How Jahisha Thomas cultivated a historic spring for the Iowa track and field team

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Jahisha Thomas made Iowa track and field history this month, but her season almost never got off the ground.

A hamstring injury that wouldn’t seem to heal left the senior from England thinking about scrapping this spring and trying to resume her career in 2019. The low point came in late January when Thomas couldn’t even get down the runway in order to attempt a long jump, her signature event.

Iowa senior Jahisha Thomas is a champion in the long jump and triple jump in Big Ten competition this spring. Now, she's aiming higher.

“In my head, I was going to redshirt. I was speaking to the girls about it. I said, ‘This is awful.’ I hadn’t talked to my coaches yet,” Thomas recalled this week with a cheery laugh, another signature of hers.

“That’s why it’s so crazy. I was going to give up the whole year, then train and get stronger. And then this happened.”

Thomas did stop competing in the hurdles, not wanting to risk that particular strain on her hamstring. But, slowly and steadily, she emerged as the top threat in the Big Ten Conference in the long jump and the triple jump. She won both events in the conference indoor championships. She repeated that feat outdoors this month, making Hawkeye history with each performance.

Now she heads into the NCAA West Region competition, beginning Thursday in Sacramento, California, as the Hawkeye to watch. Thomas is seeded second in the long jump and ninth in the triple jump.

It’s been quite a leap.

Thomas fixated on America growing up in London; track was her ticket here

Thomas grew up in London with a bit of an obsession about America. It was spawned by her favorite television shows — “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Gossip Girl.”

“It’s a cliché, ‘Land of Opportunity,’” Thomas said. “It just sounded better on the TV, looked brighter.”

Thomas wasn’t sure how she was going to make that dream a reality, but sports provided an early spark. As a 7-year-old playing hopscotch one day, she bounded directly from the first square to the last. An adult observer suggested she should try being a long jumper. Thomas had dabbled in tennis and gymnastics, but track took hold.

By the time Thomas was a teenager, she was one of England’s top athletes. Clive Roberts, an assistant coach at Iowa, took notice, watched some videos and called Thomas on a Wednesday. By Friday, she was a Hawkeye, ready to take flight for America.

It was a bumpy debut.

“The first year, I was rubbish,” Thomas admitted.

Her hurdle times were slow, her long jump stuck below 6 meters for much of the year. She broke her foot while taking off on one attempt at the Big Ten championships.

Thomas said she learned patience.

In her sophomore year, Roberts had Thomas add the triple jump to her repertoire. She had never done it before.

“We focus on developing the entire athlete. We like to have them do crossover things,” said Roberts, in his ninth season on the Hawkeye staff. “Really good athletes, the reason they’re really, really good is they can pick stuff up quickly.”

Thomas made it to nationals that year, but said she was really just participating, not focused on actually contending for titles. She was a second team all-American in the long jump as a junior, but not exactly a player on the national scene.

Then came a trip home to England last summer, a chance to rejuvenate herself while competing in front of her family. That led to a transformation in the way Thomas approached everything from eating habits to rest. And that has culminated in one of the best seasons in Iowa track and field history.

Triumphant trip home, and a focus on nutrition and sleep, are turning point

Thomas is loving her days as an American. So much so that she plans to remain in Iowa to train for a pro career and finish up her business arts management degree (she sees a future for herself working in broadcasting).

Thomas hasn’t forgotten her roots, though. It’s evident when she pulls up to the Hawkeye indoor track in a red car with an Iowa license plate that reads: “BR1T15H.”

That meant the chance to participate in the United Kingdom world team trials was one Thomas couldn’t pass up last July. Her family — which includes parents Albert and Paulette and brothers Jahmmal and Jahdd — hadn’t seen her compete in person in seven years. They, along with cousins and others, filled an entire row of the stadium in Birmingham, England.

Jahisha Thomas can point to two Iowa records she holds in indoor competition. She wants two more in the outdoors, and can get them this week in Sacramento, California.

Thomas finished third in the triple jump and fourth in the long jump.

She pointed to her family in triumph.

“I want you to know that I’m good. I’m safe. I’m progressing,” Thomas signaled in that moment. “Obviously, you’ve sent your child away across the world, you worry, how are they doing? I’ve got this. We made the right decision.”

Thomas called it a turning point in her career. It redoubled her determination to make her senior season at Iowa count.

That started with an examination of her entire routine outside of track. Roberts and her coaches had often talked to Thomas about the need for better nutrition, more sleep, a more regimented homework schedule.

“You have to be able to recover, and that’s tied big-time with your nutrition,” Roberts said. “I credit Jahisha for making a commitment to how she’s fueling. That’s transformed her body to the point where she wasn’t breaking down and she was able to obviously excel.

“She enjoys life. It’s a busy body for sure. That’s maybe the one thing that I try to control her — don’t do so much to wear yourself out.”

Thomas makes it a point to drink two liters to one gallon of water each day, not just when she’s thirsty.

She went on Pinterest last summer and found scores of recipes for healthy foods that she enjoys cooking herself. Thomas said she gets excited every night thinking about what she’ll have for breakfast the next morning. It’s always the same: Greek yogurt, honey, granola, fresh strawberries and two scrambled eggs.

Thomas thrives on that monotony. She’s getting more sleep at night, too.

Making Hawkeye history with two big-time jumps at Big Ten championships

It all paid off at the Big Ten outdoors in Bloomington, Indiana, two weeks ago. Thomas became the first Hawkeye to be named Field Athlete of the Championships. She helped the Iowa women to their best-ever finish of third place overall.

And she did it by winning both of her events on the very first jump, putting up marks that were beyond the reach of every other competitor even though they had six tries to match them.

“Coach was like, ‘Leave no doubt,’ ” Thomas said. “When I jumped, I heard my coach saying, ‘Good start.’ I looked up and saw a 6.55 (meters).”

Thomas, who admitted to nerves before the competition, squealed in delight when she saw her mark. It held up through an anxious hour, during which Thomas took a break to run the opening leg of Iowa’s 4x100-meter relay (the Hawkeyes finished third).

Thomas repeated the feat the next day, opening triple jump competition with a 13.19-meter effort that no other competitor approached.

Two jumps. Two Big Ten titles.

“I’d never won before on the first jump. Normally, I’m the type of person who needs to work into it,” Thomas said. “I’m getting better at not winding up to the fourth or fifth jump, getting that solid mark in there and keeping my options open. I think that’s really good for my mental as well.

“Now I know I can be nervous and still produce. Because everyone’s nervous. I’m not the only person. So I was super happy that I was able to at least channel it into good things.”

Thomas is still a little upset that she had to give up the hurdles. But, just to confirm, her hamstring is feeling fine these days.