LAKEWOOD – As Sierra’s Dante Thomas flashed across the finish line, a look of astonished joy splashed across his face.
He clapped his hands. He wept. He hugged a series of sprinters, all kind and gracious, whom he had just vanquished.
Surprise is one of the most precious gifts of sport. Thomas was seeded fourth in Sunday’s 3A 100-meter final. He had never run in 10.71 seconds in his young life.
Until Sunday, when it mattered most.
“I just ran the best time in my life!” Thomas said. “It’s amazing! I just have to give all honor to God! This is the craziest thing I’ve ever felt in my life!”
Aspen’s Sunday Abarca and D’Evelyn’s Wesley Tedstrom were expected to battle for state supremacy. Thomas is honest enough – and humble enough – to confess even he expected the duo to finish ahead of him.
A couple of minutes before the start of the race, Thomas talked with Delia Butler, who has worked as a track official for 30 years. Butler, a teacher at St. Mary’s High School, has grown close to Thomas over the past four years. He even calls her “auntie.”
“Run your race!” Butler shouted to Thomas. “Run your race! And don’t give up!”
As Thomas settled into the starting blocks late Sunday morning, he started a fierce conversation with himself. This conversation lifted him from the middle of the pack to emperor of this sprint.
Yes, Abarca and Tedstrom ranked as the favorites. Yes, they had recorded the best times this season.
Thomas tossed aside reason as he embraced radical optimism.
“Are you going to let them win?” Thomas silently asked himself “No!”
He looked at Abarca and Tedstrom.
“I’m not going to let you guys win!” he said in an interior shout. “I’m going to win!”
For the past half-decade, Thomas had prepared for the next few seconds. He carefully watched his diet, refusing to indulge in the normal teen diet of burgers, fries and sodas. He relentlessly pushed himself, running sprint after sprint even when he desperately wanted to rest.
“Every single day, I worked,” Thomas said. “Every single day.”
At the 50-meter mark, he asked his body to repay him for all the labor, all the sacrifice.
His body answered the call.
He took a quick look at Abarca and Tedstrom. He saw he had a chance – the chance he had dreamed of – to conquer them, to conquer his own doubts and, best of all, to rule Colorado.
He burst into the lead. He could hear the roar of the crowd. He could see the finish line. He had never run this fast.
He won with ease, at least by sprint standards. Abarca finished second, with Tedstrom third.
A few minutes later, Butler engulfed him in a big hug.
“Way to do it, baby!” she shouted. “Way to do it, baby! I’m so proud of you!”
Thomas, surrounded by joy, stood in the sunshine. He told me school has always been difficult for him. He told me he’s struggled to find reason to believe in himself.
Sprinting has been his release. Sprinting is where he races away from all the pressure and complexity and pain.
“I taste victory,” Thomas said with such fervor that it seemed he meant the words literally. “And the taste right now, it’s just excitement. It brings my confidence so high.”
On Sunday morning, the realistic version of Thomas was just hoping to finish fourth.
“But fourth place, that’s not a cool medal,” Thomas said, laughing.
The dreamer version of Thomas emerged just in time. At the last minute, he convinced himself he could surprise everyone – including himself – and rule Colorado 3A.
And win a really cool medal.