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Thomas Carries UConn Banner Into NCAA Cross Country Championship


Special to

STORRS, Conn. – Who knows what would have happened if Chloe Thomas hadn't made the decision to give up figure skating? What if she had not returned to a childhood love of cross country? What if she hadn't reached out to the UConn cross country coaches?

Then Thomas wouldn't be preparing to compete in the 2023 Women's Cross Country NCAA Championship, a 6K race set for Saturday morning in Charlottesville, Va.

Sometimes, decisions just work out right.

Thomas (Dundas, Ontario), a junior environmental science major, is UConn's top cross country runner and the school's first individual qualifier for the NCAA Cross Country Championship since junior Mia Nahom in 2019. In fact, Thomas is only the sixth runner in UConn's program history to earn a prestigious at-large invitation. She finished seventh overall in last week's Northeast Regional Championship, held in the Bronx, N.Y. -- then came the nerve-wracking wait. Individual qualifiers have to be one of the top-four finishers not on a team that earned an automatic or at-large bid at the regional.

"Waiting was pretty emotional, especially because I wasn't in for sure," Thomas said. "It was dependent on Harvard and Providence making it as teams. I was pretty nervous.

"My first goal was for us to make it to nationals as a team. I knew if that were to happen, I would have to be in the position to be an individual qualifier, too. So basically, that was my focus since outdoor track wrapped up. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I'm very excited to go."

Cross country running is what Chloe decided she wanted to do since her high school days.

"I used to be a very competitive figure skater, and that came to an end and I didn't really see myself progressing into collegiate or a longterm sports career," she explained. "So, I kind of just thought back to things I was good at in elementary school and I was like, 'You know, I was OK at cross country and running.' So I started running and it just clicked and I really enjoyed it. My first season competing as a runner was a cross country season. I just loved going to practice and I felt I really fit in with that community of people and my teammates even in high school and I really wanted to keep on going."

It was clear early-on that Thomas was not an average runner and colleges in her native Canada noticed. But she had other ideas.

"I never really planned on going to UConn, or any school in the NCAA, until I was like, 'This seems like a really good opportunity,' " she said. "Mostly smaller D1 schools reached out to me and I was like, 'No, I want to go somewhere that's nice.' So, I reached out to UConn and they responded."

When Beth Alford-Sullivan took over a year ago as UConn's director of track & field and cross country, Thomas was already in place.

"Chloe's got another gear," Coach Alford-Sullivan said. "I'm hollering at her the whole race to 'Get movin,' and at the end she's still moving. She's got a great shot of getting a big piece of this race."

Thomas, who posted top-10 finishes in each of UConn's five competitions this fall, says her success is all due to training.

"During track season, I'm more of a 1,500 miler, so 6K feels like a big jump," she said, "but I feel like it comes with Coach Sullivan giving us a good summer training program. Our training suits the distances that we're running in championship season, so it doesn't feel like a jump in that sense."

"So much of the coaching goes into the training," Alford-Sullivan added. "You have to have a good preparation in training, you have to have good consistency in training, you have to have the athletes prepared to handle what you're giving them in training. As a coach, you have to kind of adjust … and even within a team… where Chloe was running and where the pack was running, there may be different types of things going on. So, we had to always kind of adjust some things."

Cross country runners are unique athletes in a unique sport, in that it is highly-individualized competition, but within a team concept. Runners have to be laser focused throughout the race.

"I think every single person on our team has a job to do and they are all equally important," Thomas said. "You go into every single race knowing that if you don't execute your job, then that's a weak link on your team and you can't let that happen. It's just a singular focus on getting your job done.

"The strategies are somewhat individualized, but they are team-focused," Alford-Sullivan said. "As Chloe said, everybody's got a role, a job on the team, so you give some strategies there. But you really hope that the athlete starts to instinctively feel what's going on and I feel that in Year Two (at UConn), that's a big growth pattern the women saw. It was really the ability to understand competition better, and apply themselves to the competition better and I was really proud of that step. We still have steps to take, but they certainly made some good strides this year."

When it comes to Saturday's race, which will include in excess of 280 runners at the Panorama Farms Cross Country Course, the strategy for Thomas is to not stray far from her usual routine.

"It's been working, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Chloe said with a laugh. "The next couple of days, I'll prepare the same as usual, just like any other race. I have seen this course before. I haven't run a 6K on it, but I've run a 5K on it. It's a really beautiful course and I have always enjoyed traveling to Virginia with the team."

This time, however, Chloe will be competing without her teammates.

"Coaching just Chloe as opposed to coaching the team is different," Alford-Sullivan said, "but it's also somewhat the same because Chloe's had this same responsibility this year, being a frontrunner, to end up in the right positions for her race. So, we'll look at this competition as another opportunity for her to put herself in the right position for her race. She doesn't have the team to back her up, but she has the same ambitions of her outcome. It's very exciting for us. It's been a while since UConn has had a representative in this competition."

If Thomas and her coach have their way, it won't be long before the Huskies have more.

"I think one of the main reasons I was determined to make it this year was because you don't want your last national championship to be your first national championship," Chloe said. "When you compete on the big stage, it's always a bit shocking, and I've experienced that multiple times through U20s, regionals, whatever … and so you need to get a bit of experience under your belt to go back the second time and do well."

No matter Saturday's results, the UConn program has already benefitted.

"I hope it says something about the program," Alford-Sullivan said. "My goal is to always grow the program. Last year, we got our first male qualifier in the indoor championship in a long time. Chloe making it here, the team getting closer to making it as a team … the goals that I have for the program is to grow it up, and continue to not only keep the environment in a championship mindset, but to actually get to those championships and perform, and we did that this year. I was very, very proud of that. But there's more steps to take and Chloe's going to take a big step this weekend."

Sometimes, the decisions just work out right.