Brookfield Central cross country runner Elizabeth Flatley can see the moment clearly.
It's early in the afternoon on a crisp mid-autumn Nov. 2 in Wisconsin Rapids at the WIAA state meet. The leaves have peaked and are starting to drop around the Ridges Golf Course, and the course is hard and fast.
She hits the small rise that starts the final straightaway with the sun in her face, and no one in front of her or close behind. She hears the roar of the crowd, and she gains momentum as she closes in on the finish line.
Arms upraised, Flatley breaks the tape to a cacophony of cheers. Her time is astonishing; she is a state champion.
"... I would just feel so blessed and happy," she said. "For my coaches, for my family. I can't wait (for state). I just want it to be here already."
Flatley's wish will soon come true. The Lancers will host their own WIAA sectional Saturday at Mitchell Park, and Flatley is expected to dominate the field and hopefully lead the Lancers to a state team berth for the Nov. 2 event.
Maybe "dominate" is too mild a word, because Flatley's state title dreams are very real, based on a senior's confidence, a burning need to erase the bittersweet history of three straight seventh-place state finishes and an urgent desire to maximize every bit of talent she has.
In short, no one has gotten close to her this season. To put it in perspective, if a girl cross country runner breaks into the 15-minute range for 4,000 meters, she is considered very good. If she gets into the 14s, she is an excellent runner and is a likely state medalist, and if she gets into the 13s, you lay rose petals at her feet, give her a laurel wreath, declare her a state champion and make her an All-American to boot.
Flatley has run in the 13-minute range three times this season and narrowly missed out on a fourth on arguably her toughest course, at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside for the Racine Case Invitational.
Coach Lorie Lewis has had superior athletes before in her 25-year track and cross country coaching career, but Flatley is something special, even to Lewis.
"What she has done is amazing in every sense of the word," Lewis said. "When she finishes a race, you go, 'Oh my gosh, that was better than the previous week.' It just gets hard to measure.
"I remember the first time she did it (breaking 14 at the Bulldog Invitational at McCarty Park), one of our girls ran up to the finishline and said, 'Elizabeth's under 14 minutes!' and another said, 'Oh, shut up,' and then we all looked up at the clock and went, 'Oh my goodness.'"
Lewis did her research and discovered that Flatley was only the sixth runner in state history to break the barrier, and only the third runner in WIAA Division I to do it. All of these efforts have come since 1999. No one in the state is really close to her right now.
So how does this remarkable low-key child in a family of eight, who has a fraternal twin brother named Michael who's also a pretty good runner in his own right, do it?
"She has just a phenomenal work ethic," Lewis said. "She has put in a lot of time and a lot of effort. A lot of the things have been on her own. She's just very self-motivated, and she's worked hard to change her form, make it better."
People in the know liken her short, efficient, extremely quick turnover to that of former Menomonee Falls two-time state champ and Wisconsin NCAA cross country champion Tim Hacker.
She takes all this praise in stride and chalks all her success up to one simple thing.
"You know, the biggest thing this summer was getting healthy," Flatley said, noting several small nagging injuries that have slowed her, primarily in the last two cross country seasons. "I held back a little (on the training) this summer because my main goal was to stay healthy because there always seemed to be some issue these past few seasons."
So she ran only about 35 to 40 miles a week this summer but did a lot of cross-training, especially biking, to augment her fitness. She said she also worked hard to stay positive.
And as for those remarkable times she's been posting?
"Thirteen minutes has been a goal of mine ever since freshman year," she said. "I knew I could do it, but even I was shocked that first time. I remember hitting the line and I was pretty dead."
She had reason to be tired after posting a time of 13 minutes, 57 seconds. That effort was followed by a 13:59.04 at the South Milwaukee Rocket Invitational, a 13:54 at the Muskego Warrior Invitational, and a 14:01 at the Racine Case Invitational.
More than just a runner
Even if she is something special, she doesn't act like it.
"She is so humble and takes all the competition very seriously," Lewis said. "I wouldn't mind it if she had more of an edge because she does want to be a winner, but she just respects the competition so much."
Aside from the state title, her primary goals are to lead the team to as many championships as possible, and she calls her teammates her "second family, the best of the best."
She's an academic ace with a 4.05 grade-point average and wants to get into medicine just like her parents, Drs. Michael Flatley and Lisa Armaganian.
She counts among her friends and advisors Central's recently graduated multi-time state champion track star Carl Hirsch, and she works at a running store to share her passion for running.
In short, Flatley's a running geek. A geek so popular that Lewis said she was elected Junior Prom queen last spring.
"Elizabeth as a person, as competitive as she is, is just so warm-hearted and likable," she said.
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