Thomas Pollard stood on the rugged Venezuelan terrain surrounded by police escorts and security. Thomas' dream of slipping on a Team USA jersey and competing in the Pan American Cross Country Cup was about to come true.
Not only did Thomas bring a gold medal back to the United States, but he also brought back a new perspective that made him gracious to live and compete in the country.
Despite the not-so-great conditions, Pollard was still representing his country.
“It was definitely humbling and eye-opening,” Thomas said. “I thought I knew what it was going to be like. I am lucky to live in this country.”
Thomas, son of ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, has been running cross-country since he was 12 years old. He entered his first year at Iowa State this year as a heavily decorated athlete.
During his time at Gilbert High School in Ames, Iowa, Thomas won three state titles in track and was a three-time Gatorade Athlete Of the Year.
The three-time Junior Olympic champion also won All-America honors twice at Foot Locker National High School Cross-Country finals and was a record breaker in the 3,200 with a time of 8:50.43, making him the fastest Iowan to ever run the event.
Thomas had multiple offers from colleges such as Stanford and Oregon, but chose to attend Iowa State, where he redshirted his first cross-country season.
“That was the coaches,” Jamie said. “It wasn’t really me. He worked really hard in high school. He had opportunities to run at multiple places, but ultimately he chose to stay at Iowa State.”
After winning the Junior 8K USATF Cross Country Championships in February, Thomas landed a spot on Team USA and got the chance of a lifetime to compete at the 2016 Pan American Cross Country Cup in Venezuela, where the conditions were far from what he expected.
“I was really excited for him," Jamie said. "it was a dream of his to be able to have that opportunity both athletically and socially."
Although it was an international event, the training for the Pan American was nothing unusual for Pollard.
“It was nothing special,” Thomas said. “Putting in a lot of miles and work just to build a nice base.”
Thomas ventured to Miami for one night before flying to Venezuela with the team. He knew nobody else on the team of 26 but had an instant connection with a couple of the guys he still keeps in touch with. He also keeps in touch with a couple of competitors from Venezuela.
“We all really got along well,” Thomas said. “They made it a lot of fun.”
The conditions in Venezuela were far from what Thomas was ready for. The food and water were rationed, there were no facilities to practice in and USATF had to send a bodyguard along with the team.
Police escorts and security watched over the members of the team when they left their compound. Pollard was only given one 12-ounce bottle of water per meal, and he was only allowed to go through the food line once. The food portions were limited, and Thomas, along with 13 others from the United States, experienced food poisoning.
Before leaving the United States, Thomas had searched the hotel they were staying in and was impressed by how nice it looked. Once he arrived at the actual hotel, he noticed it looked nothing like what he saw online.
“All the Venezuelan kids thought they were living the good life," Thomas said. “It was all concrete. It was basically like a Motel 6.”
Sleeping in copious amounts of bug spray in a high-temperature climate made it hard for Pollard to sleep, and he only got about 10 total hours of sleep in the nights before the race. The race was only on one day.
Outside of the competition, the members of the team mostly stayed in their compound, but had the chance to swim in the ocean, where they could only go neck-deep because of the water conditions.
“Venezuela is a country that is really struggling financially right now,” Jamie said. “It was more that just an athletic competition. As a student-athlete, you don’t really get an opportunity to study abroad because you’re in training all year-round."
In a lot of ways, this was like a five-day study abroad for him.
"One of the things that makes Thomas good at what he does is that he enjoys the work more than the ultimate competition," Jamie said. "He enjoys training, and I think that is key."
Pushing through physical fatigue and the heat index reaching into the 90s, Pollard came though for Team USA. Thomas finished second in the 8K.
Despite the harsh conditions, Pollard still managed to make a big impact on the team’s success. He received the maximum amount of points, and USA finished with 14 team points, winning a gold medal. Canada won silver, finishing with 25 team points, and Venezuela won bronze with 47 team points.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Thomas said. “I had no clue who was in the race or how fast the other guys were.”
The crowd at the competition was larger than what Thomas expected. Natives wanted to take pictures with the team and buy their gear from the athletes. Thomas was not nervous to represent USA before the race and felt good about his competition.
“There is nothing like putting on the USA jersey,” Thomas said. “It was really special.”