Kiwi Cody Thomas advanced to fifth on the all-time New Zealand decathlon rankings with a breakthrough performance to win the NCAA Division II title in May. Steve Landells explains his multi-event rise via ten steps.
Raised in Blenheim he joined the Marlborough Athletics Club "aged six or seven" and so began a lengthy period of his early life combining rugby in the winter and athletics in the summer. Crucially he enjoyed the sport and over time developed a passion. "I was decent," he says. "I was okay at high jump and won some Colgate medals, but I wasn't super-good."
Describing himself as a "scrawny little kid" he hit puberty and began to make some significant progression. He competed regularly at the New Zealand Secondary Schools' Championships in several events including 400m and high jump. He won a couple of medals, but was no superstar.
"I would say I was good rather than great at school," he comments of his schoolboy ability.
Aged 19, Cody left New Zealand to teach tennis in a summer camp in Connecticut. It proved a pivotal moment in his athletics career. It was here he discovered a taste for life in the US and after a conversation with Nelson-based US coach Greg Lautenslager he realised picking up a US scholarship was a possibility.
"He was one of the first guys who said to me, I was talented enough to go over to the US and I was hooked on that thought," he says. "I was a 1.98m high jumper, so nothing special, so I sought recruitment as a decathlete."
Several schools expressed an interest in the South Islander including the University of Alaska Anchorage. Cody checked out the coach and was impressed.
"I did a little bit of research and I thought he could be the kind of guy I could get along with, he says. "He was himself a decathlete, so I knew he would know all about the event.
"I knew being part of Alaska Anchorage I would enjoy a great travel schedule competing in Washington state and California and all the big meets down the West Coast. Also, competing in Alaska and hailing from New Zealand was a great conversation starter."
He was recruited by the University of Alaska Anchorage and arrived for his freshman year in August 2011. Ineligible to compete during his first year there due to a technicality was frustrating but although he was a long way from Blenheim he comfortably adapted to his new environment.
"I didn't suffer home sickness and track was a good distraction," he explains. "A group of 40 of us trained together and it brought us closer. Training on a morning when it was still dark was a bit weird and some days we'd only see the sun between about 10am and 3pm. The first winter I was there they had record level of snow and coming from Blenheim where it hardly snows at all was a bit weird. In my first year I also took a course called guidance class, which was basically a tutorial on how to do college. It was great because it introduced me to all the resources needed and set me up for success."
Cody found a great coach and mentor in Ryan McWilliams during his time in Alaska. Similar to Cody he too had taught many of the events from scratch. The pair had a great rapport and although McWilliams was initially a stern taskmaster over time the relationship changed as they grew to trust and respect one another.
"It became an easier back and forth over time," says Cody, who trained on an oversized indoor track - which measured 413m - inside a giant inflatable bubble. "He was a really nice guy and easy-going, like me."
Training for all ten decathlon disciplines did not come easy to Cody. A natural sportsman who could just pick up a golf club or a tennis racquet and perform to a decent level by contrast he found the pole vault frustratingly tough.
"It was a completely weird event for me," he explains. "The thought of going up in the air and flipping over a bar, well, I just couldn't relate it athletically to anything else I'd done. It made no sense."
Yet he persisted and slowly improved. In his first full year he found the intensity of regular high-level competition demanding yet his body matured and he place a respectable seventh at the 2014 NCAA Division II Championship with a total of 7189pts.
In his words everything "clicked" in 2015. During the indoor campaign he felt in great nick and in Birmingham Alabama clinched a heptathlon silver medal at the NCAA Division II with a score of 5488pts.
"I high jumped 2.09m and pole vaulted a PB of 4.10m," he adds of the competition. "I thought when outdoor nationals rolls around this could be fun. Unfortunately, injury disrupted his 2015 campaign and he did not compete at NCAA outdoors.
Determined to sign off his NCAA career this year on a high, he targeted the indoor title in Pittsburg, Kansas. Unfortunately, a tendinitis problem in his knee hampered his preparation and he had to settle for bronze - albeit with a PB of 5538pts.
The knee issues frustratingly continued but even though jumping was an issue he worked on the areas he could and surprised himself to score 7201pts with a new decathlon PB in Lacey, Washington in May. Three weeks later at NCAA outdoors at Bradenton in Florida he struck gold with a massive new lifetime best of 7590pts. It was the biggest moment of the 25-year-old's career so far.
"I ran a slow 100m (11.12) but after I jumped 7.53m in the long jump it like I'd pushed a snowball off a mountain." During the two-day competition he set or equalled five PB's including a 47.88 400m, 14.74 hurdles, 37.35 discus, 4.50m pole vault and 50.74m javelin.
"It was a really nice way to finish the off the job and my college career," he says. "It was an awesome feeling."
After graduating in May, Cody has moved south to take up a position as a graduate assistant coach in Pittsburg, Kansas while he completes a two-year masters' degree in business administration. Although no longer eligible for collegiate competition he intends to continue training seriously for the decathlon where he hopes to improve upon the throws and pole vault his weaker events.
Running unattached his main aim for the year will be targeting the 2017 World University Games in Taipei, and beyond that?
"Well, if my body holds on I'd love to make the 2018 Commonwealth Games team," he says. "If not, it has been a fun ride."