Cody Thomas, one of the most promising athletes to come out of this province in recent times, left Marlborough in 2011 for the University of Alaska. He talks to sports editor Peter Jones about life in the far north of North America.
No wonder Cody Thomas is smiling.
If the high-flying athlete wasn't at his family home up the Wairau Valley, enjoying Marlborough's balmy midsummer temperatures, he would be at his place of work in Alaska where the mercury plunges to minus 30 this time of year.
The 22-year-old is two and a half years into a four-year sports/study scholarship to the University of Alaska, his destination after leaving Marlborough Boys' College in 2011.
Thomas departed these shores with a national title under his belt, claiming the NZ under-19 decathlon crown with an outstanding all-round performance in Tauranga before picking up a silver and two bronze medals at the national champs in Dunedin.
His athletic prowess provided an opportunity to study in Anchorage, and a chance to receive the top-level coaching he had missed out on in New Zealand.
"Coming from Blenheim we didn't have quite the facilities of pole vault, hurdles and stuff like that so [the university staff] saw my times and thought we can try and fix this guy up and we may eventually get him to a high ranking nationally. Basically I was there to win conference, indoor and outdoor."
He didn't disappoint, winning the heptathlon for the University of Alaska "Seawolves" at the GNAC (Great Northwest Athletic Conference) indoor meet in his second (sophomore) year and setting a record points score along the way. Later in the year he added a GNAC outdoor decathlon title, breaking the university record, and qualified for the nationals where he set career-best marks for the 100m (10.92sec) and shot put (37 feet 21/4 inches). Despite winding up 11th nationally, the hard taskmaster was disappointed with his efforts. "I didn't do as well as I should have last year. I had a disappointing end to the season. It wasn't too good but hopefully I'll be able to do better this year."
There is no age grouping in the US college track scene, the youngest athletes taking on all comers, although the University of Alaska track team compete in division two in the United States.
But he has been hugely impressed with the standard of competition. "I get the privilege to run at top events such as the indoor season meet at the university of Washington and the outdoor meets in California later in the season. They are like going to national competitions here in New Zealand every weekend."
Since leaving Marlborough, Thomas has packed another 10kg onto his lanky frame and has made improvements across most of his disciplines.
"I've gone a bit faster . . . a lot stronger. I'm still trying to key in on the techniques. Coming from New Zealand I just went up and did it . . . just sort of winged it. The coaches up there are pretty good. We have a sprint coach, a weight training coach, a multi coach. During the indoor season for the multi, we have a separate group who do their own thing, throws, jumps etc in the morning, from 8am. When the track team comes at 10am we join in with them until 1pm."
Despite coming from a decathlon background, and still competing well across the 10 disciplines involved in that, Thomas has found himself leaning towards the seven-event heptathlon. It comprises a 60m sprint, long jump, shot put and high jump on the first day, followed by the 60m hurdles, pole vault and 1000m the next day.
Despite having set new Alaska university indoor records in the 60m sprint, high jump, long jump, pole vault, heptathlon and decathlon he feels his biggest improvements have come in the hurdles and pole vault.
"It was kinda funny. [The rivals in his conference] didn't know who I was last year, I was just a random kid from Alaska. I came up against the former champion from my conference and I ended up running a really poor hurdle time. Really rough. The champion obviously thought ‘sweet, we've got this' but we came back a week later at the conference champs and they were shocked that I had learned to hurdle in a week. I think I lopped a second off my time. It was the first time I had run over the high hurdles . . . I just needed that one race to get a feel for it, to get the rust out of the engine."
Although his athletic ability has earned him a place at the 10,000-student university, he is studying for a marketing degree and Thomas is well aware he has study obligations to meet, given scholarships are reviewed yearly.
"I have a track and field athletics scholarship which covers my fees, tuition, books and my room on campus," he explained.
"My grades are good. They want combined 3.2 GPA (grade point average) average for the athletic department. I have a GPA of 3.17, but had a 3.25 this semester which helped me sneak closer to their goal. I'm doing OK in schooling. My coaches seem happy."
As the only Kiwi in the athletics department, the winter training temperatures have taken some getting used to.
"We train outside during the fall, but come winter we move inside to a giant inflatable dome. It was negative 21 the other day when I was walking to school . . . quite chilly. At negative 28-29 you can get a cup of boiling water, throw it up in the air and it just turns to snow. In my first year I went outside with wet hair. My hair froze during the one kilometre walk to school."
Running outside during winter can be perilous. Thomas tells of a Kenyan student out training who got lost in a whiteout and ended up with severe frostbite, losing both lower legs. He's now a "bladerunner" and an assistant coach at the university.
With Thomas not allowed to find work off campus, he has had to rely on a steady source of income from his father Ken to cover his food and living expenses. He also mentions the ongoing assistance of Blenheim sports shop owner Robin Mitchell as he sets his sights on reaching his goal this year.
"I want to make the indoor and outdoor nationals where, if you make the top eight, you can become an all-American. Hopefully I can make top eight in both heptathlon and decathlon this year.
"I've been working hard over the fall, although I've got to try and get a few kinks out of the engine," he added.
- The Marlborough Express