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One Year Into Motherhood, Shalane Flanagan is Learning to “Be Where Your Feet Are”

The Olympic silver medalist and 2017 New York City Marathon champion reflects on adjusting to parenting and coaching Olympic hopefuls during the pandemic.

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When Shalane Flanagan decided in 2019 that it was time to retire from professional running, she had lined up a whole new slate of ambitious goals, including becoming a mother, as well as a coach at Bowerman Track Club. She never imagined how those aspirations would play out in a pandemic, but has spent the first year as a parent to a new baby finding a lot of silver linings.

Flanagan and her husband, Steven Edwards, welcomed their son, Jack, on April 28, 2020, through adoption. It was just weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown and only a few days after settling into a new home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, but it was also a moment that was a long time coming. The couple had started the adoption process back in 2016.

Related: A Generation’s Leader Says Farewell

As Flanagan’s family grew in 2020, she and Edwards have also had to adapt professionally, as coaches. She’s helped guide athletes as they put the Olympic Trials and Olympics on hold for a year, while he’s supported his high school runners who’ve had to recalibrate expectations under safety restrictions.

As Flanagan, 2017 New York City Marathon champion and Olympic silver medalist, approaches her second Mother’s Day a bit more seasoned in parenthood and coaching, she spoke with Women’s Running by phone about the advice from friends that she’s taken to heart, whether it’s more pressure to coach or compete in an Olympic year, and how her son has infused so much laughter into their household.

Women’s Running: One year down. I bet it was a little different than you had imagined?

Shalane Flanagan: Well, first of all, we didn’t know when Jack would come into our lives through adoption. You literally don’t know when you’ll be matched with the birth mom. But I could have never foreseen that Steven and I would have been meeting Jack with face masks on. But with Jack, we’ve had something to focus on and be excited about while there was a lot of mourning, sadness, and losses. We know that a lot of people lost family, friends, a job, or a goal—there was so much loss while we had the most positive gain of our lives. At times I’ve felt guilty that I was so happy and given so much purpose this year.

I know that for my athletes who have been striving for the Olympics and for my husband who had just gotten started with a brand-new cross-country team, it’s been a huge loss. We had moved to Lake Oswego and he was just getting started, getting the program up and running, and we both were just really frustrated and sad and bummed for our athletes and for us, our own personal goals for them. So, it sounds weird but Jack was perfectly timed for us. I’ve gotten to spend so much time with him this past year, which has been wonderful. We have bonded as a family immensely. I am very attached, obviously, but when I go away I feel like I’m missing a limb.

WR: You’ve gone from living a life as a pro athlete, where your own needs and well-being are the priority, to mom and coach, where everybody else’s needs are front-and-center. How’s that felt?

SF: The transition itself was very uncomfortable, but I had a year to get used to it a little before Jack came. It’s been refreshing that it’s not about me. As an athlete, it was about me and as an athlete it kind of has to be—the pendulum swings extremes at times. At times you’re extremely focused on yourself and that’s what an athlete has to do. But it’s been very refreshing to have the focus not on me whatsoever.

WR: What do you love most about being a mom?

SF: That’s a great question. It evolves as your child grows; your relationships evolves as they grow. The satisfaction of seeing him happy and that maybe I’m a part of making him happy, to me, that is the most rewarding feeling. Seeing him smile, seeing him thrive, learn, and grow and feeling like you’re helping him in that journey. He’s genuinely such a happy kid and I’m sure some of that is a genetic predisposition, but then also knowing that we’re nurturing that happiness is the best feeling. It’s so motivating to keep doing a really good job, because parenting at times is just really tiring. It helps you push through fatigue—the reward is seeing him so happy and thriving. It makes it completely worth it.

WR: What is Jack like? How do you see his personality developing?

SF: He’s constantly evolving and we get little glimpses more into who he is, but in general he’s a smiling, happy-go-lucky guy. He is definitely very shy when he first meets people—upon your first meeting he is very timid. I don’t know if that is just the age or if it’s kind of a result of him being sheltered during a pandemic, but he’s shy right now. But he warms up to you and then he’s like just a ham, smiling and giggling. He loves to be held, he’s obsessed with balls right now. He met Steven’s mother for the first time over his birthday. We reunited finally with some East Coast family and every morning he would wake up and play “fetch” with grandma. He loves throwing a ball around.

He’s not the best eater, which kind of bums me out. But I am working on creating diversity and trying to figure out what he likes to eat. The other day I was eating an apple and he basically grabbed it out of my hands and just proceeded to eat it even though he only has like five teeth. He was determined to eat that apple himself.

But in general, he’s just so happy and I’m like, “Dude, how are you so happy all the time?” It makes me feel really good, because we must be doing something right. Every day we are discovering more and more about him, but he enjoys giggling. Like, if you can get him to giggle, he’s like, “Yes, please.”

WR: The videos of him laughing have definitely made me laugh, too, even if I’m feeling grumpy.

SF: I think Steven and I are fairly happy people, but Jack is next-level kind of happy. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed every single day before, but since he’s been in our life, there’s been a point during the day that he’s made me laugh for some reason. I can’t say that I’ve ever laughed as much as I have in the last year and it’s because of him. Whenever he makes a funny face or burps, he’ll look at us and laugh. He’s funny like that and it’s his personality developing that way and I love it.

WR: What aspects of parenting have been unexpected?

SF: After being an athlete and able to take care of myself, I was used to maximizing how I felt every day. I had to put my needs to the side to a degree and there’s definitely a phase with the first year where you’re just not getting a lot of sleep. That was hard because I’ve always had a certain level of expectation of the energy I have. I know how to be tired because of training, but even then you just nap when you need to. The amount of sleep deprivation was really hard—the biggest shock. People said, “You’re going to be tired,” but I didn’t understand the level of fatigue it was, just dead tired.

It was probably about eight and a half months before he was really sleep trained, but the accumulation of the first six months really hit me, and I did not feel like I was thriving as a person at all. I was really worn down and sought out a lot of confirmation that this was normal. I was like a zombie. I love being active and running, but during that time I would try to get outside to just make myself wake up, but it was the hardest running I’ve ever done. It was very minimal but it felt like I was deep in marathon training, just trudging down the road.

Now I’m finally getting more sleep and running is not as hard as it was six months ago. I think of Aliphine [Tuliamuk, who is training for the Olympic marathon in August after giving birth to her daughter in January] a lot and I don’t honestly know how she’s doing it or how a lot of women have done it. I have a whole new appreciation for the runner moms out there who are still competing at a really high level.

Also having to leave for work. The leaving part is hard, but once I get to where I’m working, I can switch over to that and it’s great. It makes me appreciate coming home even more, but the leaving part rips my heart apart. I have a hard time.

WR: As a four-time Olympian, you’ve felt a different kind of pressure during Olympic years before, but now it’s a different kind as a coach. How is it different?

SF: You see how hard these athletes are working and you want it so badly for them. You don’t want to disappoint them. I still feel like it’ll rip my heart out and it will feel like the same kind of devastation I would feel if something doesn’t go the way we hoped or planned. It is the gut-wrenching punch if you don’t fulfill what they expect. These athletes have high expectations of themselves and of the coaching staff. How do we get everybody on the team? That’s a big goal with over 20 athletes. It’s obviously not completely realistic to have every single person on the team—that would be a blessing, but the reality is that most likely won’t happen. We are entering into the most stressful couple weeks right now—I can feel it building and we’re trying to manage the emotions of everyone. People are either starting to get excited and seeing where they’re headed or realizing things are off the mark and they’re panicking about where they’re at. Maybe they want to be fitter or just further along. There’s a lot of emotions running wild right now for a lot of track and field athletes, but 100 percent I can confirm on my team there’s a lot riding on this for them. I can feel their emotions starting to elevate.

WR: Who’s given you the one piece of motherhood advice that’s sticking with you so far? And what would you pass on to other mother runners?

SF: When I was struggling with leaving Jack and being gone with work, I was really excited about it but also feeling mom guilt. I was just feeling like I was missing important things. Mary Wittenberg [former president and CEO of New York Road Runners and mother of two] reached out and said, in a lengthy, really nice note, “give 100 percent where your feet are.” So just be where you are and give 100 percent to it, because it would be a disservice to your child if you went away and you were only going through the motions as a watered-down version of yourself.

Every time I leave I try to do the best possible job of serving the athletes and bring as much as I can to it, because if I’m going to be away from my family and my child, I better to a really good job. I want Jack to be proud of what I do and I want to be proud of myself and make that time worthwhile. That also makes me thrive. I love to work. The best thing she said to me was, “Be where your feet are.” Once I get on that plane, I’m like, “OK, give 100 percent focus on the task in front of you and don’t wish you were somewhere else.”