Athlete Feature 46 - Gavin Thompson - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 46 – Gavin Thompson

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We spoke to Eastern Michigan’s Gavin Thompson, a 3rd place finisher in the 2003 NCAA XC Champs.

tbUSA – You attended Eastern Michigan between 2001-2006. This would have meant that you were slightly older than the typical undergraduate student when enrolling, around the age of 21. What made you decide to go out later than the typical age of 18-19?

GT – After I completed my A-levels I was playing with the idea of becoming a full time athlete for a couple of years before going to university. After a year out I decided that being a full time athlete wasn’t working for me. I enrolled at Loughborough College for two years in which time I completed a Sports Science HND, during this period my running wasn’t progressing how I would have liked, so after speaking with my coach at the time (Alan Storey) we felt a change of scenery might be good for me and decided that I should give the US collegiate scene a go. Although I was 21 when I arrived in the US, there were a lot of people around my age on the colligate scene as a lot of guys who still have eligibility to run in the NCAA go on to do a masters degree, plus it was becoming more and more popular for British athletes to come out to the US after they had completed an undergraduate degree. Believe it or not I wasn’t the Granddad on my team out there.

tbUSA – You had a highly successful junior career in the UK (English U17 XC Champion in 1997). What made you chose Eastern Michigan over any of other options which you must have had at the time? Did you consider staying in the UK?

GT – I was in touch with a number of universities in the US before I decided to go out there (some options were in warmer climates than Eastern Michigan),and one thing I was cautious about was finding  the university with the right coach. Without sounding too disrespectful there are a number of universities and coaches out there that have a reputation of being a “car sales man”. They had all the talk but had a record of burning athletes out (over racing or over training). Eastern Michigan had an extremely good coach (Bob Parks) who invited me out to meet with him. His record was excellent, and he also was good at getting the best out of the Brits (Gordon Minty – 3rd in the NCAA –  the winner that year he did this was a certain Steve Prefontaine – Dominic Middleton, Ben Reese, Neil Kirk all had a lot of success while at Eastern Michigan). Bob was also a US National Coach too. While I was out there he informed me he was retiring but the tradition that he had built was in safe hands as they hired another US national coach in John Goodridge who had steered another NCAA team to a third place in the NCAA XC.

tbUSA – In 2002, you were part of the Boaz Cheboiywo led Eastern Michigan team that finished third in the NCAA meet. You finished a very respectable 13th individually. It must have been a pretty solid group to be training with? 

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GT – I was very fortunate at Eastern Michigan to be training with a number of very talented athletes. Boaz was obviously a great guy to train with and just watching his attitude towards training and racing was certainly an eye opener. I would get up at around 5.45am to meet Boaz at the indoor track for a 6am morning run. He would always say it will be a nice easy 40 minute run. It certainly started out that way the first mile was always around 7.30 minutes, but every mile got quicker and quicker  to the point that the last mile was clipping along at a very good pace. The rest of the team was made up of local lads from Michigan which either came out of high school with a decent reputation which Coach Goodridge got the best out of, or we had a lot of “walk ons” (no funding and weren’t recruited) to the team which Goodridge had a knack of turning into very solid team runners. One of my closest training partners was a guy called Jordan Desilets. He was known more for his steeplechasing (he had a PB of 8.24 and went on to win the NCAA Steeplechase title). Jordan was our team fourth scorer so it shows what depth we had to the team. The third scorer was another local lad called Joel Davi, another All American. Joel was an extremely hard working guy who started off as a “walk on” on the team and flourished under the guidance of Coach Goodridge. The rest of the team was made up of a core of about 20 very good local lads. (They were all around 30 – 31 minute 10k guys). I have to give John Goodridge a lot of credit he set the tone for practice and racing. The sessions he would make us do were certainly challenging but at the same time fun.

tbUSA – November 24 2003 and you finished an incredible third in the NCAA Cross Country Championship behind only Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall. What are your memories looking back on that race/season?

GT – I had gone into the race on the back of a decent season, winning my conference, winning a tough region by over 45 seconds, finishing 5th or 6th at Pre Nats. I was also high in confidence from the previous year’s race (Easter Michigan finishing 3rd as a team and I was 13th individually). My training had been going well, one session in particular (10 x 800m with Boaz on the track all between 2.03 and 2.06 with very short recovery) so I knew I was in shape and had targeted a top 5 finish which I knew would be tough but realistic. It felt weird going into this race without a team there (Eastern Michigan failed to qualify as a team due to a ridiculously tough region) but it also took some pressure off me, to just go out there and run my own race. I remember the weather was absolutely freezing with a very strong wind. Most runners opted to run with hats and gloves on.

When the gun went off I knew that I wanted to be in amongst the Stanford team as they always run as a pack and won the event the previous year, plus the team had Ryan Hall who I knew if I was close to him at the end of the race I would certainly be top 5. I also wanted to keep my eye on Dathan Ritzenhein and Alistair Cragg who were my tip for medals that year. Once the race had settled down there was a lead group of what felt like 25 of us (as well as the ones already mentioned, this group also had Anthony Ford, another fellow Brit who was running well at the time, Ian Dobson, Grant Robinson, Nick Willis, Nate Brennan, Chris Solinsky, Simon Bairu, Richard Kiplagat, to name a few). I remember there was a bit of a break away after about the halfway point and Dathan and Ryan had got away with myself and Louis Luchini about 5 meters behind and then Grant Robison leading another group a couple of meters further back from us. I remember going down a hill and catching a glimpse of my coach who was screaming at me that this was my last cross country race as an Eastern Michigan athlete and that I need to give it everything I had, with that I found a second wind which allowed me to bridge the gap back to Dathan and Ryan leaving Louis behind. Once I had settled down with Dathan and Ryan my thoughts turned to the possibility that I could actually win this race and I was going to sit on these guys and kick at the end (I thought if I kick a little earlier than normal I might catch these guys off guard). As soon as I started thinking that Dathan and Ryan pick the pace up and with a 1k to go I knew I wasn’t going to beat them but will definitely achieve my goal of top 5. As we turned the last corner there was a 400/500 meter uphill straight. I remember the crowd going crazy and people where shouting for me. I dug in and gave it my all to the finish line. It got to the point where I knew there was no way of winning and I had a look behind me to see Grant Robison chasing me down and I started to freeze as this guy was a fantastic 1500m runner (he made 2004 Olympics in the 1500m for the USA) and he had some speed in his legs. Luckily for me the finish line came before he was able to catch me and I finished 3rd as an individual in the NCAA Championships. It was a great feeling but I didn’t fully appreciate quite how much this meant until I arrived back at Detroit Airport (it must have be close to midnight) to the whole of my team along with some of the other teams at Eastern Michigan (Gymnastics, Wrestling, and Swimming) greeting me at the Airport with banners and cakes etc.

tbUSA – A decade on and you remain the last British male to have made the cross country podium. Many have tried and although a few have come close, can you think of any reasons why no one has quite matched what you were able to do as a collegiate?

GT – That’s a good question and I don’t really have an answer to that. I would put my success down to a very good group of training partners and an excellent coach in John Goodridge. In a weird way the weather in Michigan was another factor, Michigan would always have about a foot of snow in the winter months, and I strongly believed this made me stronger mentally as well as physically. At the time the state of Michigan was producing runners such as Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Shay, and Jason Hartman as well as runners such as Alan Webb, Nate Brennan, Nick Willis, Boaz, Jordan Desilets attending Michigan universities. The Hanson Running Project was also based in Michigan and I put some of their success down to the hard winters. The NCAA is certainly a tough scene to be racing in especially at the moment with so many good Americans who are competitive on an international level but still in universities, as well as very good foreign students. I don’t think it would be too long before another Brit gets themselves onto the podium (it’s been done on the girls side recently!) and there are some good success stories already (maybe not on the mud) on the track (Andrew Lemonchello, Chris Mulvaney, Tim Bailey, Chris O’hare, Lee Emanuel, to name a few).

tbUSA – Whilst there were later races, it appears from your Powerof10 that your last ‘serious’ race was the Commonwealth Games 10,000m in 2006. Was there a point in the years following this where you decided to retire or was it more a case of gradually winding down with running?

GT – After Commonwealths, I came home to the UK via Japan and the World Cross Country Championships where I finished 77th (in winds that felt like a gale). After an extended rest period (due to the time of the year Commonwealths were held and the large amount of traveling) I went back to the US to train full time for a year. After my rest I tried to build my training up but for some reason I was getting pain in my groin and my legs just weren’t turning over as quickly as I would like without pain. It was starting to become a mystery as to what this injury was, we started to go down the root of hernia but the medical experts were not all in agreement with this so after about three months of uncertainty I moved back to the UK and my then coach, Neville Taylor, decided to ask UKA if they would help to pay for an MRI scan to get to the bottom of this which they agreed to do. The results came back that it wasn’t a hernia but were still inconclusive. UKA recommended I travel to Wimbledon and meet with one of their top physios who specialised in groin injuries. After a couple of session with him he had worked it out to be an inflamed tendon deep in the groin that was covered by a lot of muscle (which is why it wasn’t showing up on MRI scans and why the other medical guys couldn’t locate the problem correctly) and was really hard to get to.

72_514955393484_6338_nBy this time I was entering my 5th month of not really training. The physio was really good and gave me a lot of exercises to help ease the issue as well as a weekly session which trust me was extremely painful Outside of tearing my achilles I would say this is the most painful thing I’ve experienced through running. I finally got the all clear to run again but by this time is was getting close to 8 months out and I found it really tough to get back into the swing of training. I had also decided to get a job in the meantime and trying to get the right balance of work and running I found a real struggle. I wouldn’t say I have retired from running as I still have plans to get running and racing again but I think my goals and motivation will be different from now on. I would like to turn out at the road relays again and help my team (I’ve recently joined Phoenix, who have a very good young team coming through) to place well but wouldn’t be looking to run the fastest leg or even the fastest guy on the team but I would like to be a solid number four or five. I would also like to go around the half marathon and marathon scene just to enjoy the racing but not necessarily aim for a time or position.

tbUSA – Away from running what are some of the experiences or stories you remember from your time in Ypsilanti?

GT – There’s probably too many to mention but I’ll share a couple with you. The first story comes in May 2004, I was at the end of my eligibility with the team and I wasn’t travelling as much with them  as my coach wanted to give some of the younger “freshmen” guys on the team the opportunity to compete and travel. There was a meeting coming up in Tennessee which would require the team to travel down to the event the day before and stay over for a couple of days. It was a really hot month (the heat in Michigan is really dry and I remember sweating even if I was standing around) and there was a freshman on the team that some of the senior athletes felt was a little cocky and didn’t really understand his place on the team so a team mate (an Irish guy called Wes Alkin) and myself decided to teach this freshman a lesson. The freshman’s roommates at the time had a tendency to leave the front door unlocked when they were in their room playing computer games.

Wes brought a bag of fish from the supermarket and he gave the bag to me while both he and the freshman travelled with the team to Tennessee.  Five minutes after the team had left I went over to the freshman’s apartment to find the door unlocked and no roommates around.  I placed the fish right at the back under the bed which was up against the wall and then replaced everything back under the bed. I actually had a trip to Florida planned so I left for Florida for the week. While I was in Florida I gave the freshman a call to see how his trip is going to show him I was away for the week to just so I had an alibi. Once I got back I popped around the freshman’s apartment to see how things are, and to my surprise nothing had happened even though that week had been one of the most humid weeks of the year. The following weekend the freshman had gone home for the weekend and had all the doors and windows shut I was told he came back the following Monday to flies and maggots everywhere and I’m told the smell was unbearable. I heard him tell the guys and our coach at practice how bad it was and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.  I don’t know how Wes kept a straight face. Everyone else on the team found this hilarious and to this day only myself and Wes really knew who did it (Editor’s note: They do now). I don’t think it really did much to bring the freshman down a peg or two but he knew he was vulnerable to the odd prank if he stepped out of line.

Another story was in Feb 2006, as part of the agreement with the England athletics team I had to prove my fitness (which everyone on the 2006 Commonwealth Games team had to do as the trials were held in the summer of 2005). I had agreed with the selectors to target an indoor 3k race at the University of Michigan where I knew Nate Brennan and Nick Willis would be running. Obviously I was taking my training seriously and all aspects of my life so I wasn’t going out with the rest of the lads drinking and I was getting early nights. The weekend before the 3k my teammates had gone out for a night of drinking (this was a Sunday night). I had decided to stay in and head to bed early which my roommate had done too. When drunk, my mates had a tendency of calling me while they were out and surprise, surprise ,this night they decided to call my phone (I think it was about 12am so wasn’t too bad). I answered the phone and told them to sod off and then turned it off. About 30 minutes later my roommate’s phone went off and he said it was the guys again. I told him to ignore it. 5 minutes later his phone went off again and he ignored it. He put it on vibrate despite me telling him to turn if off. It started to vibrate almost straight after putting it down so I decided to answer the phone. The guys on the other end were saying the apartment was on fire and they were outside. Obviously I didn’t believe them and told them that this is starting to get annoying. Again his phone went off after hanging up and someone was throwing stones at our window. I flipped out and decided I was going to go out and confront them as soon as I open the bedroom door the smoke hit me and I couldn’t see any further than my hands held out in front of me! I quickly went back into our room where my roommate was talking to the guys on the phone who said that the firemen are on their way to get us out and whatever we do don’t jump out the window. After being rescued by the fire brigade, we relocated to another apartment, and finally got back to sleep about 4am. Not a great start to the week where I had to prove my fitness. The next morning I went to the medical centre on the university campus, the medical staff gave me an assessment and said I had inhaled some smoke but nothing serious. However I was advised to not run for the next couple of days. ended up running in the 3k that Saturday and finishing with a time of 8.01 which the selectors were happy that I’m in shape to compete at the Commonwealths. I never broke 8 minutes for 3k and I believe if the week leading into the University of Michigan race wasn’t so disrupted I would have gone under the 8 minute mark.

tbUSA – Do you still stay in touch with friends and teammates from Eastern Michigan?

GT – I certainly do and have been back to visit them on a few occasions and vice versa. A lot of my communication is done online which isn’t quite the same as face to face but I would say that a lot of my team mates from Eastern Michigan will be some of my closest friends for life.

tbUSA – Final question, what advice do you have to current athletes who are currently considering the US collegiate system?

GT – I think UK universities that are becoming comparable to the US universities especially the likes of Loughborough, Birmingham, Bath.  I think it’s important that anyone going out to the US is fully committed to going. It’s a long way from home and although the US has the same language as the UK, the lifestyle is different. I think it’s important for a Brit that wants to go out there to really take time to research the universities and coaches before committing themselves. Talk to others that have been out there about their experiences and what they learnt from being out there. I’m more than happy to talk with anyone who is deciding to go to the US and would like to discuss their options further before making a decision. It’s a big decision but I would highly recommend it to anyone.

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