By: Jack Balick
On March 13th, 2021, the University of Tampa opened up their outdoor season on their home track with the Tampa Tri Meet.
As the meet reached the men’s 800 meter race, the athletes jogged to the start line and found their places according to their hip numbers.
Among the array of red (University of Tampa), green (St. Leo’s University) and white (Florida Southern College) jerseys, one athlete in particular stood out as “the man to watch.” Donning the green and white jersey of St. Leo’s and wearing hip number 1, Shane Bracken stood on the line with a 1:51 personal best in the 800 and a 3:44 personal best and DII All American honors in the 1500 meter run.
Two spots to Bracken’s right, wearing the bright red jersey of the University of Tampa and hip number 3, stood Shane Cohen. Cohen’s collegiate accolades were a bit different from his namesake. While Bracken had spent the past two years adjusting to track at the college level and earning his reputation, Cohen had spent the previous fall and winter on the Tampa Women’s Basketball practice squad, convinced he had run the final race of his career two months ago as a highschool senior.
“Because of my times in high school I was getting [recruitment] letters, but I really didn’t want to run [in college].” Recalls Cohen, “I wanted to play basketball, but when you’re 5’7” it's kind of tough to get the looks that you think you deserve. So I ended up choosing Tampa for academics…not that many people know I didn’t come here to run.”
Having given up on his pursuit of college athletics, Cohen arrived in Tampa as a freshman with a fundamental piece of his identity missing. No longer an athlete, there were no more practices to look forward to, games/meets to prepare for, or teammates to socialize with. The freedom he anticipated looked a lot different now up close and far less attractive for that matter.
“My fall semester I wasn’t doing anything,” recalls Cohen “and I really missed being on a team. So one day I was playing basketball inside with one of my closest friends and the women’s basketball coach asked us if we wanted to be practice players.” “She told us ‘a lot of our guys will do this for just the year and then if they’re good enough they can move to the men’s team.’ So we were like ‘okay sure’ and then they also gave us a bunch of gear so I was like ‘oh this is so sick.’”
Now with a temporary fill to the emptiness that came without playing sports, Cohen spent the winter practicing with the women’s team, hoping to eventually make it to the men’s roster. But when the “call up” finally came, Cohen realized a spot on the men’s team wouldn’t yield the same dynamic as sports in high school once did. At the college level, athletes who don’t come in as star recruits often don’t receive the attention and appreciation they might deserve.
Aware of this, Cohen decided the experience wasn’t worth his time.
After stepping away from basketball, Cohen found himself in the same predicament he had begun the school year in. But thanks to a classmate of his, a more permanent solution awaited him upon his departure.
“One of the kids on the [track] team was in my class,” recalls Cohen “and I was wearing my bag from [New Balance] Nationals and he was a really outgoing kid so we started talking.”
“He was like ‘oh what’d you run’ and I was like ‘1:58 [in the 800m] and 49 [in the 400m]’ and he was like ‘oh you’re good. You should come out for the team.’ And at the time I wanted to play basketball but when that didn’t work out I texted him and I was like ‘hey, can this happen’ and that’s how I got in contact with my coach.”
“It’s literally because of him that I run track. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to but he was a super cool kid. If it wasn’t for him and his personality and him being on the team, I probably wouldn’t have even talked about running again.”
With the help of his classmate, Cohen reached out to Coach Vaknin via email to ask if he could possibly have a spot on the team to which he received the response “Ok, 800m time trial 01/31/20. Be ready.”
“He’s very direct and to the point,” Cohen says, laughing.
But at the time of receiving the email, Cohen wasn’t laughing at all. With only a month to train, he would have to get in shape to hit the walk on standard (a 2:04 800) after having not run for almost an entire year.
Cohen began his training the next day, gradually reacustoming his body to the practice it had once so familiarly known. “I was only doing mileage.” Cohen recalls. “I was doing like 6-7 miles a day which for me was like massive because in high school I didn’t run that much.”
But when January 31st finally came, a few unexpected turns still awaited him. “I remember [Coach Vaknin] was like ‘a few of the boys are going to pace you through,’” recalls Cohen “and I was like ‘alright that’s fine’ but when the day came he was like ‘oh sorry, the guys are having a workout today so you’re gonna have to run it alone’ and my PR was only a 1:58 in high school so I was like ‘I don’t know if I can run a 2:04 alone.’”
“So I asked him if I could do the 400m instead and he was like ‘whatever you have to do to make the team, this is your one chance.’”
“So I’m about to do the 400m but then I realized that all the sprinters were doing the 200m time trial so I was like ‘oh can I just do the 200m then just so I can get into a race?’
“So I end up doing the 200m and beating all the sprinters, which is funny considering I wasn’t doing any sprint work at all, and the coach was like ‘alright you made the team.”
Finally making the team – in what perhaps might have been the most twisted, complicated way to do so – Cohen was back on the track… and then Covid hit.
“I was the new guy,” recalls Shane “I only had a month to really meet everyone, and I wasn’t that good yet so when Covid hit I was still a little iffy about the whole track thing.”
Nevertheless, Cohen returned in the fall for cross country, eager to give running another shot.
Being instructed by his coach to just use cross country as a base, there were still no major strides being made in Cohen’s running career, but unbeknownst to him, the benefit of a fall spent building mileage would give way to a breakthrough almost too epic to find believable. A breakthrough that would come as early as his season opener on the track.
As Cohen stood on the line of the Tampa Tri Meet he recalled the simple instructions his coach had given him prior to the race: “Don’t go with Bracken.”
“Shane Bracken was probably one the best runners in our Conference,” recalls Cohen, “and he was running the 8 that day.”
“So my coach came over to me and was like ‘listen, don’t go with Bracken he’s trying to break 1:50’ and I was like ‘alright’ but then the cocky side of me was like ‘I’m gonna beat him.’”
“For me it's like when I line up next to you it’s me versus whoever. I don’t really care what you’ve run, you’re just another runner. All my teammates were like ‘Yeah, okay man’ but I just kept saying ‘No, I’m gonna beat him.”
Resolved in his defiance to his coach's advice, Cohen shot off the line upon the starter’s gun and latched on to Bracken’s back.
“He took it out in like 52 or 53 [for the first 400] and for me that’s obviously flying,” recalls Cohen, “but then at 600m I was still with him and then at 700m I’m still with him and then I was able to make a move and break him.”
Crossing the line in first place with a time of 1:49.19, Cohen had set a new school record, earned a ticket to the DII National meet and absolutely shocked every spectator within Tampa’s Pepin Stadium.
From coaches, to teammates to friends, no one could believe the result. How did a kid with a 1:58 800m PR from high school and without even a full year of collegiate track experience, just break the 1:50 barrier in the 800m as a season opener. Logic seemed to have lapsed for those 109 seconds, allowing Cohen to defy the otherwise impossible.
But as the story would tell, this was no fluke. Cohen had actually reached an entirely new level of running – and skipped multiple levels in the process – bringing him from a hopeful tryout to the number one ranked athlete in the country in the 800m for NCAA DII, a position that would hold for 5 weeks.
A new standard had been set for Cohen. Running 800s above the 1:50 mark were now disappointing and making the national meet wasn’t a question anymore, placing became the new concern.
When the national meet final rolled around, Cohen managed to edge himself into the final with a tactical 1:52.15 in the prelims, leading him to the first All-American honors of his career.
You could call that 2021 season a lot of things. A breakthrough? Certainly! Cohen had seemingly become the personification of “overnight success,” changing his status in the track world in the course of less than two minutes.
A success? Considering All-American status wasn’t even on the goals sheet at the start of the season, success would be an understatement.
Exciting? Underdog stories win the hearts of millions for a reason, it doesn’t get much more exciting than an unexpected explosion to the top of one’s sport. That season could’ve been called a lot of things, but the one thing it was not was the peak.
As Cohen toed the line for the Tampa Distance Classic the following spring, expectations were high. There would be no rabbit in the form of Shane Bracken for Cohen to latch on to, but with a full year of experience, maybe a solo sub-1:50 was possible.
From the sound of the gun Cohen was on his own. Not a single athlete was within shouting distance as he came through 400m in 51.13 and the gap only continued to grow. When Cohen finally crossed the finish line the clock read 1:48.50, once again leaving the spectators of the race in awe of what they had just watched.
Another 1:48 (this time dropping his PR again by a quarter of a second) in the prelims of the National Meet led Cohen to his second All-American honors of his career, this time improving his place from 9th the previous year to 6th.
Cohen’s progression as a runner would make any knowledgeable track fan’s head hurt. Only under the rarest circumstances can an athlete improve so drastically, especially after coming so close to never stepping foot on a track again after high school.
Cohen’s story is not about a genetically perfect individual who rose the ranks of track in dominant fashion. It's about the improbable success of an athlete that would have otherwise never occurred without the heart and sticktoitiveness that Cohen displayed.