03 September 2007

Soaring to new heights

Imagine your sitting around the cafeteria with your buddies, who bet that you can't throw a football more than 40 yards. Now picture taking on your friend's challenge, going out to the school's yard and throwing the football 80 yards. Needless to say, your friends would be pretty impressed. Finally, imagine as though 80 yards was not only impressive to your friends, but would essentially qualify you to be a Division 1 football quarterback. And not only a simply starting quarterback at some random school in Kentucky. Rather, you would have just discovered that you have the skills to become one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Although simplified, this does put into perspective the amazing story of Donald Thomas. Last week Donald was crowned World Champion of the High Jump. The 23 year old from the Bahamas had little to no experience in the high jump prior to 18 months ago. In that little span of time, he has still not comfortable jumping in high jump spikes - in fact, he competes in pole vault spikes, and this only after his coach convinced him they would be better than his high top running shoes. Despite his choice of shoe apparel, his near total lack of experience in the sport, and his limited amount of training, Thomas is the World Champions. With all due respect to other sports, this is not Horseshoes, or synchronized swimming. This is track & field. 206 countries participated in the World Championships, more than any other sport on earth. Everyone on earth knows what the high jump is. Even one legged disabled athletes have been known to do high jump. Donald Thomas achieved the ultimate play year fantasy by becoming the world champions. To really appreciate his accomplishment, why don't we go back to the fall of 2005.

Thomas is attending Lindenwood University. This is a small school in Belleville, Illinois. Their athletic program is not even part of the NCAA - it is part of the NAIA. For those with no knowledge of American college athletics, this is equivalent to playing on the "B" squad of your local villages house league team. The NAIA is not known for producing semi-professional athletes, let alone World champions. Thomas is playing basketball on the junior varsity basketball team for Lindenwood. He came to Illinois from the Bahamas to play basketball. As he wanted to focus on academics, he decided to play JV ball rather than handle the rigors that come with varsity basketball at an NAIA program.

Enter 6'9" Carlos Mattis, a friend of Donald. The two are playing pickup basketball in the gym. Thomas, at 6'3" dunks over Carlos. Like all good friends, Carlos is impressed but in need of redeeming his manhood. So, he challenges Donald to high jump, an event Carlos competes in for Lindenwood's track & field team. As legend has it - he are clearly beyond the term "story" and into the stuff of "legends" here people - Carlos wagered that Donald could not clear 6'6", a height that most high schoolers would be recruited for clearing. Thomas easily clears the height in basketball shoes, and even goes on to clear 7 feet. At this point, we have moved into prime NCAA Division High Jumping territory. At 2.13m, Donald would be league or conference champion at many colleges across the country.

Carlos is beyond stunned. At this ability, Donald doesn't necessarily put Carlos' manhood into question, as he has realized that Donald is simply phenomenal. He convinces the Lindenwood track coach to put Thomas on the high jump team. The following week, basketball shoes on his feet, he attends the Eastern Illinois Mega Meet at the University of Illinois field house. Here, he wins his first collegiate meet in style by breaking the field house record, clearing 2.22m (7'3" 1/4). The University of Illinois is a serious Division 1 track and field program. Every jump Donald took at that faithful meet in January of 2006 is a clearance. He clears 2.22m on his first attempt and simply stops. His coach, rightfully fearful of what might occur if he doesn't lay off, takes him out of the competition. At this stage, approximately 1 week into his track & field career, Donald is the best high jumper from his native Bahamas. He is also the #1 ranked high jumper in the NAIA. A few months later, Thomas finishes 2nd at the National NAIA championships, graduates from Lindenwood, and accepts a scholarship to Auburn University for graduate school.

Thomas goes on to win the 2007 indoor NCAA Division 1 high jump by clearing 2.35m. At that meet in March of 2007, he even takes a shot at clearing the collegiate national record (7'9" 3/4). He is unsuccessful - of course, he only had a few months of training to break the record, not 4 years of eligibility.

Fast forward again to Osaka, Japan. Thomas has easily qualified to represent his native Bahamas at the IAAF World outdoor track & field Championships. At this point, Thomas is about 20 months into his track career. Not necessarily his professional career, but simply 20 months since he has taken up the sport competitively. Most athletes who are 20 months into a sport are about 15 years old. Donald Thomas has cleared 2.35m, which has him ranked as the World Leader. But he has very little experience at this level. Compared to the grandfather of high jumping, Stefan Holm of Sweden who has also cleared 2.35m in 2007, Thomas is merely a toddler. Thomas goes on to clear 2.35m along with 2 other jumpers. However, as he has fewer misses at previous heights, Donald Thomas is crowned World High Jump Champion. Truly phenomenal. It makes me wonder what might be inside each of us, if only someone dared me to do it, I may have a World championship inside of me after all!!! Way to go Donald!

Jumping in basketball shoes and shorts - 2006
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World champions - 2007

4 comments:

Jo said...

I wonder if there is a high jumper hidden inside me.

Rich said...

First you are jogging, now you are jumping? I can't wait to see you take on the hurdles or the javelin!

Mel said...

Just catching up on missed posts... this is an incredible. Really makes you wonder how much our inner censors stop us from achieving...?

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