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Thomas saves best for last with NAIA national title

Tiana Thomas stepped into her blocks for the 400-meter hurdles, the final race of her collegiate career. She knew this race was going to hurt at the end, it always did. And even though she had the top-seeded time, Thomas knew her competitors weren’t too far behind.

On your marks.

As she sat in lane four, nerves crept up, compounded by the NAIA Nationals stage

Get set.

Thomas rose into the air.

Bang!

As Thomas shot out of the blocks toward the first hurdle, she could tell the girl in lane five was pulling ahead. But, as coach Pat McCurry instructed, she kept the blinders on and raced her race. She focused solely on her stride pattern for the first 200 meters.

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Thomas’ journey to become an NAIA national champion started in the seventh grade, the first year she ran track. Her first race was the 100-meter hurdles.

“I was kind of stubborn about it at first, I didn’t want to run the hurdles,” Thomas said. “But my friend said, ‘oh, come try it.’”

She stuck with hurdles at Middleton High School, going to the state meet as a junior and senior in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles. At The College of Idaho, she added pentathlon and sprints to her workload.

“I knew Tiana was really good when we got her,” McCurry said. “We were pretty lucky to get her late in that recruiting class.”

McCurry saw a talented runner back in 2012, but Thomas lacked belief in herself. But McCurry repeatedly told Thomas she had the ability to compete with the best NAIA runners in the nation. It wasn’t until her junior year that she believed it.

Thomas and her 4x400-meter relay teammates worked hard and pushed each other at every practice. They weren’t running circles to be good. They wanted to be great. That drive helped Thomas stay focused and put every ounce of sweat into getting better, she said. It worked—the relay team took seventh at nationals and earned NAIA All-American status.

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But now, for her last lap around the track, Thomas was running solo. With 200-meters left, it was time to go. Like a hunter chasing after its prey, she had her eyes locked in on the leader. Her C of I career was filled with four-straight Cascade Conference team championships, individual conference titles and multiple All-American selections. Only one trophy—and a goal to break 60 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles—eluded her.

The gap was shrinking between Thomas and Taylor Needham of Southwestern College as they hit the final stretch. Her legs felt like lead. Her lungs were depleted. One last hurdle loomed ahead.

Coming off that final hurdle, Thomas was inches behind Needham. It would be a footrace over the last 40-meters.

“I love racing and competing,” Thomas said. “Its way more fun to have a race to the finish, when you’re both having your best race ever. At that point, I was just like win it. You’ve come this far, you’re not going out without a win.”

With each remaining step, Thomas pulled ahead and crossed the finish line in a personal-best time of 59.04 seconds. As she gasped for air and recovered, the starter gave her the shell of the blank used in the starter’s pistol. It wasn’t until she walked off the field that it started to sink in. She’d won her final collegiate race. She’d set a new personal-record.

She was an NAIA national champion.

“She executed the event the best she has by far in her career,” McCurry said. “That’s what you want—for your athletes to put it together and run their best time.”

Thomas is the 68th national champion in C of I history—with 14 of those titles being won by women’s track and cross country athletes in the last five years. It was an emotional moment, one Thomas shared with her closest friend, teammate Nichole DeGrange, as well as McCurry, family members and C of I teammates. In her finale, Thomas went out with a bang. And she earned a golden token for four years of relentless work.

“It’s currently on my dresser, just kind of sitting there,” Thomas said. “I can’t decide if I want to hang it up or not.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.