BEIJING -- Shalane Flanagan was in her happy place.
She waved to 90,000 people. She shook hands with several of them. She kissed a baby. A flag draped her shoulders and a smile covered her face.
Asked from the stands how it felt to win an Olympic medal, she shouted back, "I don't even know," and merrily jogged the rest of a victory lap at the National Stadium on the first night of track and field at the Beijing Games.
Flanagan had just won the bronze in the women's 10,000 meters, and she didn't know a lot of things. When she crossed the finish line, she didn't know she finished third to Ethiopia's gold medalist Tirunesh Dibaba and Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse.
"Oh my God!" Flanagan exclaimed as her time flashed before her, an American record of 30:22.22. Then she held up three fingers and mouthed to nobody in particular, "Did I get third?" She didn't know where her husband was, or her coach, so some guy on the track confirmed she had indeed won a medal.
Six laps earlier, Flanagan didn't know if she'd be able to catch two Kenyans, Linet Masai and Lucy Wangui, who had a third of a lap lead on her as she sat in fifth place.
And three days ago, she didn't know for sure if she'd be able to race as a case of food poisoning raged through her body. "GI distress," was how she delicately described her indelicate condition on Tuesday night. "It was pretty bad."
But mostly, Flanagan didn't know that Americans aren't supposed to compete in long-distance races. Especially not fast ones. And she missed the memo that Americans aren't supposed to run down East Africans for medals on the biggest stage in the sport. But the 27-year-old North Carolina alumna ran the race of her life behind Dibaba and Abeylegesse, who became just the second and third women ever to run the distance in under 30 minutes. Dibaba's 29:54.66 set an Olympic record, and Abeylegesse came in just behind her in 29:56.34.
Flanagan earned the medal by patiently reeling in Masai and Wangui, passing them with about two laps to go and never looking back.
"I was in my happy place, like I am in my really hard-tempo runs," Flanagan said. "My coach just told me to zone out. I had no idea what place was what at the finish."
The surprise ending was just one of many Rocky moments for Flanagan. First, her coach, John Cook, crashed the media mixed zone beneath the Bird's Nest stadium to congratulate her. "You ran smart," he said as he hugged her, playing the role of Burgess Meredith's Mickey to perfection. "Smarter than your coach."
This Close ...
For every athlete thrilled to be in Beijing, there are dozens more who just missed the fun. Long-distance runner Katie McGregor is one of them. Luke Cyphers
A few minutes later, Steve Edwards bolted past some volunteer security people. "That's my wife right there, I swear," Edwards insisted. "She just won the bronze medal. I just want to see her."
Nothing could hold him back. The pair had earned their tearful hug. "I'm speechless," Edwards said. "This is what she trained for. This is what I gave up my job for."
He'd worked in TV, doing media work with NASCAR and other companies in North Carolina, but he quit to be Flanagan's training partner, massage therapist, husband.
He knew she had it in her.
"I really wanted to see a fast race," he said, "because she had the best time in the world this year. I knew that if anybody's there with the leaders, it's Shalane."
And he even saw a silver lining in his wife's violent illness. She was one of a handful of American track athletes who got sick from the food, and the plague delayed her flight from the U.S. team's training facility in Dalian by a day.
"It was a blessing in disguise," Edwards said. "Athletes are such type A personalities; this took her mind off the race."
All she could do was pop Imodium, pound fluids and sleep 12 hours a night the rest of the week. "A forced rest was actually a good thing," Edwards said.
The victory was certainly a good thing for the credibility of the U.S. distance program. It follows on the heels of Deena Kastor's 2004 marathon bronze medal in Athens, an event that Flanagan said inspired her. Last night, Flanagan's teammate Kara Goucher finished 10th in the race, and the two have a feisty rivalry. But Goucher, who won the 10K bronze at last year's world championships, enjoyed Flanagan's medal, too.
"I hate the word 'fluke,' and since last year with my bronze medal my name has been associated with it," Goucher said. "But Shalane showed that the strength of U.S. running is no fluke."
She also displayed a mental toughness that should keep her near the top for years to come. On a relatively cool night in Beijing, Flanagan decided to ditch the high-tech, ice-filled warm-up vest that's supposed to regulate temperature before a race. "She said [screw] it, we won't use the ice vest," Cook said. "She was just a soldier."
She has built up that toughness through running the dirt trail around a historic neighborhood in Chapel Hill called Gimghoul. The upscale neighborhood's landmark is an old castle, and the homes are beautiful. Gimghoul is a place where Edwards says it's easy to put in the miles and let one's mind wander. A happy place, for sure.
"We dream of living in that neighborhood one day," Edwards said. "Maybe tonight we're one step closer."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.