Flannery followed pull of heart Triathlon

April 13, 1997|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- She felt this vague yearning to do something, to go somewhere. She was nearing 40. She felt something pulling at her, like some invisible, rambunctious, full-of-run dog on a leash.

One day, she finally gave in to that tugging.

L "I thought I'd find out where it wanted me to go," she said.

And she never stopped running after it.

She ran, she swam, she biked. She got good. World-class good. She'd have winning streaks that would go on for four, five, six years in a row. Yet you'd never know unless you asked, and even then you had to be persistent about it.

Best of all, she spread the gospel. She enticed others to run and swim and bike. She was a hurricane of energy and encouragement. The older she got the better she got. She seemed to be a reversal of the aging process.

She zoomed past 40 and then past 50 and 55, doing marathons and, later, triathlons, doing them not for money or endorsements or fame or for any of the usual crass motivations of sport, but for the joy, and for the very best reason of all:

"You can exist, or you can live. You can settle for putting in your 24 a day, or you can squeeze the juice from life."

From time to time in this business, we fall into casual debate about athletes and role models, who is good at one and maybe not so good at the other, and vice versa, and always my temptation has been to nominate her.

I invariably draws blank looks. Doesn't hit a ball, carry a ball, shoot a ball? End of debate, by small, closed minds. Invariably, my explanation and introduction would be this: "Look, she's not much bigger than a minute, and she's this strip of rawhide with more bubbles than a magnum of champagne, she's old enough to be a grandmother, and she's got five kids herself, and she can swim all morning and run all afternoon and bike all night and then want to know, "really" want to know, how your day was."

Usually, they thought I was making her up.

But Judy Flannery was real, and the past tense is now required because, at 57, she has died.

In the most tragic sort of irony, she perished when struck by a car while she was making a training run on her bike.

She leaves a husband, a son, four daughters, and a great gaping hole in everyone who ever shared a shower of sweat with her while leaning over the handlebars, or who ever ran panting alongside her and gasped to her to "go ahead, I'm only slowing you down," and always her reply was: "There's time to worry about time later."

She began life in Wilmington, Del., became a biochemist and then started a family. They made the Brady Bunch seem comatose and dour. All the kids played all sports, and they all were taxied about by her, and one day she felt that tug. She let it lead, and pretty soon it took her to the starting line of a marathon. She ran like a feather.

Nearing half a century, instead of slowing down she decided to speed up. She tried her hand at triathlons. She worked her way up to the Hawaiian Ironman. Three times.

No way of knowing how many she inspired. Had to be in the thousands, though. We get so fixated on all that's rotten with sport these days that sometimes we lament the absence of heroes and never see the ones right under our very noses.

Bill Lyon is a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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