Sisters Madison and Mackenzie Flynn make lasting impact on Manteo High School athletics

Published 10:06 pm Monday, March 11, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The Flynn family moved from Connecticut to the Outer Banks in the fall of 2020 for a better quality of life. Mark and Jen were looking at Rodanthe and Waves for a slower pace for themselves and their three daughters, but they fell in love with a picture online of the Town of Manteo.

“It was the town clock,” Jen recalled with a laugh. “And then we looked into the schools and they were so good.” They enrolled their daughters in the public schools and in the local athletic programs.

That decision by the Flynn family would transform Manteo High School women’s soccer, track and cross country teams for the next few years, though the family is much too humble to admit that fact.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

Madison, a senior this year, and Mackenzie, a junior, are, quite simply, some the most remarkable athletes ever to participate in MHS athletics. Ten months apart and raised almost like twins, the sisters brought an immediate difference to the athletic program.

“They have made a massively positive impact on the Manteo High School community and the community at large,” said cross country coach and MHS teacher Emily DiNoto. “They are intelligent and hardworking young women and role models for their peers. People look to them to see how to be and as a coach that is invaluable to have on my team.”

Against all odds, the Manteo High School women’s soccer team won the state championship game last year against the Wheatmore Warriors, which had gone undefeated for two straight seasons. Kenzie was named MVP of the game. She scored twice and assisted on another goal, helping to lead the team to a 5-3 victory.

In 2023, Kenzie scored 42 goals for the Redskins, with 20 assists. She was named All Conference Player of the Year in 2023, which was decided upon by all the coaches in the conference.

Being named to the All State Team, for example, means being in the top ten players among all 2A players in the state. It’s a remarkable honor to accomplish once, and yet the Flynn sisters have regularly and consistently achieved the top tier of athletic recognition at every sport they attempt, with walls full of medals and trophies to prove it.

Kenzie earned a place on All Conference, All Region and 1st Team All State both her freshman and sophomore years, and to the All Mid Atlantic Region team in 2023.

And that’s just soccer. In cross country (which she admits she participates in to stay in shape for soccer), Kenzie made All Conference and All Region teams her freshman, sophomore, and junior years.

“Kenzie is one of the hardest working athletes I have come across in my 12 years of coaching,” said MHS head soccer coach Ralph Cleaver. “She never stops working and is a one person pressing machine. She creates so many attacking opportunities for our team just through sheer determination and effort.”

Cleaver recalled a game last year when the Redskins were losing to Currituck. The team was coming off a big rivalry win plus prom weekend. “The team was not ready to play to start and we had a poor first half and were down 2-0 at half,” he said. “The team picked it up in the 2nd, but essentially, it was all Kenzie. She took it personally that we were losing. She put her head down and went to work to bag a second half hat-trick, two goals with her left and one with her right (and all three goals were high quality finishes).”

That ability to put your head down and get to work has been learned from years of pushing through limitations, and the commitment to oneself to work harder and faster and to be better than yesterday.

The Flynn sisters have transformed MHS athletics not just in team wins and races, but in the way they approach their sport. This effect will trickle down to other younger players and leave a legacy for years to come.

Of Kenzie, Cleaver said she has “certainly helped to shape the culture of the program and redefine the standards of how the team trains, and the level at which we compete. While the average athlete may only take games seriously, Kenzie has always taken everything seriously and approached the game in a professional manner. She is serious about academics, her year-round fitness level, her relationships with teammates, her warm-ups, practices, games, game films, and individual training. This fuels her continued growth as an individual but the consistency at which she does these things makes them evident to those around her. Her peers begin to align with those same standards as she leads by example. Kenzie is simply one of those rare people who just makes everyone around her better, and for that, we are grateful.”

Maddie was named to cross country All Conference and All Region three times, picking up the regional champion title her sophomore and junior years. She went on to place 10th in state her sophomore year, and 6th in state her junior year.

In track, Maddie dominated the regional distance races, bringing home the win for the one mile, two mile and 4×8 in both 2022 and 2023. For her freshman, sophomore and junior years, she was named to All Conference, All Region and All State. Female Athlete of the Year award went to Maddie in 2022 and 2023, as well as MVP in 2021 and 2022 for both cross country and track.

“Even before this, her senior year, she was one of the most decorated athletes in the history of Manteo High School,” said Marc O’Neal, pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC, who coaches the distance runners on the track team. “That’s not because she seeks out the limelight, but because she pushes herself to be the best she can be at whatever she attempts. She has also been pushed by her coaches, and never complains; never pouts; never talks back, but simply goes about doing what she is asked to do, oftentimes even exceeding what was expected. She is an absolute joy to coach, because I know that all I have to do is to tell her what I want from her, and she delivers time and time again.”

O’Neal said that often in track practice, he gives athletes off campus runs. “This means that they end up at times on their own, which also means that they have decisions to make: finish the run, cut corners, shorten it, etc. Truthfully, over the last three years, every one of the runners I’ve coached has had at least one occasion where they did not do as asked on a long run. Except one: Madison Flynn. I think it speaks volumes to who she is that, even given the peer pressure to ‘slack off’ or ‘he’ll never know,’ that she instead pushes through and always, always, finishes.”

The reason Maddie, as well as Kenzie, don’t slack off during practices – ever – is because they aren’t simply following a workout that someone else is making them do. They’re working hard for themselves. Yes, they’re doing it for their team, but their biggest competitor is staring back at them in the mirror.

Their father, Mark Flynn, tells of driving Kenzie down to the track at the high school in the evenings so she can time herself on the mile. He aims his headlights on the track to illuminate her run.

“Kenzie writes down her time and puts it on the refrigerator,” he said, and tries to get faster each time. “She wants to get better for soccer.”

The sisters seemed to have always possessed an internal drive to improve.

“I remember when we were younger we used to run up this hill we had in our neighborhood and we used to run with ankle weights on,” Kenzie began. Maddie picked up the story: “And our dad used to follow us to make sure we ran the full mile. He would look at the speedometer on his car and used to be like ‘you’re going like 15 miles an hour!’”

Ankle weights, really?

“We wanted to do it,” Kenzie assured. “We kind of thought, it was like, that’s cool because at that time when I first joined my premier team everyone was better and stronger than me. So obviously I was like, ‘Ok, I want to get up there with them’ so that’s how I looked at it.”

Maddie, too, said she was “a lanky little thing” when she competed in swimming. “I was the smallest and skinniest little kid and my coaches used to just be like ‘you can rest on this lap if you want.’”

Maddie did anything but rest. If anything, it pushed her to dig deep and work herself even harder. For seven years she endured 3.5 to 4 hour swimming practices, drinking Ensure shakes for added calories, until one day, she set her sights on running.

Her father recalled, “She came to me one day and said, ‘Dad, I want to run.’”

Swimming had given her an incredible level of endurance. She remembers aspiring to run as fast as a friend on the middle school team. “There was this one day when I passed her – when I came in first – and ever since that day I just wanted to do better,” Maddie said.

When the family moved to Manteo at the beginning of her freshman year, she was poised to take off.

Naturally shy, it was a big challenge to start high school not knowing a soul. Madison said it was actually Covid that brought her out of her shell.

“I needed a change,” she said.

Though they had to work hard to make friends in a new place, the community was warm and welcoming. “Our dad used to say just be friendly with everyone. But it’s true, everything that he says. The way that we look at life too, we definitely learned that from our dad.”

During her freshman year, Maddie recalls her friendship with an upperclassman named Tiffany from the cross country team, who encouraged her, supported her, and helped her become faster.

“I always looked up to her. I wanted to become like her – I wanted to be better,” Maddie remembered.

And so she worked. Hard.

Manteo resident and avid runner Sarah Benson, who has known the Flynn family for several years through the youth running club GOFAR (Go Out For A Run), recalled the first time she watched Maddie run up the sand dunes.

They had been conditioning weekly through the summer, meeting at 6 a.m. to run laps up and down the Wright Brothers Monument in Kill Devil Hills. To change things up, they rotated in what Sarah called killer dunes – a race up the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

Along with several other cross country team runners, the sisters jogged a half mile to get to the base of the dunes. “The first time we ran them I’m thinking, ‘Okay, these dunes are going to kick butt, or at least get their attention,’” Sarah said.

“I said, ‘Maddie, I really want to see you take that dune,’” Sarah recollected. “And then here goes Maddie, boom, boom, and there she is at the top of the killer dune. She was like a gazelle. I’ll never forget watching her power up those dunes. It was beautiful. What a thrill for me to see that.”

“She’s got guts and she’s got heart. It’s a winning combination for life, I believe. And grit. To be able see dunes like that – it takes a lot of grit to run up those dunes,” Sarah said.

“I think there’s a connection with beautiful things for Maddie,” said Sarah when asked where she thinks the grit comes from. “When she looks at a dune – and I’m a little bit like this – when you see something beautiful and you see something that’s a challenge, so completely with ourselves, the question is, ‘Can I do that?’”

When Madison runs during a competition, she gives 100 percent of her ability to get to the finish line. And I don’t say 100 percent as a cliché – she literally collapses at every finish line, having pushed herself to her body’s limit. Teammates wait to catch her because she doesn’t have the energy reserves to go another step.

When one person can work that hard you look at the person. When you see sisters both possessing the same unadulterated determination, you look at the family.

Where exactly does that otherworldly drive come from?

The girls grin at each other from across their dining room table. Maddie’s index finger wiggles at Kenzie. “For me, it’s always been from her,” Maddie says. “Kind of because we’ve always grown up that way.”

Kenzie added, “I feel like I don’t want to disappoint her.”

In my hour with Maddie and Kenzie, there were dozens of people that they credited with helping them be successful. From coaches to teammates to family to friends, they were quick to share their glory.

From their parents, the sisters have been given unconditional support and encouragement.

“Our mom, she does everything for us. She would support us no matter what happens,” Maddie said. “She came out with Sarah [Benson] and started running. I had told her you should come and start running again and she did. She did it for me.”

“My mom is the biggest, hardest worker I know,” Kenzie agreed. “She works two jobs and she used to do three. Soccer uniforms, swimming uniforms, that stuff isn’t free. My mom buys me new cleats every year and I’m so appreciative of it. I wanted these cleats so bad, they were pretty expensive, but she made sure I had them. She ordered them, even customized them for me.”

“She’s just our biggest cheerleader. The coldest of cold games you’ll see her bundled up on the sidelines. There’s this picture when we won [soccer] states and it’s my mom and dad and my sister and they’re bawling their eyes out. It’s my favorite picture. You can see how supportive they are. Knowing that you have such good parents, it’s definitely something to keep close,” Kenzie said.

But when asked about her dad, Kenzie teared up.

“My dad is my biggest motivator. When I was in premier soccer, I was this small skinny 12-year-old girl and I didn’t even know how to juggle the ball. I was so, so nervous. I stuck it out through tryouts, and I was shaking the whole time. When I got in the car I was bawling my eyes out and told him I couldn’t do this. My dad said you can either go back and not do this again and be mediocre and be like everybody else, or you can come back tomorrow and be the best version of yourself. And I was like, ok I’m going to go back. And I kept going back. Every day. I went from the bottom of the third string, not starting, to first string starting that next year. So I definitely owe a lot of my soccer success to him.”

Mark Flynn comes to a lot of Kenzie’s soccer practices. She said there’s a corner of the field that’s dedicated to him. “He always stands on the opposite line corner because that’s where he can watch me score, that’s what he says.”

When asked why he comes to practices, she gets emotional.

“He tells me it’s because he just wants to watch me touch the ball. Even if I don’t play good, even if I don’t do anything, he just wants to watch me play. He doesn’t care. I’ll get in the car, I’m extremely hard on myself. I’ll get in the car after practice and say oh my gosh I did so bad, what did I do? He’ll be silent. And then he’ll say, ‘To tell you the truth, you didn’t touch the ball, you didn’t look like you were happy.’ To him, if I’m happy and I’m not playing good, he’s fine with it. If I’m just standing around, he gets a little bit like, ‘Come on, you’re not into it. I don’t want to hear the things you did right, I want to hear the things you’re going to improve on for next time.’ We know when we did something right. The things we did wrong are the things we’re going to take with us and learn from.”

Maddie adds, “He always says don’t make excuses, make solutions. He says that all the time. As cheesy as it is, it’s so true.”

“My shoulder, etc., everything is going to have an excuse. So make a solution for that. There’s always something that’s going to happen. You have to take it and get better,” Kenzie said of her dad’s advice.

When asked how they were able to raise children with such remarkable athletic drive, Mark and Jen Flynn humbly give the credit back to their daughters.

“I don’t know, they just do it on their own,” Jen said, though she’s no stranger to athletic determination. Jen has a running background and was a gymnast for 16 years.

“We know when they can give a little bit more,” Mark said.

Though he encourages and pushes when he knows they have more to give on the track or on the field, both parents mostly play a support role. Their daughters are the ones who continually strive to get better.

Though the girls certainly have bragging rights for miles, you’ll never hear them saying how impressive they are (except maybe in jest between each other as they compare medals).

“They’re so humble,” Mark said.

“I’ll never forget this. After the championship game … the team went out on the field. I was looking, looking, looking for Kenzie,” Mark recalled.

When he finally found her, he asked where she had been right after the game ended. “She said, ‘I was hugging the goalie on the other team.’ God, my heart. She was telling them, ‘You guys did great, it could have gone either way.’”

Mark paused, wiped his eyes and smiled. “That’s Kenzie.”

She’s already being recruited by college coaches to play soccer, which she’s excited to pursue.

For Maddie, despite an abundance of college scholarship opportunities, she has decided to switch tracks (literally) and join the Air Force after graduation this spring. She’s drawn to the medical field and the promise of travel that the military offers. She has a family history of military service, and she loves helping people. And, if she’s honest, she’s ready for a break from the rigors of running and the mental preparation for races.

“It’s bittersweet but we’re both going to go our own ways. We’ll find ways to see each other but it’ll be hard the first couple of years,” Maddie said.

Maddie is looking forward to the change and the challenge (she’s already preparing for boot camp), but Kenzie, who admits she doesn’t like change, is having a harder time with the thought of saying goodbye. “When you grow up with your best friend it’s hard to watch them leave. We’ve been close since day one.”

The girls have “Sister Saturdays” as they call it, when they spend time together. Sometimes they’ll go to the beach, or go out to eat, or go play mini golf. “We just go out the whole day and just do something fun,” they said.

But with their schedule, free time is hard to find. Beyond training for sports and keeping a 3.5 GPA, the girls both work on the weekends, and they volunteer in their community. Maddie helps out with GoFar as a running coach, and Kenzie has served for two years as a soccer coach with parks and recreation. Kenzie delivered Thanksgiving dinners with Meals on Wheels, and both girls have participated in community fundraisers for a local community member.

A lot of changes are coming to the Flynn household in the coming months. Exciting changes, but also a loss of something unique and special between these two young women who, by their very presence, have pushed each other to rare levels of excellence – for themselves, their teams and their community.