- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

Life could not have been better for Shalane Flanagan, Shannon Rowbury, Erin Donohue and their coach, John Cook, after the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials last June.

All three women had qualified for the Beijing Olympics — Flanagan in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, Rowbury and Donohue in the 1,500.

Life got even better three months later in Beijing. Flanagan, shrugging off food poisoning just days before the 10,000, scored a stunning bronze Aug. 16 and broke her own U.S. record. In the next nine days, Rowbury would place seventh in the 1,500 finals, and Donohue would advance all the way to the 1,500 semifinals.

Cook was labeled a genius, the hottest coach in the land, garnering awards for steering his team’s successes. From the outside, Cook and his triumvirate had the perfect mix of talent and personalities. The women had known each other since their college days in the ACC and had grown close.

But after the Olympics, the group disintegrated, ending in a messy split two weeks ago that has sent each woman on her own course.

Cook said the foundation had been cracking for a while, with Flanagan’s husband and fellow former UNC runner Steve Edwards asserting more control over his wife’s career. As of Jan. 1, Edwards took over as his wife’s agent from Peter Stubbs. Adding to the tensions, Cook said, was Donohue’s frustration over running in Rowbury’s shadow.

But the underlying problems came to the forefront three weeks ago when Cook and Donohue had a disagreement over her career potential. The two parted ways with Donohue looking for a new coach, possibly Frank Gagliano or Marcus O’Sullivan. That gave Flanagan and Edwards the out they needed to cut away from Cook and move in a different direction.

Said Donohue: “I expressed to Coach Cook my goals for the next four years [running under 4:00 in the 1,500 and being in contention for a medal for the 2012 Olympics] and my willingness to work harder to reach them. He told me that I’m not talented enough to run that fast and that he doesn’t want to work toward goals [that] he believes are unattainable. He told me officially on Monday, Jan. 19, that he would not coach me anymore. And I agreed that he probably shouldn’t be my coach if he thinks I can’t get much better.”

Cook, who has made friends and foes with his directness, countered: “The fact [is] that Erin does not make it with Shannon. It is not Shannon’s fault. [Shannon] is a really nice person. Erin needs to know she is only as good as she is. There will be not 4:00. That is a dream.”

Rowbury, however, is sticking with Cook.

“To be honest, I really wasn’t involved in it,” the 24-year-old said. “The whole thing caught me by surprise. I am sad to lose both women as training partners because they are very talented and intelligent, but I know they will find success in whatever they do.”

Reached last week via e-mail, Edwards said he was busy preparing for Saturday’s Boston Indoor Games, where Flanagan was scheduled to run the 5,000. Edwards said he would respond at a later date.

Cook said he had coached Flanagan at no charge after she recovered from her 2006 foot surgery. A year later, she broke the U.S. Outdoor 5,000 record. It was not until after the Olympic trials in June, Cook said, that he took payment from Flanagan for coaching services.

Cook’s agreement with Flanagan had him receiving 5 percent of all Flanagan earnings, which included appearance fees, prize money and performance bonuses from Nike. With Flanagan’s Olympic bronze, her star power converts to significant cash.

Cook spoke publicly for the first time from his training camp in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

“[Edwards] has always had insidious intent to coach,” Cook said. “I was warned by a North Carolina coach to keep an eye on him. Of course, it is hard to hide workouts when you are intimately involved with athletes. [Edwards] has made his job his wife — period. He even films [workouts]. I was too trusting and they had a plan - learn, copy, use all my training system and then take over.”

Cook said money also became an issue, but Edwards’ influence took its toll.

“[Edwards] went from student to genius really quickly. No pun intended, but they have the Cook book and will do well,” he said. “Flanagan has huge talent but many people involved - dad, husband, who the hell knows? All I know [is] my record [with Flanagan] is straight. … We brought her from boot to bronze and obviously they have all they need to learn and we will see. I wish them luck, but to take others’ workouts, film them and then move on is pretty parasitic. I am over it - surprised - but loyalty is hard to find.”

Flanagan has stated numerous times that her career goal now is to successfully compete in the marathon, a distance Cook cares not to coach. So a split at some point was inevitable.

“Frankly, it has never been fun,” Cook said, pointing to Edwards’ participation. “It is very hard to coach like that. … To tell you sincerely, I am so relieved, like weight off my shoulder.”

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