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Jason Douglas Lewis - Student Athlete of the Week: UCLA’s Turquoise Thompson

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Student Athlete of the Week: UCLA’s Turquoise Thompson

Suffering from the sickle cell trait has not prevented Thompson from becoming a potential Olympic athlete.

Thompson has achieved on a high level on the track and also in the classroom.  She graduated from UCLA in 3 ½ years, while many students take five years at that university.  She is applying to graduate school at UCLA.  Photo by Jason Lewis

Thompson is used to leading the pack.  She won the PAC-10 championship in the 400-meter hurdles as a freshman and a sophomore, and she has finished second at the NCAA national championship meet the past two years.  Photo by Jason Lewis

Thompson took up the hurdles while running at Gardena Serra High School.  Before then she was racking up titles in the 400-meter dash, where she won the state title her senior year, and she was on Serra’s state title winning 4x400-meter relay team.  Now she is looking to win the NCAA national title in the 400-meter hurdles.  Photo by Jason Lewis

Originally published by the Los Angeles Sentinel. www.lasentinel.net

By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor (2010-2013)

Sprinter Turquoise Thompson has the genetic make-up of a superior athlete.  Her father Donn Thompson, who also ran track at UCLA, had an opportunity to compete in the 1980 Olympics, but the U.S. boycott of the games in Russia took away his chances of competing.  Her mother Lori Smith-Thompson, who ran track at Long Beach State and San Diego State, made it to the U.S. Olympic trials in 1984.  Her three older brothers were all competitive athletes on a high level. 

Thompson is genetically gifted, but one part of her genes would stop most athletes in their tracks.  She has the sickle cell trait, which makes it incredibly difficult to excel in sports.  She does not have sickle cell anemia, or sickle cell disease, but her condition is serious. 

Normal blood cells have a moon shape, but Thompson’s blood cells have a crescent moon shape, which limits the amount of oxygen that gets to her muscles during exercise, which can cause severe cramps and muscle spasms. 

Even with this condition, Thompson has a competitive drive that allows her to overcome it. 

Thompson started running track at five-years-old, and when she was seven her parents started a track club called Swift Performance.  Being a part of an athletic family was a major reason why she took up sports.

“It was a very competitive household,” Thompson said.  “Everybody had to try track.  We all did it.  Some of us stayed in it, others didn’t.  But sports was pretty much a forefront for the house.”

There were many lessons to be learned through sports, lessons that can be used in all aspects of life.

 “Being in an athletic household helped me as an athlete in terms of being tough, being strong minded,” Thompson said.  “I can remember plenty of pep talks, or just talks in general about staying with things, not giving up.  I think that has played a huge part in my athleticism.  I have had so many downfalls and obstacles.  I just always remember never to quit and try to turn it around.”

Thompson demonstrated great athletic abilities as a child on the track, but unfortunately those abilities did not transfer over to other sports.  She played basketball between the ages of nine and 14, but she did not find a lot of success there.  

“I was not good at all,” Thompson said as she laughed.  “My mom was the coach of the team and she never put me in.  I would bounce the ball and it would just roll off my foot.  I was never good.  I would get in the game…just not as much as everybody else.”

Well basketball did not work out well, but track surely did. Thompson was not upset at her mother for not giving her much playing time on the basketball court, because there were greater plans for her.  During that time she was becoming a track star, as she won the Junior Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter dash, while setting a record, and 100-meter dash.

Thompson started her high school track career at Long Beach Poly, but when her mother was hired as the track coach at Gardena Serra she transferred in part because her mother knew what her needs were.  Having athletic parents, and being coached by them, helped her greatly.

“For me it was a huge positive,” Thompson said.  “They understood what I was going through, and they knew just how far to push me, and how far not to push me so that I wouldn’t want to participate in sports anymore.  They knew what they were doing”

Up until that point Thompson was a 400-meter runner.  As great as she had done, she was getting a little bored, so she decided to run the hurdles, which her mother ran in high school and college, because it looked fun.  While at Serra she competed in both the 400 and the 300-meter hurdles. 

As a 400-meter runner at Serra, Thompson was the state champion and she was a member of Serra’s 4x400-meter relay team.  She was nationally ranked in the 400 that year, and as a hurdler she was ranked first in the nation in the 400-meter hurdles and second in the 300-meter hurdles.  She set a Junior Olympic National record in the 400-meter hurdles. 

After her high school career she did not slow down at all as she won the PAC-10 championship in the 400-meter hurdles as a freshman and sophomore.  At the NCAA national championships she finished 13th as a freshman and 2nd the past two years.  Last summer she finished in sixth place at the U.S. Olympic trials.  Now as a senior she is heading back to the national championship meet with the hopes of ending her career with the title. 

Academically, Thompson has also exceled at a high level as she has earned her degree from UCLA in only 3 ½ years, when many students do it in five years.  She was a Sociology major with a minor in Education, and she was able to finish so quickly by taking summer school classes each year. 

Thompson is applying to graduate school at UCLA, and she will be turning pro in track this year.  She plans to stay in Los Angeles long term for several reasons.  For grad school; her coaches Jeanette Bolden, Bob Kersee, and Johnny Gray all coach at UCLA; and she has a great support system from family members and other professional athletes.  Olympic gold medalists Dawn Harper and Allyson Felix both train at UCLA, and Thompson has great interactions with them.  Harper especially has been sort of a mentor to Thompson. 

Even though Thompson has faced obstacles that would stop most people, namely the sickle cell trait, she has a positive frame of mind.

“Sickle cell can cause me to literally drop dead while exercising,” Thompson said.  “I don’t fear that, not at all.  I fear cramping more than I fear dying from it.  I don’t know why.  I just feel that I’m here, I’m doing well in life, and I’m not going anywhere.”

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