Ray Flynn’s legacy endures in numbers and memories, writes Frank Greally
Photos by Mark Shearman, Steve Sutton.
Ray Flynn had good reason to smile when on the morning of his 60th birthday on January 23rd this year he was reminded that as well as reaching this three-score milestone, his Irish mile and 1,500 metres records set in Oslo back in 1982 are both still at the top of the All-Time Irish Ranking List.
The Longford native, who now lives with his family in Johnson City, Tennessee, remembers well the Dream Mile at the Bislett Games in Oslo on that July night of 1982 thirty-five years ago.
“It was like, don’t let up,” he said. “Just push, push, push the whole way. You know it’s on. You believe in the track. You believe in the place: Oslo is magical. You’re tying up, but you know you have such a good thing going, you just can’t let up. Your body is giving out, but your mind is carrying you. Don’t let up……” Moments after he crossed the finish line in third place behind Steve Scott (USA) and John Walker, (New Zealand), Ray Flynn collapsed onto the infield of the famous old Bislett Stadium, but somehow found the energy to look up at the big screen to see the result that gladdened his heart and greatly helped his recovery from an heroic effort.
The result of that Dream Mile was: 1 Steve Scott, (USA), 3:47.69, 2 John Walker, (New Zealand), 3:49.08, 3 Ray Flynn (Ireland), 3:49.77.
For ten or fifteen minutes after the race Flynn felt physically sick and worryingly incoherent. That was hard, he thought. Very hard. But he thought too of how he had achieved his goal of becoming the first Irish athlete to run a sub 3:50 mile and that meant a whole lot to him- well worth the effort and the pain.
It took a while, but soon he was able to jog a little and savour the moment as he warmed down in the cool Scandinavian air. It was one of these rare nights when everything came together in the right sequence. Flynn would have many more brilliant performances in a star-studded middle distance career, but nothing would ever surpass this night when he ran out of his skin in Oslo – or the deep feeling of satisfaction that followed his effort.
Ray smiles when he remembers the time, not long after setting this long-lasting record, when he came home on a visit to his native Longford and in the local shop a local well-wisher enquired: ‘Are you still doing a bit of the auld running?” At no stage that night in Oslo did Ray Flynn ever think that his mile and 1500m record would endure for 35 years. In addition to his brilliant mile time, Flynn had also been clocked at 3:33.5 as he passed through 1500m and that too qualified as an Irish record – which still stands.
And this was not a once off, flash-in-the-pan performance by Flynn. This was just another example of him delivering on an exceptional talent, which he coupled with diligent training under the watchful eye of his coach Dave Walker at East Tennessee State University, to where Flynn was awarded an athletic scholarship in 1974.
He arrived in Johnson City that autumn looking pale and white after a wet summer in Ireland. His new team mates on the cross-country team known as the Irish Brigade quickly christened him ‘The Great White Hope’. It took several months for him to adjust to the hard training regime set by Coach Walker and Neil Cusack, who had earlier that year coasted to victory in the Boston Marathon. One of Cusack’s favourite training sessions was a lively 11-mile run on an extremely hilly course in the Tennessee Mountains, followed immediately by 10 x 400m intervals on the track in 64/65 seconds, with the final few in the 60 second or below zone. It was a tough regime and only the strongest survived. There were days during those early months in Tennessee when Ray Flynn felt like quitting, but he persevered and what did not break him down made him stronger.
Two weeks prior to his historic run in Oslo, Flynn had run 3:50.54. Then in Oslo, when Steve Scott raced to the front, Flynn knew he had to stay with him if he was to have any hope of dipping under that 3:50 time. Four years earlier he had chased Scott to the line in the NCAA 1500 metres final in Eugene, Oregon. He had developed a friendship with the equally committed American runner, and if Scott was going to run sub- 3:50 on the night, then for sure Flynn was going to do it too.
After some standard pace-making Walker, Scott and Flynn broke clear of the field. They passed through 800 metres in 1:52.7 and hit the bell in 2:51.4, when Scott raced ahead. Flynn chased hard and Scott, Flynn and Walker came into the home straight in line. Scott just missed the then World Record of 3:47.33 which Seb Coe had run in Brussels the previous year. Walker passed Flynn for second and after crossing the finish line all three athletes embraced, knowing they had given their all.
Flynn had wanted the record. It meant a lot to him and he knew the one other Irishman capable of taking it from him was Eamonn Coghlan. The following February, 1983, under the bright lights of the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, Coghlan went after the record alright – but it was the World Indoor Mile Record and he was equally determined to take it under the 3:50 barrier.
That night in Meadowlands, Coghlan ran brilliantly to clock 3:49.78. Coghlan knew he had the indoor record but the athlete chasing him home in second place was Flynn, who on seeing the time was the only man in the arena to sigh with relief. He was still the fastest Irish miler in history – even if it was only by the slimmest of margins.
That Golden Era of athletics wasn’t just about the world record falling with such remarkable frequency. It was also about the number of great milers who were around at the time; athletes like John Walker of New Zealand, the Americans Steve Scott and Craig Masback, Mike Boit of Kenya, Thomas Wessinghage of Germany and of course the Irish pair of Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan.
Week after week these great milers went to the line, constantly testing each other and extending each other’s limits. It was a unique period in world athletics history and young Irish athletes today can only dream about what it must have been like to be the stars of that great mile tradition.
Los Angeles Olympics, 1984
Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan lived the dream. When Sebastian Coe ran his 3:49.0 world record in Oslo in 1979, Eamonn Coghlan finished fourth. When Coe again lowered that record to 3:48.53 in Zurich in 3:48.53 in 1981, Flynn finished seventh in that race. And when Coe lowered it for the third time in Brussels just nine days later – posting 3:47.33 – Coghlan finished eighth and Flynn tenth.
Legacy Both Flynn and Coghlan left a great mile legacy of their own. Coghlan is regarded as the greatest indoor mile runner ever, but Flynn did not always get the credit he deserved. It was as if he never fully stepped out of Coghlan’s shadow, despite his record-breaking feats on the outdoor track.
There were days during those early months in Tennessee when Ray Flynn felt like quitting, but he persevered and what did not break him down made him stronger.
And yet no Irish man has since run a sub 3:50 mile. Mark Carroll came closest with 3:50.62 in Oslo in 2000. And going by present standards, it looks certain that Ray Flynn’s Irish Mile and 1500m records will remain at the top of the ranking lists for some years to come.
Ray Flynn was a prolific racer and between the start of 1981 and the end of 1983 he ran a total of 44 sub-four minute miles. By the indoor season of 1990 he had increased that tally to 89, before injury finally grounded him.
“Of course I’m surprised that my record still stands 35 years later,” Flynn said when I met him in Boston last April. “One of the main reasons I ran so fast was from racing so often at that high level. And that’s what it’s all about – getting into the high-quality races and giving it your best shot. The reality is that we just don’t have Irish milers or 1500m runners competing at that level anymore and you have to reach a very high standard now before you can get into the big races.” “If you go back to that era, we had so many great milers going up against each other, and that encouraged us to go faster. The more races you get at that level, the faster you start believing you can go. I always thought – even if it was secretly at the time – that I was going to break 3:50 for the mile that night in Oslo.
“I do think Mark Carroll should have broken my record. He had the talent too, but then he was so talented in other events as well that he probably didn’t concentrate on the mile the way he would have needed to if he was going to break the record.
Ray Flynn was a hard and diligent trainer for all of his illustrious career. “I did train hard,” he said. “I often ran 100 miles a week. That included three quality sessions on the track and doing weights as well. I remember coming home to Longford at Christmas back then and sometimes running three times a day; doing nothing except training and sleeping.
Need to Succeed
“It was a harder lifestyle then. I remember leaving Longford for Tennessee at just 17 and not having a return ticket until the following June. There was a real sense of having to make this work. The attitude now is that if you don’t like it you can come home in a few months.
“If you look at the way distance running has gone now, one of the reasons why the Africans are so successful is that they want to succeed, need to succeed, so badly. Maybe that factor has been lost a bit from the Irish side of the sport, as it has in most European countries.
Flynn is still a big fan of the American athletic scholarship system. His attitude to it is simple: athletes go there with talent and if they’re hard enough and determined to survive, they’ve a very good chance of going on to make it on the world stage in athletics. They won’t, he feels, get a better grounding in competition anywhere else – but you need to be very tough and resilient to make it to the top.
Athens, 1982: (l to r) Steve Cram, Pierre Deleze, Ray Flynn
As for the ones who go to America on scholarship and don’t make it, Flynn believes they were never going to make it anyway. “If you’ve survived the American collegiate system you are ready to push on to the next level,” he said. “The problem of course is making the jump from being a good college athlete to becoming a world-class runner. I still think that if you really want to give your running career your best shot, the American athletic scholarship route is still the best way to hone your talent. My view on that has never changed.”
“If you look at the way distance running has gone now, one of the reasons why the Africans are so successful is that they want to succeed, need to succeed, so badly.
“You just have to look at the stats, and the success of Irish athletes who went down the US scholarship route over the years. It’s quite simple; when you are around other good people, you get better, and in America there is a consistently high level of competition always available.”
In hindsight, Flynn believes that had he raced less, his major championships record might be a little more impressive. “Coach Walker let me do what I wanted, and back then we raced to survive, because that was the only financial support system we had. Coach Walker was not what you might call a scientific coach, but he prepared you well and was always there for you. His philosophy on training was ‘you don’t know until you try.’ I believe I could have had a better championship scorecard, had I not been so busy racing.” As for his 3:49.77 mile record, Flynn it seems, gets more satisfaction from it with each passing year. “It’s something I am quite proud of,” he said. “But I don’t think about how long it has lasted until someone says it to me. It also means that there still aren’t that many athletes running under 3:50.
“But I don’t feel in any way that I didn’t get all the respect I should have for running that time, because I got so much out of the sport. I have no regrets and I have done very well out of the sport in my successful business career; managing some of the world’s best athletes at my Flynn Sports Management company.” Ray has also in recent years been appointed Meet Director of the famous Millrose Games, which hosts the legendary Wanamaker Mile and now takes place annually at The Armory, having moved from its traditional home in Madison Square Gardens, New York City. Irish athletes that his management company represents include Ciara Mageean and Fionnuala McCormack.
“Looking forward, in two, three, five or ten years, I’m sure my record will be broken and it is possible that it may be broken by someone who has not been born in Ireland but who is now an Irish citizen. We have become a multicultural country now and there is bound to be a lot of new talent coming through. It’s just a matter of identifying the talent at a young age and nurturing it.”
“The GOAL Mile was a special night for all of us and is a treasured memory.”
In addition to his Irish Mile and 1500m records, Ray also remains hugely proud of the 4 x 1 mile relay world record set by himself and team-mates Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Mara at Belfield Track in 1985 in John O’Shea’s famous GOAL Mile promotion.
Flynn ran the anchor leg at Belfield – a solo effort in 3:56.96, after Eamonn Coghlan (4:00.2), Marcus O’Sullivan (3:55.3) and Frank O’Mara (3:55.6) had played their part in what was a massive team effort. Flynn’s solo run for home in 3:56.96 drove the huge crowd delirious on what was one of Irish athletics’ greatest nights.
“You have to give great credit to John O’Shea for bringing the four of us together to set the record – which still stands,” Flynn said. “It was a special night for all of us and is a treasured memory.”
Ray Flynn has lived for most of his life in his adopted home in Johnson City, Tennessee and he and his wife Jan have three children; Kiera, Patrick, and Kate. “I feel blessed with the life that I have enjoyed on the track and in an associated business and I feel lucky to have had the support of family all through my sporting and business career,” he said. He is proud, too, of the Mile Trail named after him in his native Longford. “I go for a run there when I am home and I still try to keep fit and run three or four times a week,” he said. “I feel I have been lucky in life and it’s nice to still have those two Irish records with my name on them.”
And Ray has just two words of advice for Paul McNamara, Athletics Ireland’s newly-appointed Director of High Performance: “Think Big!”