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Thursday, June 13, 2024

UF student transfers for track and field opportunity

High school state qualifier attempts to walk on at UF, leaves for opportunity elsewhere

<p>UNC Charlotte track and field athlete Sam Thompson clears a hurdle wearing a green uniform similar to his high school attire during the Pepsi Florida Relays Friday, March 31, 2023. Thompson was a student at UF before he transferred and joined UNC Charlotte&#x27;s team.</p>

UNC Charlotte track and field athlete Sam Thompson clears a hurdle wearing a green uniform similar to his high school attire during the Pepsi Florida Relays Friday, March 31, 2023. Thompson was a student at UF before he transferred and joined UNC Charlotte's team.

Sam Thompson was one of those do-it-all kids.

“A modern-day Renaissance man … but he’s also a frickin’ beast on the track,” high school track coach Bradley Kight said.

Kight describes the 20-year-old former UF interior design sophomore as brilliant, quirky, fashionable and intelligent.

While he excelled throughout high school, leaving him with hopes for a UF track career, his athletic trajectory didn’t go as planned. He spent his first few semesters hoping to get the chance to join UF’s track and field team, but he had to find a spot to compete elsewhere. 

He kept training during the COVID-19 outbreak and survived solo practices his freshman year at UF. The athlete eventually accepted an offer to transfer to UNC Charlotte Spring 2023.

Thompson started his career when Kight, the head track coach at Yulee High School, threw him into action. Kight knew he sometimes needed to put a kid with potential into an event to maximize points for the team at track meets. 

Thompson placed second in his first hurdle event his sophomore year of high school.

“Anybody can go and gut out a 400 [meter dash],” Kight said. “Fewer people are tough enough to do something like hurdles.”

Thompson knew he had a chance to improve this new skill throughout the next track season. He placed seventh and third in two hurdle events in a Friday meet in March 2020. Right before the final events — where the top-placed athletes race again — an announcement came over the intercom: “Spring break will be extended a week.”

That spring break wasn’t just another week; it lasted the rest of the school year due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Thompson still got his medal from that event but lost a chance to improve before his senior year. 

Though COVID-19 cut Thompson’s junior year short, a coach at Tennessee Wesleyan University — a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — sent Thompson a direct message to congratulate him and invite him for a visit. Everything he said was typical for a scouting college coach until the final line of the message.

“Good luck at states,” the coach wrote.

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Thompson never considered he’d ever advance to the highest race at the highschool level. Only a handful of individuals had ever made it to the state finals from Yulee High School — a small town with a population of around 15,000.

“I've never really felt good enough for it,” Thompson said. “And the fact that coaches were already saying ‘Good luck at states’ and we haven't even been into competition yet is what's kind of crazy.”

Not long after Thompson started pondering where his track career could go, he was at his house with a push lawnmower cutting the never-ending grass on his corner lot. 

He was so hot and tired and he got to thinking.

Why do people even stay fit? What is the point of exercise?

“I can’t tell you what happened, but in that moment something clicked,” Thompson said.

At that moment, he pulled his phone out and texted Kight.

“I think I want to run track in college,” Thompson typed.

“OK let’s do it,” Kight responded. 

Kight referred him to Derek Rogers, the YHS sprint coach and previous student team manager for the UF track team, and they created a plan with more specialized workouts.

After his first track meet as a senior, Thompson was approached by a coach at Jacksonville Athletic Club — a track club an hour away. 

He originally dismissed it, perceiving it as a money-grab. 

However, he decided to attend a JAC practice; his parents drove him to Bolles High School, which has one of the best track programs in all of Florida. 

Thompson continuously texted the coach throughout the rainy drive to make sure they were still having practice. 

“Yeah, yeah, we’re still practicing,” JAC head coach Kyle Martin wrote.

Thompson arrived and, after his first hurdle set, reapproached the start line.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing?” Martin said. “We take rest around here.”

That’s when his serious practice regime started. He drove an hour to practice with the club team Tuesdays and Thursdays every week and still ran with the high school team every day of the week.

His coaches at JAC, Martin and Eli Sunquist, taught him technical skills that Kight didn’t have time to develop.

However, Thompson didn’t see much progress until a later meet in the season when a personal best time — also called a “PR” — snuck up on him at the asphalt track home meet. 

“You just ran a PR!” his teammate George King said.

“Wait really?” Thompson said.

And he PR’ed again at the district meet. 

“Bro, you literally just broke 40 seconds,” Rogers said. 

He was the No. 7 seed — meaning he was projected to place seventh — in his next race at regionals. However, that placing wasn’t enough to advance him to the state finals.

There were two false starts and issues with the starting blocks in his first heat. Stressor after stressor tried to throw him off, but Thompson stayed focused.

All I have to do is run 10 hurdles across the finish line.

He achieved a PR by more than half a second — a significant achievement when he only had 110 meters. He placed first and earned a spot in states — which only six people in his high school’s track program had done before. 

While cooling down before his next race, he ate his comfort food of Mott’s gummies — the only thing he can eat without feeling sick from nerves. He thought he had plenty of time.

That was until the meet organizers cut the adaptive event for handicapped athletes and decided to continue the meet. Instead of getting adequate time to recover, Thompson darted back to the start line 30 minutes after leaving it.

He was seeded fifth but ended up placing second. 

He finished and glanced at the clock. The big screen read 00:38:78.

I just PR’ed by over half a second. AGAIN.

He got no medals this time — just ribbons for what was his greatest feat yet. 

Thompson had one week to train for states. He finally had the chance to prove he was good enough to compete at the college level. At this point, he was the only member of his high school team still training. 

His nerves kicked in as the big meet loomed. He waived his SAT to attend and had to come home for his senior prom afterward. 

During his 110-meter hurdle event, which is only one stretch of the track, Thompson noticed his legs were sore, and he was more tired than usual.

Whoa what is going on? But I gotta go!

He didn’t get first place like he was seeded; but he still managed third place. 

Maybe it was the nerves or the fact he lifted weights for the first time ever during practice that week, he thought.

He started his next race in first place and was about to become a state champion. At the curve he cleared the hurdle but landed weird.

“Next thing I know, I’m stumbling forward,” Thompson said.

No no no no no no no

“I can just see the people running past me,” Thompson said. “Every. Single. One of them.”

He tried to catch up, but his opportunity, and opponents, had passed. He came to represent his school and his family at states but left the meet discouraged. 

Kight turned to the other coaches.

“Alright, well — this is where the real coaching comes in,” he said. “Because now we’ve gotta talk to a kid who just went from the No. 1 seed, fell on his face, and we have to get him to rebound.”

Rogers, the high school sprint coach, knew what to do.

“I’m gonna have a friend call you,” Rogers said to Thompson.

That day he got a call from Gil Roberts in Texas. Roberts was a 2016 Olympic champion in the 4x400-meter relay — a race in which runners run around the track once and then pass the baton to the next runner.

“This dude is talking to me?” Thompson said.

“It’s okay, we all have bad days. We’re not always perfect, but what matters is that you keep showing up after it,” the four-time All American athlete said. 

An Olympic track runner is telling me that it’s not over.

“It was a much needed step of growth because I don’t think I could’ve gotten through these past couple months, past year, with my journey in track if I already hadn’t gone through difficulties,” Thompson said. 

Going into freshman year, Thompson never got a track offer from UF, but as a double legacy student, he still decided to attend UF to get a good education and aim to get a track offer starting his sophomore year. 

He met with the assistant coach and hurdles coach Adrain Mann. The assistant coach told Thompson he likes his build, but they’ll just need him to run some more meets in the summer to get his times down. 

So Thompson trained solo his entire freshman year. His parents purchased hurdles for him, and he practiced at Fred Cone Park — a local rubber track. 

Since he lacked support from Florida’s track team, he got none of the benefits athletes on the team get. He didn’t receive extensions on schoolwork or money for gear or equipment.

However, he did get to run more meets in his freshman Spring, and he trained with JAC again the summer after. During a meet in July, he reached another PR but fell again and sustained a minor leg injury. 

In a follow-up conversation with Mann this past Fall semester, Mann told him his times were still too slow. As a national champion team the previous year in men’s and women’s track and field, they have a higher standard, Thompson said.

Mellanee Welty — UF’s recruiting coordinator and sprints, relays and high jumps coach — recommended Thompson transfer to another school.

“I had to accept that I didn’t have an opportunity here at UF,” Thompson said. 

One year into his interior design degree at UF, Thompson started looking into other schools. He had already given up an academic scholarship from the Savannah College of Art and Design for UF. Now, he had to decide if he wanted to give up an education at a Top-5 University with a national championship track team to use his talents elsewhere.

“I can always come back to college, but your body won’t always be fit,” Thompson said.

A few months after his rejection from UF’s team, JAC coach Martin — a constant support for Thompson from club track into college — got Thompson connected with Martin’s coach from when he ran track at Kennesaw State University.

After Thompson got off an hourlong FaceTime call with hurdles coach Josh Campbell at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he was offered a visit to the campus and attendance to practices in late November of his sophomore year.

“He seemed to fit in right away with the guys,” Campbell said. “He looked the part as well as it looked like he has the potential to be a really good athlete, and then I came to realize that he came from a respectful family and has a really good background.”

Less than a month after his visit, Thompson accepted an offer to transfer to UNC Charlotte beginning in the Spring 2023 academic semester and track season. He might not have the opportunity to run for UF, but he found a team that needed him and can foster his athletic career. 

“I’m excited to be able to run,” Thompson said. “I'm a little nervous … it's kind of been hard to transition on my own because still while I'm here, I don't have all the equipment that they have or the facilities.” 

The team has a goal to win the conference championship, and Thompson is aiming to win the conference in his hurdle events. His ultimate goal is to earn a spot in the NCAA championship.

Three months after transferring, UF invited Charlotte’s team to compete at the Pepsi Florida Relays in Gainesville. 

The spectators with umbrellas and the athletes on the field suffered the beating Florida sun, which Thompson said he felt more equipped to handle than his teammates. But his nerves set in as his family and friends were in attendance to watch him race on a familiar track.

“I’m obviously at the track of a team that didn’t give me the opportunity to run, so there’s extra motivation to do what they didn’t think we could do.”

The transition has been difficult for Thompson with academics and trying to make new friends.

“Then you get to the track … you see your teammates, y’all get ready for practice, have a good workout, laugh, have fun while doing it,” Thompson said. “Then it kinda makes it all worth it again.”

Contact Lydia at lparker@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter at @lydiagparker.

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