2004: Tommy Tomlinson, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
Award for Profile Writing
Monday, March 1, 2004
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Profile writing

Tommy Tomlinson


Michael Kelley's obstacle course
November 10, 2003

A beautiful find
November 16, 2003

Article list

Michael Kelley's obstacle course

November 10, 2003

Nine years of healing. Six months of training.

It comes down to this cold October morning, and a stopwatch set at zero.

Michael Kelley throws open the car door and takes off running.

His shoes leave tracks in the cold, wet grass. His duty belt sags on his hip. The orange cone is a hundred yards away. To him it looks like half a mile. Behind him, in trainer Bobby Buening's hand, the stopwatch spins. Michael aced the firearms tests. He's solid with the books. Through six months of training he has proved he can do everything else it takes to be a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.

Now he must conquer the obstacle course.

He has to run, drag, climb, crash, push, bend and crawl through a course built to weed out those who lack the strength or speed or will.

And he has to do it in seven minutes and 20 seconds.

He rounds the orange cone now, heading back toward the rest of the course. From a hundred yards away he could be anyone. But with each step closer something new is revealed. The skin is seared. The feet won't flex. Pieces are missing. Two fingers. An ear. Nine years ago, Michael Kelley was swallowed by fire. He went through 37 operations. He crawled through his house until he could walk. And every day he inched closer to the man he used to be.

He has seven minutes and 20 seconds to make it all the way back.


1:01, 1:02, 1:03

Michael hobbles back to the car, opens the passenger door, pulls out the slumped-over body inside.

Fellow trainee Kris Kodad plays the victim because he's the right size - 150 pounds. He makes himself dead weight. Michael reaches under his arms and drags him backward.

Buening shuffles beside them, right in Michael's ear: "Drive! Drive! Drive!"

Michael bends deep at the knees and rears back. Kodad's heels bounce along the ground. Buening holds his hand out at the 50-foot mark. Michael's shoulder touches.

"Stairs!" Buening shouts. Five steps up one side, five steps down the other. Up and down three times.

The bones in Michael's toes are fused. He can't spring up on the balls of his feet. So his shoes smack flat on every step.



"Six months, Mr. Kelley," Buening says.



"This is six months of training, right here."

Up and down three times. He spins to his left and runs toward a red door in a wood frame. The door is attached to a pulley with 50 pounds of weights.

He lowers his shoulder and lunges. The weights jerk up off the ground. The door flies open and Michael leans through it.

He had nightmares for a while after it happened. Dreamed the whole thing over again.

That day in 1994 at Pope Air Force Base, when a freak airplane collision caused a huge explosion on the ground. Michael was there with his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne. The blast let loose a fireball that ran right over him.

More than 100 were wounded, and 24 died. Of the survivors, Michael was hurt the worst. He was burned everywhere but his left shoulder and part of his left side.

Doctors and physical therapists worked on him for three years. He is covered with skin grafts, striped with scar tissue.

"I went through a lot of training in the Army," he says. "I never trained for having a plane crash on top of me."

But his training helped him heal.

And his training made him think he had a shot to make it through the police academy.

"I know this sounds strange," he says, "but I don't think there's any significant difference in me between now and back then. The accident didn't change my views on life. It didn't change whatever strength is inside me.

"I don't have the nightmares anymore. When I dream now, I never see myself the way I used to look. I am what I am now."


2:06, 2:07, 2:08

"Don't do it fast, do it right," says training supervisor Dave Gehrke. "18 19 20. Good."

Finished with the push-ups, Michael flips over and starts on sit-ups. At the top of each one he shoots a plume of breath that fogs his glasses. Up, back. Up, back. A metronome. He does 20 in 20 seconds.

"Yeah, Mr. Kelley," Gehrke says. "Go get it."

Back to the steps. Three times up, three times down. He strains on the third climb. His mouth droops open. The other trainees have stopped warming up. Everybody watches Michael now. They pound their hands on the 40-foot-long concrete pipe in front of them.

Kelley jumps off the last step and makes a hard right. He unclips a flashlight from his belt and turns it on. The pipe is just big enough for a man to crawl through.

He drops to all fours and dives in.

On the fourth day of training he wrote:

My weaknesses would primarily be physical I will need to put forth an extra effort to correct this.

The day before, as part of a routine physical-fitness check, Michael could do just 23 push-ups. After the bench press, the run, the flexibility test, the trainers put his results into their formula. He scored a 33 out of 100.

Six months later the class goes in for its last checkup, 11 days before the obstacle course.

Trainer Glenn Jones turns on a tape player with a recording of a metronome. The class has to do push-ups with the same thock-thock rhythm.

The tape runs for a minute. Michael does 42 push-ups without slowing down.

In six months he has gained 6 pounds of muscle, lost 4 percentage points of body fat, added 30 pounds to his bench press. He improved everywhere but the mile-and-a-half run. His final score is 56.

Still, that's barely average. A police officer has to be more than just healthy. Suspects run. Then they fight when you catch them.

"Look," Gehrke says one morning. "Michael is never going to be the guy who chases down the crook. But he's got stamina and he's tough. Our tests are set up to screen out people who can't fulfill the physical requirements. He's met every one."


3:42, 3:43, 3:44

Jeff Williams, the class president, yells through a crack in the concrete pipe.

"Go on, Hollywood! Get on through there, Mike!"

Ten seconds later Michael eases out the other end. Two trainers are waiting with a mat. Twenty more push-ups, twenty more sit-ups.

This time everything is slower. On the push-ups his arms quiver. On the last few sit-ups he can barely lift himself.

Recruit Richard Jones runs over and squats next to him.

"It's all you, man. All day. One at a time."

Michael's arms are streaked with dirt and sweat. His lips are coated with white flecks. He breathes so hard his shirt comes untucked.

One last sit-up. He staggers to his feet. He has to run out to the cone again. But he heads in the wrong direction, way off at an angle. It takes him four steps to stumble back toward the right line.

Buening warned them weeks ago. The class had come out to practice the obstacle course. They didn't go full speed. Some in the class didn't think it was so hard.

Wait and see what it's like on test day, he said then. Wait and see when it's for real.


4:59, 5:00, 5:01

The class started out with 20. One quit the first week. Another blew out his knee playing volleyball on the weekend. Williams came up with a slogan for the rest: One machine, 18 parts. They had it sewn on the class flag.

The slowest part of the machine has two minutes left. He trudges out toward the cone.

Jose Aguirre waves him in with both hands, like he's pulling a rope. Billy Kiley yells until his voice cracks.

Buening, the trainer, keeps checking his stopwatch.

Michael rounds the cone.

Kris Kodad takes his spot next to the police car. He gets to be dragged away again. It's the last physical task on the obstacle course.

Michael runs toward the car, and all of a sudden the shouting stops. No one says anything. The class leans forward in a line against the concrete pipe.

Thirty steps away.

Now 20.

Now 10.

He comes up behind Kodad, reaches under his arms again, stands there for a long second.

Then he pulls.

And the noise explodes.

"Straight back, Mike!"

"One more time!"

"Be strong, Hollywood!"

Michael doesn't hear any of this. Instead he hears a voice in his head:

Maple and Monroe?


Monroe and Maple?

At the beginning of the obstacle course, Buening told him two street names. At the end Michael has to repeat them in order.

If he gets them wrong, he has to run to the cone and back again.

If he has to go out there again, he'll run out of time.

Maple and Monroe? Monroe and Maple?

He resets his grip around Kodad. Pulls hard one last time. Backs into Buening's waiting hand.

"Gimme your street names!"

Buening holds his finger over the stopwatch button.



"Wooooo!" Buening hollers, doing his best Ric Flair.

He looks down at the stopwatch.


Michael pulls off the duty belt. The whole class crowds around him.

But after a second or two he walks off by himself, near the edge of the woods.

He leans over, hands on his thighs, and he stays like that a long time.

Out on the obstacle course, Sean Parker struggles through the second set of sit-ups. He lies on the mat until he musters the strength. He finishes the course with five seconds to spare.

On this day Michael Kelley is not the slowest.

He walks back toward the obstacle course, over where Michael Davis is standing. Davis is a former Forsyth County deputy. Everybody calls him Sheriff.

"You OK, Hollywood?" Davis says.

Michael looks out at the obstacle course, draws in a deep breath.

"It's all over, man," he says. "It's all over."

Graduation day.

They spend most of it waiting. They had one last uniform inspection in the morning, when they all turned in their patches that said POLICE TRAINEE.

They split up to meet with the officers they'll be teaming with on patrol. Every new officer rides with a veteran for 14 weeks. Michael has been assigned to the Baker 3 district in east Charlotte.

Afterward, the recruits talk about cop shows.

"Baretta," Jeff Williams says. "He was the man."

"I liked 'Adam-12,' " Billy Kiley says.


"Starsky and Hutch."

"You know," Ben West says, "the Sci-Fi network is remaking 'Battlestar Galactica.' "


"Hang with us, Ben," Ron Webster says. "Focus, son."

Before long the families start to show up. The recruits mingle for a while, then go back upstairs to the classroom where they met every morning.

Buening stands in front of the group for the last time.

"What else is there to say?" he says. "I wish you all the best. Always be safe. Make the right decisions out there. Stay motivated. Do the right thing.

"In about 20 minutes here, we're going to be brothers and sisters. Be proud of that badge. Don't bring any disrespect to it.

"All right. Line up."

They go down the hall, wait in the stairwell, walk past the photos of the officers killed in the line of duty.

They sit in the front of the auditorium. They get three standing ovations.

The choir sings and the chief of police gives a speech and the chaplain says a prayer.

Then they are called up one by one.

When it comes Michael's turn, he climbs the stage and shakes a row of hands. Buening is the last one in the row.

"This is a real honor, for me to be able to give this to you," Buening says.

And he hands Michael Kelley his badge.

One other thing about that day on the obstacle course.

It happened after Michael staggered to his feet for his last run.

After the accident, he didn't run at all for eight years. Since he started back, he hobbled around every corner, limped with every stride.

But for a minute there that day, he caught a second wind, or something popped loose, or his body was too tired to hurt.

The awkward stride planed off. The clomping feet hit the ground smooth.

The obstacles were almost done with.

Michael Kelley ran free.

Article list

A beautiful find

November 16, 2003

QUESTION ONE: You decide you want to solve a math problem that’s so hard, no one’s come close in 25 years. How do you begin?

John Swallow began four and a half years ago, 6,000 miles from home, staring out the window of a bus.

He's the guy you want next to you on the bus seat. Friendly but quiet. You might not remember him later, unless you glanced over when he'd just thought of something, and you saw his left eyebrow rise over the rim of his glasses.

Swallow started writing computer code when he was 7. He aced college calculus when he was 13. He entered grad school at Yale when he was 19. But here he was at 28, in Haifa, Israel, with a problem that clogged his mind like kitchen sludge.

Swallow teaches at Davidson College. He went to Israel on a working sabbatical to trade ideas with a professor named Jack Sonn. Swallow and Sonn are two of maybe 100 people in the world who are experts in their particular side street of math.

They study algebra at its highest levels. They work with sets of numbers called Brauer groups, named for a Jewish mathematician who left Germany when Hitler took over. They apply ideas based on Galois theory, named for a 19th-century French mathematician who died in a duel.

The work has practical uses, such as cryptography - the making and breaking of codes. But to Swallow, it combines the things he loves about math: the beautiful patterns in numbers, and the challenge of seeing how far his skill and imagination can stretch.

In Israel, Swallow and Sonn spent a semester warming up with some minor theorems. Then one day Sonn suggested a problem that other experts in their field had thought of back in the '70s. Many mathematicians worked on it into the '80s - Sonn among them - but no one ever came up with an answer.

In every branch of math there are problems no one has ever solved. They are numerical shipwrecks. If you dive deep enough you could find treasure. But you might spend years and come out with nothing.

The problem Sonn suggested involves analyzing two Brauer groups - huge algebraic structures, whole fields of numbers - and trying to show that they're the same.

The numbers in Brauer groups aren't just the ones you use to balance the checkbook. They're irrational numbers (like the square root of 2) that can't be reduced to a fraction. They're even imaginary numbers (like the square root of -1) that don't show up on a calculator.

Swallow came to think of his problem as comparing two forests. They look exactly alike. The heights of the trees match. But to prove that they're identical, you have to get down to every needle and every hunk of bark.

He had never worked on a problem that required so many techniques, so many new ideas, so much brainpower.

For months he sat in Sonn's office every afternoon, the two of them staring at the blackboard, sometimes for so long that Sonn would doze off.

At night Swallow rode home on a city bus. The other passengers chatted in Hebrew or Arabic, languages he didn't understand. Swallow thought about all the rest he didn't understand, the equations on the blackboard, the numbers skittering out of reach.

He wondered if he had come this far only to find something he had never run into: a problem that was stronger than his mind.

QUESTION TWO: You're struggling to solve a math problem that's so hard, no one's come close in 25 years. You also have a normal life. How do you balance the world inside your head with the one outside?

Cameron Swallow calls it "the math-problem expression." She describes it as "an abstracted gazing into the middle distance."

She first saw it in her husband half their lives ago. They met in choir practice at the University of the South in Tennessee. She was a freshman at 17. He was already a sophomore at 16.

They both loved math and music and English literature. They had long romantic talks about quadratic equations. He had enough credits to graduate early, but he stayed an extra year - partly to finish off a double major, partly to be with her. They got married in 1991, when John was at Yale.

In 1994 they came to Davidson. Soon they had a daughter, Ruth, and then another, Sophie. The talk shifted to whose turn it was to change diapers and when to buy the minivan. John became, as Cameron puts it, the Kitchen Spouse. He makes a mean Reuben sandwich in the Crock-Pot.

In Israel their kids were still small, so John and Cameron had time to talk about the math problem. But he and Sonn weren't getting far. They had spent six months digging and hadn't hit anything solid. And it was time for the Swallows to go back to Davidson.

Swallow resumed his regular life - teaching during the day, spending time with family at night. He worked on the problem in spare hours, between classes and church services and oil changes. He filled sheets of paper with equations next to phone numbers for the DMV.

Sonn had gone on to other projects. Swallow worked by himself for months. But he kept getting stuck. He thought of it like trying to lay carpet that was too small for the room. Every time he got one corner to fit, another would pop loose.

He worried that he had lost his confidence, lost his aggressiveness, lost his faith.

He put down the problem for nearly a year.

He taught, traveled, read to his daughters. He got in touch with a Canadian collaborator. They worked on a smaller problem that they wrapped up in a few months.

When they were done Swallow went back to the folder in his file cabinet, the one marked `Current' Research.

It was filled with copied pages from textbooks, scribbles on graph paper, half-finished thoughts on index cards. The Brauer groups, those two huge fields of numbers, ran all over the pages. He was sure they were the same. But he had to prove it.

He read the notes over and dug in again.

He spread out his work on a table at Summit Coffee across from the Davidson campus. He tried out theories in his head as he drove back from family visits, Cameron and the kids asleep in the minivan, a band called String Cheese Incident playing on the stereo.

Sometimes he forgot what he'd already done and repeated the mistakes he and Sonn made in Israel. Sometimes he worked for days and ended up back at the same wrong place.

But then he thought about the smaller problem he'd already finished. He realized that some of that work overlapped.

He still wasn't getting far. He wasn't even doing enough to call his progress slow and steady. Slow and unsteady, maybe.

Still, after two and a half years, the stubborn numbers in Swallow's head began to shift a little.

His eyebrow rose.

QUESTION THREE: You've spent countless hours trying to solve a math problem that's so hard, no one's come close in 25 years. What will it take to finally break through?

The speaker was boring. Worse yet, he was boring in French.

By now it was July 2001. Swallow had come to Lille, France, north of Paris, for a math conference. He knows French. But this guy at the front of the lecture hall was talking so fast that Swallow couldn't understand half the words, and didn't care about the rest.

Eventually he gave up. He reached over and pulled out his notes on the problem he and Jack Sonn had been working on.

All of a sudden a fresh thought flashed in his mind.

He grabbed a pen and wrote one word.


He followed that word with a string of equations that set new limits on the number fields.

Maybe if he put just a few restrictions on the problem, narrowed the scope just a bit, it would work. He went back to the idea of trying to lay a carpet that's too small for the room. Maybe the answer was to make the room a little smaller.

For the next couple of days he did calculations in every spare moment. The numbers were lining up, making graceful curves on his worksheets. But there were still places where the numbers strayed.

One morning Swallow skipped the conference and went looking for coffee. He ended up in a shopping center and found a table in a restaurant called Quick - a European version of McDonald's.

He doesn't remember much about the scene around him. The steam coming off the coffee. A woman pushing a baby stroller.

Then, another flash.

All along he had struggled with a few key places where the two number fields could have been different. If they were the same, he could apply an equation to both fields and the two sides would add up to zero. But one side always came up with the wrong result.

This time Swallow tried a new technique, something he'd never thought of before that moment in the fast-food joint in France.

It was as if he had been trying to train a dog for months, and the dog finally came.

Lots of dogs. Whole fields of them.

The numbers lined up and sat still.

Swallow applied an equation to both Brauer groups. Did the calculations.

They added up to zero.

Perfect balance.

He had made it down to the needle and the bark. The forests were the same.

Swallow still had to try his new thoughts on other parts of the problem. He still had to recheck his calculations. He still had to trust himself.

He went back to Davidson. His wife noticed the old "math-problem expression." Swallow ran through the steps of his solution over and over until he felt sure.

In the fall of '01 he sent Jack Sonn a draft of the solution. For the next six months they e-mailed back and forth, challenging each other's ideas, getting stuck and starting over. Swallow had to refine his work, make the path to the answer more clear.

The revisions took more than a year.

In November 2002, Swallow sent Sonn a draft that contained all the changes. Sonn spent two months looking them over.

And then Sonn e-mailed back with the words Swallow had waited to hear for almost exactly four years:

"Looks good."

QUESTION FOUR: You think you've solved a math problem that's so hard, no one's come close in 25 years. How do you know when you're done?

At the highest levels, every math problem is solved twice: once in private, once in public.

Swallow and Sonn agreed that they'd found the answer. But now the math world would get to check their work.

They typed up a formal version of the proof: "Brauer Groups of Genus Zero Extensions of Number Fields." It ran 22 pages.

Swallow sent copies to several other experts. He and Sonn posted their work on Web sites devoted to new research papers.

Based on the feedback, they made a few small fixes. Then they got the proof ready for the final step - submitting it to one of the academic journals.

The journals are the hockey goalies of math. If they think a paper is worthy, they send it to referees - other mathematicians who go over every detail. The referees are anonymous. If they agree with the proof, most mathematicians consider the problem solved.

Most journals get more submissions than they can publish. One journal decided not to look at Sonn and Swallow's proof. They sent their work to a second journal. It was now February 2003. Swallow thought it might be another year before they heard back.

Swallow picks up his office mail at the college union. In summer he goes by every couple of days. In early August he found a letter. It was from an editor of Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.

I am pleased to inform you that your manuscript has been accepted for publication.

One referee suggested two tiny changes. The other didn't suggest any.

It had been four years and seven months since they started. Now they were officially finished.

Swallow sent Jack Sonn an e-mail. He said it was time for a drink.

BONUS QUESTION: You've solved a math problem that was so hard, no one else came close for 25 years. What did you learn?

The first breath of fall is blowing across Main Street in Davidson. The folks behind the counter at Summit Coffee learned long ago what John Swallow wants. Regular latte if it's the morning, decaf latte if it's the afternoon.

They know what he wants to drink, they might know what he does for a living, but they don't know what he has accomplished. Not many people do - his family, a few other faculty members, maybe 50 mathematicians worldwide.

The problem he solved won't win any of the big math prizes or make it into Newsweek. It's not even necessarily the kind of thing that would earn him a raise.

But there are rewards.

He'll move up in the eyes of those who study top-level algebra. People will ask him to speak at conferences, publish papers, collaborate on new ideas. He's already got a textbook due in December.

He knows now that figuring out the mysteries of giant number fields isn't that different from working out the problems of everyday life. You break them down into small steps. You leave them alone now and then so you can come back fresh. Mainly, you trust what your instincts tell you.

These days Swallow is in charge of figuring out supper and hustling the kids to the car pool. Cameron has gone back to work; she teaches algebra at Smith Language Academy, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnet school. Ruth is 7, and Sophie's 5. They're ahead of their age groups in math.

Swallow is due for another sabbatical in 2005. He's thinking about taking the family to France. He's had good luck in France.

Meanwhile he daydreams about the next big problem, wonders what mental turn he'll have to take to solve it.

"There are lots of good ideas, but at first they are only ideas," he says. "They have this feeling of novelty and newness. But until you sit down and hack it out, look at the details, you're never sure what you've got. The idea can be beautiful. But only the work can make it beautiful."

And his left eyebrow rises up.

Stories copyright 2003 The Charlotte Observer. Reprinted with permission.

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