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Throw It All Down

Michael Lanahan's life was a puzzle, his death a mystery wrapped in a song.

"He had such a good heart," adds Jeff Malin, another swim-team alumnus. "He had this amazing ability to get you to like him and to have fun with him. If he'd gone into the business world, he would have been incredible. Sometimes he caused people problems and didn't even realize he was doing it. But he turned some of his worst enemies into his best friends."

From his freshman year on, Lanahan was a fixture of the party scene on the Hill. He didn't make an indelible first impression; it just seemed like he was always there. He could walk into a house knowing no one, his invitation the bottle of ninety-proof Weller bourbon under one arm, and become the undeniable presence at the center of the room.

He was an instigator, an organizing force -- this tall, rangy dude with the big grin and the wild hair and the crazy light in his eyes, drawing people into his schemes like a CIA recruiter wiggy on nitrous oxide. Organizing drinking games like "shot pool," which he refined and perfected (metal jiggers scattered on the break; every time a ball touches one, the shooter takes a shot). Telling stories. Playing poker. Plotting road trips, pranks, feats of derring-do. And being pretty damned insistent about it all.

Michael Lanahan gave up booze for adrenaline rushes 
with his longboarding buddy, Oliver Spees.
Mark Manger
Michael Lanahan gave up booze for adrenaline rushes with his longboarding buddy, Oliver Spees.
Ride hard, ride safe: Jeff Malin went looking for 
Lanahan the night he made his farewells from the 
Flatirons.
Mark Manger
Ride hard, ride safe: Jeff Malin went looking for Lanahan the night he made his farewells from the Flatirons.

"Mike's big thing was, if you told him no, he made it his personal mission to make that a yes," Malin says. "If you said he couldn't do something, he went full-bore toward it."

Lanahan had come to CU from Roanoke, Virginia. His father was a psychologist, his mother a social worker. His college friends picked up hints of a wild and headstrong youth, the kind of adolescence that leaves parents alternately inspired and appalled. (Lanahan's parents declined to comment for this article.) But Lanahan rarely went into details about his past, except to tell a yarn or two that emphasized his resourcefulness -- for example, the time he and other members of his high school swim team went to the mall, shortly after they'd all shaved their heads for a big meet, and got cornered by some angry young black men who thought they were skinheads. Lanahan started sobbing, and his tormentors moved in for the kill.

"We're sorry," Lanahan bawled. "It's the chemotherapy. We all have leukemia."

You can imagine the rest. The black guys apologized and bought all these sick, sorry-ass white boys ice cream or something. That was Lanahan, all right. But did it really happen that way? Who knows?

"When you heard stories from Michael, he would tell you exactly what he wanted you to hear and leave out the stuff he didn't want you to know," says Brian Julsen, a former roommate. "After he died, I started comparing notes with his dad, and it was clear he'd told us different stories. We didn't know which parts were true."

Maybe the legend was embellished, as all legends are, but there was truth behind the stories. Lanahan was resourceful -- and sneaky. He was a geology major but almost never talked about classes; toward the end of his CU career, even his closest friends, including Julsen, didn't know he'd been blowing off classes for weeks. He could be just as devious about his most passionate pursuits -- swimming, partying, women.

Lanahan loved swimming, loved the competition and camaraderie, but he had an odd way of showing it. "He didn't go to all the practices," Billy Flores recalls. "He'd get out early. But he broke five minutes in the 500 [meters] -- that's fast. That shows me he worked off raw, inborn athletic talent, and he wanted it so bad he made it happen."

Swimming is a club sport at CU, supported through user fees rather than the athletic department. It appeals to students who might shun more rigorous, NCAA-sanctioned programs, but it also attracts top athletes. Lanahan hated to lose, and he developed what his extreme-sports partner Oliver Spees calls a "spiteful" racing style. "He'd let the guy next to him get ahead," Spees explains, "and draft him the whole way. Then he'd sprint the last hundred and bury the guy."

He was equally adept at slipping past club bouncers and liquor-store clerks. He had a fake ID that transformed 19-year-old Michael Lanahan into 22-year-old Michael Melton; it was so good he started selling copies to friends, until dozens, maybe hundreds, of Michael Meltons were getting served all over the Hill.

Lanahan and one of his party-mates put in beaucoup hours experimenting with various libations before they came up with the perfect party drink, dubbed the Coondog -- equal parts tequila, bourbon, sour and orange juice. The quest for female companionship involved equally rigorous field research.

"His freshman or sophomore year, he and a friend would go out every week, Thursday through Sunday," says Spees. "Every night they would change a variable -- the way they talked to a girl, their appearance. Little by little, they got picking up women to a science. He was no pretty boy, but he had no trouble. He made girls feel special."

He could be beguiling, even seductive. Women who joined the swim team were warned about him. But Emylie Patten rejects the idea that he was ever a predator.

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