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UCLA Sprinter Brings a Thinking Man's Runner

May 28, 1987|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

The motivation in track is to run faster and jump higher and UCLA sophomore sprinter Henry Thomas may eventually run faster than anyone else in the world.

But Thomas' approach is to run smarter.

Thomas, who graduated from Hawthorne High School with the fastest recorded sprint times in California history, is rounding into top shape for the first time in his two seasons at UCLA after being slowed by several nagging injuries.

In the last two weeks, Thomas has given an indication of what is to come. On Saturday, against a national class field in the UCLA-Pepsi Invitational Thomas ran a 10.18 in the 100-meter dash, then won the 200 in 20.37, the second fastest mark in the world this season.

This week, the Bruins will shoot for the Pac-10 Conference title in Corvalis, Oregon. Then in the first weekend of June the Bruins will compete in the NCAA championships.

The UCLA coaching staff, which has been bringing Thomas along slowly, is ready to unleash him. Sprint Coach John Smith, a former UCLA All-American, 1972 Olympian and 400-yard dash record-holder, is talking under 20-second-times in 200 meters, sub-44 seconds in 400 meters, 100-meter times below 10.20 seconds and a mile relay under three minutes.

"There's no reason he can't do that," Smith said. "What we have to do now is be patient, work on fundamentals, solve any problems, then take advantage when the opportunity presents itself. Last year I saw him do some things with hardly any training. He ran a 45.42 (400 meters) when he hadn't trained in six weeks. He's gifted. The speed is there. The key is to learn the fundamentals and apply them."

Thomas suffered a stress fracture in his foot last year which caused him to miss much of the season and sit out the NCAA meet. This year he had some hamstring discomfort that caused the coaches to use him cautiously.

But Thomas stunned the crowd two weeks ago at Mt. San Antonio College when he ran a scorching 43.7 leg in the mile relay, helping the foursome to a 3:01.09 finish--best in the world this year.

Smith's training approach so far has been to concentrate on distances up to 400 meters, but now he is cutting down the conditioning and working on sprints. Last week at a meet in Modesto, Thomas ran 10.27 in the 100 and 20.55 in 200. Smith said Thomas may be ready to explode in the shorter sprints, particularly the 200.

Smith said Thomas will concentrate on the 200 and the relays for the conference and NCAA meets. "Everyone says he's a natural quarter-miler, which is true," Smith said. "Henry is 19. Most of the good quarter-milers are all out of school--22, 24, 25 years of age. What I'm trying to teach him is to run with maximum speed and less effort. The endurance takes time.

"You can't over-run your talent at a young age. We're going to do one thing at a time. As he gets older he'll have a background of strength and conditioning."

Because of his injuries last year and the coaches' reluctance to push him this season, the slender, 6-foot-1 1/2 Thomas has heard whispered accusations of being injury-prone or of ducking competitions.

Thomas, a sensitive, soft-spoken, thoughtful student, bristles when he hears that, and says people just don't understand the thinking man's approach to track. After setting state prep records in 100 meters (10.25), 200 meters (20.4) and 400 meters (45.09), Thomas says people expected too much of a freshman entering college.

"Last year was a big adjustment, coming into a new program which involves a lot of different aspects from high school," Thomas said. "Last year the coach wanted me to get stronger and in the (weight-training) process I gained weight, up to 178. Now I'm 164. My body wasn't used to carrying that much weight and I had a stress fracture in my foot. Also, coming here, it was a different system my body had to adjust to. Also, you're competing at a higher level. You have to be more efficient, more effective.

"We sat down at the beginning of the year to decide what we wanted to do. We're learning. We had a plan and the idea was to take it slow. Now as we go to the conference meet I think I'm about ready to go in there and do a good job for the team. I think over the next couple months my performance is going to go up."

And the fragile tag?

"I've been running since my freshman year in high school and the only thing I had there was an appendectomy my senior year. I know people had high expectations. People are always ready to point a finger at somebody. Last year was the only year I've been hurt. When you sprint you're redlining it. People should realize that. Anything can go at any time.

"I learned a little about human nature. It made me a stronger individual. I think it made me a stronger leader on the team."

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