lose.”
It remains to be seen how far Catarina Rocha can take her running career. She’s just settling in as a freshman at Providence College, where she’s a big-time recruit for an excellent program. She is confident in her own ability and doesn’t feel pressured to live up to the ridiculous standard Shalane Flanagan has set since graduating from high school.
Flanagan was a two-time National Cross Country Champion while running for the University of North Carolina in college, captured the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics, and also ran the marathon in the 2012 Olympics. Last spring, she placed fourth in the Boston Marathon.
“It’s kind of cool to see one of our own, and it’s kind of unbelievable that she’s an Olympic medalist,” Catarina Rocha said about Flanagan. “Just seeing that she did that, it gives all runners big hopes and dreams. One of us, or anyone around here, can become like her."