Rising stars are often associated with football or basketball players, especially when looking at the collegiate sports landscape.
Iowa State has plenty of those high-caliber athletes, but it also has an up-and-coming star on its cross-country and track and field rosters. This one athlete has the potential to shine above the rest in his respective sport.
Thomas Pollard, the son of Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, is making a name for himself around campus.
Thomas has already hit a few milestones in his young life, including a win at the Drake Relays and a state championship in high school. He also became the first American in the field to finish at the Junior Olympics in Venezuela last year.
“There’s not many guys I know that have the motivation and intelligence to succeed the way he has already,” Kevin Litchfield, Thomas’s high school coach, said.
Thomas' success story starts well before Iowa State.
He first started his competitive running journey in middle school. At the time, he was just trying his hand at something that he enjoyed. Long-distance running seemed to come second nature to him. He just needed to focus most on gaining strength and working on increasing endurance.
Once he picked up the mechanics involved with the sport, Thomas decided he needed more, and thus began to compete in track as well.
“He competed in the Hershey meet for school and then competed in the U.S. track and field junior Olympics over the summer,” Jamie said. “He enjoyed the training more so than the competing.”
Competition got even more difficult once he began to compete for Gilbert High School, where he met Litchfield. Litchfield coached and mentored Thomas during his four years at Gilbert.
Despite the scale tipping more in terms of competition, Thomas kept it fairly even by putting in even more hard work and pushing himself to get better. The more competition that was present, the more motivation Thomas received.
There wasn’t much anticipation for early success out of Thomas, except from himself. His freshman year at Gilbert resulted primarily in the notion of how important strength was. In order to keep up with his peers and fellow runners, he would need to improve.
After he achieved that goal, the pieces started to fall into place his sophomore year. The highlight of that season was winning the 3,200-meter run at the Drake Relays, which didn’t come as much of a shock to the coaching staff.
“Nobody expected it, but we knew he could,” Litchfield said. “That second year was definitely a breakout year.”
Thomas proved he could win on a relatively big stage, not only earning him the physical and mental aspect of a winner, but also putting a target on his back.
Thomas already knew he had the potential to win, and the relays proved that fact to everyone else as well. Determination, strong work ethic and a vision to succeed had finally manifested.
“He was always training to get better,” Litchfield said. “He was constantly pushing himself, never settling.”
The next year, Thomas was unable to defend his title at the relays. Losing wasn’t something that came often to him, but he did endure his fair share over the years.
The constant challenge provided by some of his teammates helped Thomas continue to trend in the right direction. At least one of them ended up running in the state meet, something Thomas got the chance to do himself his junior year.
As the spotlight continued to shined brighter, Thomas continued to perform better. He concluded his junior season by winning the state meet, running one of his best times at that point in his life.
Despite his successes in high school, he remained humble and continued to seek improvement from his coaches.
“He’s the type of athlete that takes and implements advice from any level coach,” Litchfield said. “He would reach out to college coaches and Olympic athletes to see what he could do to get better.”
Thomas has a picture of his idol athlete, Chris Solinsky, an Olympic distance runner for the United States. The photo hangs in his room, personally signed by Solinsky, along with the quote: "Dream big and never settle." That quote provides daily motivation for Thomas.
During his time at Gilbert, Thomas not only became a better runner, but his team also improved. An average runner became a great runner through competitions against other teams and against Thomas himself. His level of training and success made his teammates want to be the best they could and motivated them to succeed.
Just when it seemed he might be peaking, it was time for Thomas to graduate. He had several colleges looking to recruit him, including Stanford, Oregon, Wisconsin and Iowa State.
Thomas chose Iowa State mainly to ensure his best chance at success. Martin Smith, the track and cross-country coach, was the biggest reaso why.
“Everywhere he’s been he’s developed successful programs,” Thomas said. “He laid out his plan for developing the program and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Smith has the credentials to back up his successful coaching philosophy. He’s taken Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Virginia to national championships, including winning multiple with Oklahoma.
Thomas has already begun to see the success that Smith can bring to the Iowa State program. Under his tutelage, Thomas competed in multiple international races, including two wins.
One of the highlights in Thomas' young career was the chance to compete against other runners around the globe. Even if he didn't win, he was constantly analyzing and growing from the experience.
One of his competitions took him to the Pan American Cross-Country Championship, where he placed second. Thomas ran a time of 26 minutes and 14.72 seconds in the junior men’s 8-kilometer, helping Team USA win the event over teams like Canada and Venezuela.
His final race was the 10,000 at the U-20 World Championships in Poland during the summer of 2016. Though he didn’t win, he still ran a time of 29:53.84, a personal best. Finishing in 16th place, he was the fastest American in the field.
Not only did he have one of his best finishes, the time he ran was the fourth quickest by an American at the World Championships.
“It was eye opening for him,” Jamie said. “He realized it’s one thing to win a U.S. championship, it’s another thing to win against guys from around the world.
“In some ways, it was humbling.”
Thomas redshirted his freshman year, which allowed him more time to train and condition for his international races.
Another reason why Thomas made the decision to come to Iowa State was proximity to home. Gilbert High School is 6 miles away from Iowa State and is near where the other Pollards live.
“We would have found a way to see him compete regardless of where he ended up going,” Jamie said. “We were happy that he decided to go where he wanted.”
Thomas made his first appearance in a Cyclone uniform during his freshman cross-country season.
He started to come along strong in the second half of the season. He was the first Cyclone to cross the finish line in the Big 12 Championships, fourth place overall.
The team continued to succeed and eventually made it to the national cross-country meet. Thomas was also one of three Cyclones to be named an All-Midwest Regional runner.
The Cyclones finished 16th at nationals, led by Thomas, who finished in 45th place. In addition to leading the team, Thomas was the third freshman in the field to finish.
“I was just doing my part,” Thomas said. “It was a team effort, some of the older guys really helped me out.”
Thomas made his Cyclone track and field debut over the weekend at the Stanford Invitational. He finished in 12th place in the 5-kilometer race.
He’s already been part of success at multiple levels, and his family, peers and coaches will look forward to more success in the future.
“I can see him progressing and becoming a leader at Iowa State,” Litchfield said. “Having been part of his path to reaching his goals will always be special.”