By Lincoln Shryack
The stardom of Colorado State University-Pueblo sophomore Thomas Staines officially arrived on March 10, 2018, at the NCAA Division II Indoor Championships in Pittsburg, Kansas, where the lanky 20-year-old broke the 800m championship record with his dominant 1:47.23 performance.
The young Brit crushed the field by over a second in his first-ever NCAA final, punishing his competition with a blistering last lap that made it hard to believe he was truly a newcomer to the stage. The rise of Thomas Staines had been breathtakingly swift, as his run that day was just the second sub-1:50 clocking of his budding career.
“When I crossed the line I ran up to all my teammates— they were standing by the finish line— and they gave me a big hug, so that was probably my favorite moment,” Staines told FloTrack.
Staines has the opportunity to augment his reputation even more this weekend at the 2018 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Outdoor Championships in Golden, Colorado.
As Staines celebrated with teammates in the immediate afterglow of his breakthrough win, reveling in the program’s first indoor NCAA individual title, his parents marveled at the transformation their son had made since arriving at college. Thomas had lowered his PR by over five seconds since high school, and just as significant to Gary and Linda Staines was his ability to conquer the pressure-packed championship race with ease.
It’s a pressure that both parents knew well.
Gary and Linda each competed for Great Britain in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Gary in the 5,000m and Linda in the 400m and 4x400m relay. Their career highlights extend much further than that, however, as Thomas’ parents each enjoyed lengthy professional careers decorated with world championship medals. Gary finished 14th and won a team silver medal at the 1989 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, while Linda ran lead-off for the bronze medal-winning 4x400m team at the 1993 IAAF World Championships. Not your average parents at a son’s track meet.
So while they knew their son was fitter than he had ever been since he had run 1:47 earlier in the season, Gary and Linda Staines watched nervously from the stands while Thomas navigated the NCAA final. Years of experience on the sport’s biggest stages had exposed them to the unique environment of championship racing, a setting often particularly difficult upon first encounter.
“Going into it, he posted a nice time at Boulder in February, which was obviously encouraging,” Gary said. “And then all the races after that seemed to have gone very well. He was obviously in very good shape going in.
“But championship racing is always different, and you never know what’s going to happen. We were probably more nervous watching him in that than anything else.”
That Thomas went on to make Division II history in the race is as much a testament to his team and coaches at CSU Pueblo as it is his pedigree, according to both Thomas and his parents. Training daily with fellow All-Americans like Derrick Williams, Devundrick Walker, and Marcelo Laguera has taken his fitness to new heights, while the guidance of Pueblo head coach Matt Morris has similarly grown Thomas’ confidence. The youngest Staines ran cross country in the fall after after not doing it his freshman year, which Thomas says improved his strength tremendously.
Speed clearly runs in the family, but everyone agrees that Thomas couldn’t have gone from 1:50.3 as a freshman to 1:47.2 and a national title as a sophomore without CSU Pueblo.
“Given the coaches and the people I have to train with here, the quality guys I have around me all the time, I could kind of tell it was going to happen at some point,” Thomas said. “Just maybe not this early.”
His parents echoed their son’s sentiment.
“We knew at some point it was coming but we didn’t know that it was coming right now,” Linda said. “He’s matured. He’s psychologically matured a lot.”
“That’s all to do with what Matt (Morris) has seen and what Matt has worked on,” Thomas’ dad said. “I think right now, obviously, Thomas is on a high and when you’re running on a high, if you stamp your authority on who you are, you can certainly get to that next level. He’s obviously confident at the moment.”
Despite being the child of two world-class Olympic runners, the prospect of Thomas Staines making a name for himself in the sport wasn’t always clear. Running was a constant fixture in his childhood— from being family friends with other elites to hanging around the running store in Colorado Springs that his parents own— but young Thomas was content playing soccer and showed little interest in pursuing his parents’ path.
That was totally fine with Gary and Linda.
“We’ve never told him, ‘You’re not a soccer player, or you shouldn’t be a soccer player, you’re a runner,’” Gary said. “These are all things that Thomas has worked out for himself, and we’ve never ever had any influences as far as what he should do or how he should go about what he does.”
Thomas ran track during the spring of his freshman year of high school as training for soccer, but as he started to show promise as a runner the pull of the track became too strong to ignore. By his sophomore year, Thomas had decided to turn his focus solely into running.
“Before then . . . I didn’t really pay much attention to [running],” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘I’m never going to run, I might be a professional soccer player.’
“But then, when I started to get kind of good, I was like, ‘Maybe I should switch.’ I was getting some results from it, so I was like, ‘Might as well run instead.’”
To his parents, Thomas’ newfound passion for running became apparent when he suffered a brutal fracture in his hip during his junior year. Thomas was rapidly growing into his 6-foot-4 frame, which made him very susceptible to injury. The ailment forced him to miss the state track meet and kept him on the sidelines for much of the summer, which had Thomas itching to get back.
“I think that that was a defining moment for Thomas,” his mom said. “I think that’s when he realized, ‘You know what, I miss it and I want to get back.’ That’s probably when it all clicked for him.”
Thomas eventually ran 1:52.76 his senior year at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, good for second at the Colorado state meet. Given his relatively late start to running and the injury that had interrupted him at a crucial point in his training, it was clear that Thomas had a lot more in him as he headed off to CSU Pueblo. But Gary Staines could see there were strength issues to be dealt with as a result of his son’s drastic growth, and the work Morris has done for Thomas in that department has proved indispensable.
“He had grown quite a lot in his senior year of high school,” Gary said. “I think having that growth spurt, there was some work to be done strength-wise and obviously the coach at CSU, Matt Morris, saw those things and he’s been addressing them. You can see from his performances that it’s working for him.”
“Thomas has been very fortunate with the coaches that he’s had,” Thomas’ mom added. “They’ve done an amazing job with him.”
Now with his improved fitness combined with a skyrocketing confidence in his ability as a runner, Thomas Staines seems to have limitless potential in the 800 meters. He’s set his sights on the outdoor NCAA DII title this spring, and believes that a 1:45 could be in the cards as well in 2018. The Division II outdoor record is 1:45.24, and if he continues on his current trajectory it seems likely that Thomas will get there soon.
Gary and Linda are more than happy to stay on the sidelines and watch it all unfold.
“We still don’t have any input,” Gary said. “We probably know too much coming from where we’ve been as athletes, and it probably makes us more nervous because of that.
“There’s things that I think Thomas does that we would have never done as athletes, but that’s just Thomas. We have to just go with what he does and what he does his way and that’s where it is and how it is. We just let it take its course.”
The new middle distance star of Division II has certainly benefited from natural talent by virtue of his Olympian parents, but perhaps just as important has been the relaxed atmosphere at home that has allowed Thomas to find his own love for the sport. His discovery of that passion, and even his event, has been unique to himself, and likely resulted in him finding the ideal place for his development at CSU Pueblo.
Not that Thomas wouldn’t mind someday following in his parents’ footsteps.
“It would be cool to do what they did, go to the Olympics and run, but they’re not too pressuring on me.”