Feature Friday: UC's Thomas Aims To Soar In The Sand In 2021

Union Catholic's A'Liyah Thomas has always had a flair for doing things in the air.

Ever since she started competing in track and field when she was seven years old, Thomas appeared to be destined to become a big star.

In 2013, Thomas placed fifth in the long jump at the Junior Olympic National Championships, and ever since then she's been soaring her way to huge marks and major titles, highlighted by her victory at the Meet of Champions last March when she became the No. 1 long jumper in New Jersey.

But while most people only know Thomas for her long jumping skills, she's much more than just a one-event specialist. She's also one of the most versatile stars in the state.

In addition to her state leading LJ of 18-9.5 and MOCs victory, Thomas has cleared 5-4 in the high jump, gone 36-10.5 in the triple jump, has run 7.67 in the 55m hurdles, 15.68 in the 100m hurdles, 7.41 in the 55m dash, 12.81 in the 100m dash, and 25.76 in the 200m.

And as a freshman in 2018, Thomas ran on Union Catholic's state record shuttle hurdle team that ran 58.30 to place fourth at the New Balance National Outdoor Championships. 

NJ MileSplit recently caught up with Thomas for a Q and A, where she talked about how she got involved in track and field, the keys to her success, the big goals she has, her college plans, and a whole lot more.

So sit back and enjoy the words of wisdom from Thomas, NJ's best long jumper, and one of the most versatile performers in the state.

A'Liyah Thomas Interview

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NJM: Let's start off with some background. Can you let me know how and when you first got started competing in track and field? What got you interested?

Thomas: I first started competing in track when I was about seven years old, my parents noticed how well I performed in gym class at school and soon realized I could potentially be a great athlete. Most of my classmates ran track for the Rams Youth Club Track near our school and encouraged me to start.

Tell me about your days with the Rams Youth Track Club. What were some of your biggest highlights at USATF and AAU meets?

Running with the Rams was such a positive part of my life growing up. I enjoyed track so much and traveled to many states such as California, Kansas, Texas, and many more for the Junior Olympics. I placed fifth in the long jump in the year of 2012 at USATF Junior Olympics in Maryland, and that is when I knew I was ready to make track a huge priority in my life.

You have shown great versatility on the track and in the field in the sprints, hurdles and jumps, but which event is your favorite and why?

My favorite event is the long jump because I have been most successful in this event and I better myself each time I land into the pit. It is also the event I enjoy the most and have the most fun competing in.

Have you always been so versatile, and what do you enjoy the most about doing so many different events?

Yes, I have always been versatile and I have always been good at any event I try. I love being able to compete in many events because it shows that I am valuable and capable of competing in running and jumping events. I may not do so well in one event at a meet, and do great in another, and that is why I love being versatile because my goal is to PR in all of my events each time I step on the track.

 When it comes to practice and workouts, what is your schedule like? Do you work on jumping, sprinting and hurdling each day or do you have specific drills you do on different days, like hurdling one day, jumping the next etc?

My schedule is pretty hectic each week, I practice a different event each day of the week, and make sure I focus on one event at a time for that particular day.

Unfortunately, there wasn't an outdoor season last spring because of COVID-19. How challenging was that and how tough was it mentally to deal with?

Not having an outdoor season last spring was very challenging for me because after winning Meet of Champs with an 18-9 mark, I was eager to get back out there for my outdoor season and jump over 19 and try my best to achieve the state title for a second time.

 What type of things did you do on your own to stay sharp during the spring/summer? I'm sure you had to come up with some creative ways to do drills etc.?

Because I could not run with my team during Covid, I ran at the track by my house and did as much training and jumping as possible so that if we did have a season I would be ready. Running on my own was very challenging because I missed having my teammates by my side so we can encourage each other, but I made sure I pushed through it because in the end it would all pay off.

Last indoor season was the best of your career so far, highlighted by your long jump victory at the Meet of Champions and a state leading jump and PR of 18-9.5. What did that victory mean to you, and what does it mean to you to be the No. 1 long jumper in the state?

Winning Meet of Champs and becoming No. 1 in the state for the long jump meant the world to me, not only because I worked so hard, but I also made my family very proud. It felt so good to see my name at the top of the list for the top long jumpers in the state. During my indoor season, I worked incredibly hard to get stronger for the end of the season. Even though I was aiming for 19, I knew that as long as I put fourth all of my effort I had a huge chance of winning.

What do you consider your greatest strengths as a track and field athlete? What do you think enables you to be as great as you are?

I consider my greatest strengths to be my mentality and my passion for the sport. My mentality is what keeps me dedicated and hardworking. When at the track meets I think about what my goals are and how I am going to improve myself that day. When I am not doing as well as I want I do my best to stay positive and move on. I've realized over the years that dwelling on a bad event does not push you forward but only holds you back. I take each day of training as a way for me to get better, the hard workouts are only going to improve my run on the runway or get my legs stronger for jumping.

 Obviously you have great jumping ability. When did you first notice you had a special talent as a jumper?

I first noticed I had a special talent as a jumper in my first year when I placed fifth in the long jump in 2013 at nationals on my own without a relay team. Being so young I didn't think I had the ability of placing so high and competing against over 100 other kids. At that point, I knew I was going to be great as long as I continued to improve myself as I got older and continued to learn more about my events.

When would you say you had your first huge breakthrough moment when you realized you could be a big star in this sport?

My breakthrough moment was my sophomore year of high school. I struggled my freshman year transitioning form middle school to high school and my numbers stayed the same for a long time. Once I became comfortable with competing at a higher level I started to have more confidence in myself and that is when I broke through my shell. I regained the spark and love for Track and Field and I knew that this is sport is what I loved and no matter how hard it got for me I had to stick to it.

What are some of your biggest goals for the upcoming season? Seeing that you're so close to hitting 19 feet in the LJ, I would think hitting that barrier is probably a huge goal for you?

My biggest goals for the upcoming season is to of course hit 19 feet, but I feel as though I should be past that. My goal last indoor was to get close to 20 and that that we may have an outdoor season I am looking forward to hitting 20 feet by the end of the season.

How about in your other events? What are you hoping to clear in the HJ, and do you have target times you'd like to hit in hurdles and sprints?

Last indoor season the high jump was at a bit of a stand still for me, I was struggling with clearing 5'6 and I was working hard on my technique so that I could finally clear 5'6. I came so close to clearing it each time I jumped, but my time never came. This season I am hoping to improve my technique and approach so that I could clear 5'8.

 What do you think the keys are for you to reach 19 feet and get over 5-6 and even higher in the high jump? Are there any specific techniques that you are working on to help you keep setting new PR's?

The key to me reaching my goal in the long jump is definitely fixing the landing in the sand. I have been focusing on my core so that I could hold myself in the air longer and that will improve my numbers by a lot. I need to work on my arms when landing because that is a really important part of the jump and will make a huge difference for me. The keys for high jump will be my technique over the pole and staying consistent on every jump.

Unfortunately, there won't be any state meets this indoor season because of COVID-19. So what type of things do you do to stay focused and motivated on improving?

To stay motivated I tend to talk to my teammates about how they are feeling, I set reminders on my phone to keep me positive, and going to the track on my own is a way for me to clear my head and relieve stress.

You've had such a great high school career with lots of impressive moments. One of your greatest highlights had to be running on the state record breaking shuttle hurdle team that ran 58.30 to place fourth at the 2018 Outdoor Nationals? What was that experience like for you to be on that team as a freshman?

As a freshman it was very nerve-racking to be running with juniors and seniors on such a high level. I was worried I wouldn't perform well under pressure but once I started running I was determined to finish my race no matter what happened. Breaking the state record was a great accomplishment for me and my team and I was so happy to be a part of such a great team. To know that as a freshman I helped contribute to breaking the state record was an eye opener for me and from that point on I never put myself down or thought I wouldn't perform well in any event.

I don't think a lot of people realize that you're also a great volleyball player. What are your plans this year with the changes in the schedules for volleyball and track? Are you competing indoors, then playing volleyball, and then competing in outdoor track?

With everything going on with the seasons and volleyball being pushed back to February, I am not sure how that will interfere with my track season. My goal is to train and improve myself before college so that I am ready to take my track career to the next level.''

How do you think competing in the two sports has helped you in the other sport? For example, I would think all the jumping drills you do for track and field have helped your elevation at the net and made you become an even better hitter and blocker in volleyball?

My jumping skills in track help me tremendously when jumping at the net in volleyball. Blocking is one of my best skills when playing volleyball because I jump so high and I am able to get my hands and arms completely over the net. Constantly jumping during the volleyball season also helps once I start track so both sports balance each other out and help in their own way.

What do you love the most about being a track and field athlete?

What I love the most about being a track and field athlete is all the experiences that come with it. The traveling, meeting new people, building bonds with teammates, it all contributes to such a fun filled time in high school and it has taught me a lot about life. My father (Joseph) is one person that has been with me through everything. He has never missed a single meet and him being there has pushed me and encouraged me to never stop what I love. He is the reason I have come so far.

Not having any meets since last March is a long time. What have you missed the most about track and field, and what are you looking forward to the most this upcoming season?

 What I missed the most about track and field is being with my team and working together so that everyone stays positive during hard times. I am now one of the leaders of the team and I want to make sure everyone is staying confident and less worried about not having a season.

How about the future? I know you are committed to attend UConn. What was about UConn that made you feel that was the right place for you to continue your track and field and academic career?

My choice was UConn because I felt they were the most like family and the campus was exactly what I was looking for. I gravitated towards the facilities and outdoor track and I overall fell in love with the school. It was also nice to know I had an old teammate (Felicia Quainoo) from my junior year there to help answer my questions and someone to talk to and guide me around the school once I get there.

What other schools did you strongly consider?

Another one of my top choices was Boston University.