[Editor’s note: This is the debut of what will be a semi-regular Worcester Sun feature chronicling the city’s vast sports scene. Ken Powers has been known for many things over the last decade, but when I first met him in the summer of 1996 he was in the middle of a long run as one of the preeminent high school sports reporters in New England. There wasn’t a coach he couldn’t get on the phone or a score he couldn’t track down. Athletic directors, coaches, kids and parents liked him. Talked to him. Trusted him. He’s back. And the Sun is proud to have him on board to anchor our sports coverage. Stay tuned for more from KP and other contributors.]
If you’re keeping score – and we are because, after all, that’s what this column is all about – Assumption College sophomore Michaela Flaherty is a local athlete you should root for.
Flaherty, 19, made history last month when she won her division of the 39th Annual Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women. The race starts and ends on the Boston Common after winding its way through the streets of Boston and Cambridge. Flaherty covered the 6.2-mile course in 46 minutes, 51 seconds, more than 10 minutes faster than the second-place finisher.
Her division? That would be the Blind and Visually Impaired division, created this year by race organizers and supported by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Flaherty has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a group of chronic, hereditary eye diseases that cause degeneration of the retina and gradual vision loss. She was diagnosed with the disease during her sophomore year at Norwell High School.
“I’ve always had a vision problem,” Flaherty said recently while sitting on a bench at the picturesque Assumption campus. “When I was (younger) doctors told me I just had blurry vision. Each year I kept going back and telling them there was something wrong with my eyesight and each year they would tell me the same thing – blurry vision. I used to wear glasses but the glasses weren’t helping.”
Flaherty said her mother, Patricia, took her to an eye doctor she knew in the Norwell area and he referred the Flahertys to Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.
“He [the eye doctor in the Norwell area] said it looked like something worse than blurred vision,” Flaherty recalled. The doctors at Mass. Eye and Ear made the diagnosis. [Editor’s note: RP is typically not diagnosed until adolescence or young adulthood, according to the Foundation Fighting Blindness.]
Patricia Flaherty, and Michaela’s father, Brian Flaherty have both been tested for RP and those tests came back negative. Michaela’s older brother, Brian, 21, has not been tested.
“There’s not a cure right now but there has been a lot of research done,” said Flaherty, who explained that doctors have suggested gene therapy as a possible solution.
“Basically I was born with a bad gene,” she said. “So, if they could find the bad gene they could replace it with a new gene, which they believe would make it better.”
Flaherty said she has also seen and read news reports about the invention of glasses that have improved the eyesight of individuals with RP.
“There was a guy on the news that was completely blind and the glasses have helped him see light again,” she said. “I can see, I just can’t see far. That is the most frustrating thing, not being able to see distance. I have to have everything right in front of me. I can see straight and read something head-on, but trying to see anything in the distance is a problem.
“My RP has gotten worse as time has gone on. It gets worse every year,” Flaherty continued. “I hope in the next couple of years they come up with something that will help. I was taking vitamin A, but I had to go off it because my liver function was too high. Hopefully if I can get back on the vitamin A it might help; I feel like it was helping.”
According to the Mass Eye and Ear website, taking vitamin A has proved to help preserve retinal function.
“In cross country she’ll fall down, but then she gets right back up and doesn’t say beans about it. I wish I had more kids on this team with that determination. And, if she injures herself because of one of those falls she doesn’t tell us about it, she just continues on and pushes through.” — Stacie Wentz, Assumption cross country and track coach
As for the race, it was meant to be a training run for the Assumption College cross country team, but Flaherty, with her parents in the crowd cheering her on, said she felt so good she just took off.
“I felt great. My coach told me to slow down a bit, but I just took off,” Flaherty said. “I love running, I love competing.”
Stacie Wentz, Flaherty’s cross country and track coach at Assumption, is thrilled with the sophomore’s progress as a Division 2 collegiate runner.
“She’s facing some challenges to be sure, but [athletically] and academically Michaela’s doing well. She is coming out of her shell and really shining. I know her professors think the world of her,” Wentz said. “She loves to run; she’d run 100 miles a week if I let her.”
Wentz said running cross country, because of the inconsistency of the terrain, is more of a challenge for Flaherty than running on the track or in the road.
“In cross country she’ll fall down, but then she gets right back up and doesn’t say beans about it,” Wentz said. “I wish I had more kids on this team with that determination. And, if she injures herself because of one of those falls she doesn’t tell us about it, she just continues on and pushes through the injury.
“She doesn’t want to stop running; not even for a day. She doesn’t want to take any time off, ever.”
Flaherty said when cross country courses head into a wooded area, as they often do, the running gets tougher for her.
“The tree roots are hard,” Flaherty said. “When we get into the woods I have to go slower. Sometimes we walk or jog the course beforehand, and when we do, I play close attention to where the trees are and where the roots are. And on a sunny day the glare can be a problem, too.”
Wentz believes Flaherty’s passion for running as much as she does is a simple one.
“She knows that tomorrow she might not be able to run because of her eye condition,” Wentz said. [Editor’s note: Most people with RP will be legally blind by the time they turn 40, the Foundation Fighting Blindness says.] “So she runs every day she can.”
Wentz thinks it’s great that the Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women added the Blind and Visually Impaired division.
“I’m excited that Tufts 10K has added the division, I hope more races will do that,” Wentz said. “A local race creating this division is fantastic; kudos to the organizers.”
As a runner Wentz thinks Flaherty is only going to get better.
“I think the longer the distance she runs the better she will be,” Wentz said. “I see Michaela, ultimately, competing in marathons and ultra-marathons. And I think in track she will absolutely excel at the Division 2 level. She has a chance to score a lot of points in the Northeast-10 Conference and this is, in my opinion, the strongest conference in any division in New England.”
West Boylston creates Hall of Fame
I guess it’s fact not opinion: sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. What else could explain the fact that West Boylston Junior Senior High School, despite its rich athletic tradition, doesn’t have an athletic Hall of Fame?
Until now, that is.
Under the direction of Rich Riley, longtime athletic director at St. Peter-Marian and Marlborough High, the Lions will induct their inaugural Hall of Fame at 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 28, at The Manor restaurant in West Boylston. A social hour, which begins at noon, will precede the induction ceremony.
Being inducted are Jake O’Connor, Joe Garofoli, Ron Ekblom, Bob Bonci Sr., John Bancroft, Ken Bohlin, Lisa Hovsepian, Meredith Galena and Kellie Ambrose.
Carlton “Jake” O’Connor | Athletic Director/Principal, 1957-1987
O’Connor played a significant role in the administration of West Boylston athletics during his 30-year career, including important upgrades and improvements. O’Connor served as a member of the District E [Central Mass.] Athletic Committee, was the 1974 Massachusetts Athletic Director of the Year, and the 1980 Outstanding Principal and Central Mass. Administrator of the Year.
Joseph Garofoli | Teacher/Coach, 1960-1996
A member of the West Boylston faculty and coaching staff for 36 years, Garofoli’s accomplishments are legendary. As boys’ basketball coach he won more than 200 games and led the Lions to five Clark Tournament Small Schools titles, three District E championship games, and a Tech Tourney final, which was played in the old Boston Garden. Garofoli was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. In addition, as softball coach, he led the Lions to the 1991 Central Mass. Division 3 title.
Ronald Ekblom | Coach/Athletic Director, 1961-1994
During his 33-year career Ekblom was a prominent figure at the school, serving as both the baseball coach and the athletic director. As baseball coach he won more than 200 games, including the 1977 Div. 3 state title. Ekblom was inducted into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1991.
Robert Bonci Sr. | Class of 1945
Considered one of the most talented student-athletes in central Mass., Bonci played four years of basketball and three years of baseball. In basketball he scored more than 500 career points, while in baseball he was an outstanding pitcher and served as team captain.
John Bancroft | Class of 1965
Bancroft was a member of the basketball team for four years and the first 1,000-point scorer in school history, finishing his career with more than 1,300. He captained the 1964-65 team and led the Lions to the Clark Tournament Small Schools title, the District E championship game and the state Class D final, which was played at Boston Garden. Bancroft went on to play collegiate basketball for coach Paige Rowden at Leicester Junior College. Rowden’s 1966 Leicester Junior College team, of which Bancroft was an integral part, was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
Ken Bohlin | Class of 1971
Bohlin scored more than 1,000 points during a three-year varsity basketball career and led the Lions to the 1969 and 1970 Clark Tournament Small Schools titles. His career total of 199 points in three years of Clark Tournament play is the fifth-highest in tournament history. Bohlin played Division 1 college basketball at Dartmouth.
Lisa Hovsepian | Class of 1989
Hovsepian played five years of varsity soccer – on the boys team — and four years of varsity girls basketball and softball, earning 13 letters in all. She was the Lions’ first female 1,000-point scorer in basketball. Hovsepian played Division 1 college basketball at Yale, leading the Bulldogs in rebounding her sophomore year.
Meredith Galena | Class of 1993
Galena played five years of varsity girls’ basketball and four years of varsity softball for the Lions. In basketball she scored 1,199 career points, graduating as the all-time leading scorer in school history. In softball she started at shortstop all four years. After graduation Galena played basketball at Saint Anselm College on an athletic scholarship. Her senior year she was named to the Kodak All-America Team as a first-team selection. Galena averaged 15 point a game during her career at Saint Anselm.
Kellie Ambrose | Class of 2001
Ambrose was a five-year member of the girls soccer team, a four-year member of the girls basketball team and a two-year member of the girls track and field team. In basketball she scored more than 1,300 points and graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer. In soccer she was a three-time All-State selection. Ambrose attended Holy Cross, where she played soccer, captaining the team as a senior. She earned Patriot League academic honors in 2004 and 2005.
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