Carley Thomas has a new home in Seattle
Carley Thomas is nice, in fact, she’s very nice. But not in the 'this-table-setting-is-nice', more in the way Shawn Kemp was nasty-nice anytime he picked up his dribble within 8 feet of the hoop.
With a natural knack for speed and a competitive intuition that can't be taught, Thomas won silver at the 2018 World Junior Championshops in the 800m and the 4x400m relay. She had a fantastic showing in the 2019 Diamond League at London where she broke her personal best and in that same year on the European circuit in Nijmegan, Netherlands, she won the 800m. She ranked fifth in the world in 2019 in the U-20 age group and first outside of Africa. This is all before she decided to go to college at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA.
So why Seattle? It’s basically on the other side of the planet from where she grew up in Sydney, Australia. Some people in America still think Seattle is part of Canada. Amazon is from here but she had to know they deliver just about anywhere, really. I know it’s not for the coffee, after you Aussies rejected Staburcks’ march down under years ago. Was she watching Grey’s Anatomy on a random night and thought, ‘That’s it! Seattle it is!’? What made one of the most promising young talents in Australia fly all the way out to the Pacific Northwest? Why not California or Florida, where the sun is always shining? And while we’re asking questions, after her promising showings in 2019, why is she running in University at all?
“When I was finishing high school, a few college coaches had reached out to me but I kind of pushed them aside because I was focusing on school. But after finishing, I figured that it was probably a good idea to look at all my options and make sure that I know what was on the table. So I decided to visit here and I talked to Maurica (Powell). I instantly knew that I really liked it here.”
While Thomas did find it hard to decide between two schools, the famed University of Oregon and the University of Washington, Thomas did her due diligence on what would be the best choice for her moving forward. Her parents played a big role in the decision, and Thomas was also encouraged by Nic Bideau of the Melbourne Track Club, who took her to Europe for better competition and showed her what her future could hold. Thomas also turned to former Oregon runner Jess Hull, and Washington runner Lilli Burdon; both of whom were coached by Maurica Powell (we’ll get to her little later). After careful consideration, Thomas knew Seattle was going to give her the competition and the education she wanted.
“I knew that this was the best place for my running just because of the experience that you have in terms of racing so much and they look after you so well. They already have so many resources to make sure you're fit and healthy throughout your time here and it's harder to come by back home. They have such a great support system here.”
Competition was a familiar sight for Thomas growing up - her parents, Christina and Bruce, were both Australian Ironman Triathlon Champions. While running is what Thomas is known for now, like a lot of Australian kids she grew up playing lots of different sports, often with her brother and sister.
“I played basketball, some soccer, touch football, netball, water polo, and I did a lot of swimming and obviously, running. I also did surf lifesaving; you know, Nippers.”
Although Thomas seemed to be destined for running from the get-go, she also wanted to explore a bit more before she fully immersed herself into the track.
“It's always been a big part of my life. I think mum and dad's enthusiasm for running has always encouraged me...But I think I exercised a bit of resistance in my younger life. I guess it was always a subconscious understanding that (running) was what I was going to do… but I never wanted only running to define me. I wanted to do lots of other things in my life and I still do.”
While committing to college running and to the University of Washington was a big decision for Thomas, her arrival in Seattle meant new beginnings for the program as well. Thomas’ class was hailed as one of the best recruiting classes that the school has ever had.
“It definitely added some excitement because I knew being part of that class not only would lift me up, but lift the whole team up if we can bounce off each other. You want to be on the team that’s pushing to be the best.”
While she’s welcoming the challenge and the change of scenery in Seattle, it’s easy to forget that she hasn’t even been on a campus for a full year. Not only that, she had to leave her family and her country behind, sacrificing more than most. Thomas’ coach and the director of University of Washington’s track and field program Maurica Powell understands the difficulty wholeheartedly.
“It never escapes me that Carley is half a world away from her parents, her sister, and her brother, with whom she is very close and connected. As her coach, my role is not only to direct her training, but also to support her transition to adulthood and independence. Because she's had world-class performances at 800m, it might be easy to forget how young Carley actually is- and I feel it's critically important that we always remember that she's still a teenager, living away from her family for the first time in her life. We can help her keep good balance in her life.”
"Because she's had world-class performances at 800m, it might be easy to forget how young Carley actually is- and I feel it's critically important that we always remember that she's still a teenager..."
Before taking over the University of Washington’s track and field program in 2019, Maurica Powell helped build the women’s program at University of Oregon’s track and field into a perennial powerhouse for the past thirteen years. Names like Jordan Hasay, Alexi Pappas, Australia’s own Zoe Buckman and Jess Hull are just some of talents that Maurica Powell coached over the years. It goes without saying that she knows how to develop talent, but being around universities as long as Powell has, she knows a good student when one walks through the door,
“As I got to know Carley I was struck by her joyfulness. She's just an absolute ray of light. Of course, her performances spoke for themselves- but the numbers alone don't tell the entire story of Carley Thomas. Carley is smart, open-minded, and positive. She sees challenges as opportunities, and her biggest motivation is to be the best version of herself”
It’s striking that Powell mentioned that Thomas is a runner that’s beyond her numbers because both share similar sentiments.
“When I’m training, I just listen to my body. I want to feel like I’m not always tracking how far or how fast I’m running because I don’t think that’s necessary. If you are in touch with how you feel and what you are up to, that gives you better feedback than any watch tells you.”
It’s easy for any level of runner to let numbers dictate why and how they run, but for Thomas, there’s more to it. Thomas truly appreciates running in its purest form - what it does for her inner potential, her happiness, and where the sport can take her.
“I love the opportunities that running has given to me. I’ve had a chance to visit unique places and have unique experiences because of running. Going to Europe or to Japan is not something that a lot of people in my age group can have, so I feel really grateful and thankful that I can have this opportunity. The people you get to meet and friends you get to make through running is a life’s journey.”
However, when numbers matter Carley Thomas goes from nice into the nasty nice Shawn Kemp mode. She recently smashed the school’s indoor 800m record by over two seconds in her first competition, running 2:03.06 at the Dr. Sander Columbia Challenge at the Armory in New York and finishing third behind two US professionals. While Thomas looks to wrap up her first year at the University of Washington with the NCAA National Championships in June, she also feels hopeful for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I want to qualify. We have a competitive field in the women's 800m in Australia at the moment so it'll definitely be a challenge but it’s also something that I'm up for. As much as Tokyo is a big goal, I don't want to just constantly be focusing on, you know, chasing a time or chasing the qualification because I think sometimes that can be mentally, emotionally strenuous.”
Before even hearing what coach Powell had to say about her, Carley displayed an immense amount of poise during our interview. Soft spoken and succinct, she’s hopeful for the future but also practical about her present. Thomas is not afraid of chasing after what she wants on the track but she also understands that there is a life to live as well. Remember earlier she said she wanted to do lots of things in her life?
“I am really interested in the medical field. I want to know more about medical science. I am a hard worker and I am a kind person. I consider myself a leader naturally so if someone approaches me in a way, I’d be always happy to help out. I want to help others and guide others where I can.”
Told you she was nice.