Free State High senior Alexa Harmon-Thomas had done everything possible to achieve her childhood dream. Yet it was up to someone else to make it a reality.
Harmon-Thomas had just placed first in both the heptathlon and high jump at the World Youth Track & Field Trials, last summer at Southern Illinois University. She tried to eat lunch but couldn’t with all of the anticipation. Each top-two finish made her eligible to represent Team USA at the World Youth Championships in Ukraine, but it was up to a selection committee to pick the final 20 boys and 20 girls based on potential success at the international level.
Four hours after she finished, sitting in a room as the names were announced alphabetically, Harmon-Thomas finally heard she made the team.
“When they said my name I almost cried, I like jumped up,” said Harmon-Thomas, the only high jumper and heptathlete chosen for the girls national team.
Harmon-Thomas is one of seven children of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas. The Pro Football Hall of Famer died a few months shy of Harmon-Thomas’ fourth birthday. At first, she avoided all of the stories about her father before growing more interested as she aged.
“I kind of have to take my cues from her and give her more information as she’s asking for it or offer it a little bit more based on her reaction,” Alexa’s mother, Kelly Harmon, said. “You know, initially, she didn’t want anything. But I think that’s kind of a normal reaction as a 4-year-old, not understanding death or how to handle that.”
Harmon was a standout in track at Lawrence High. She was coaching when Harmon-Thomas was young, and it served as her daughter’s introduction to the sport.
Although Harmon-Thomas has always found success against top — and usually much older — competition, she’s also battled injuries and bad luck. At the state meet her sophomore year, she clipped the second-to-last hurdle in the 100-meter hurdle preliminaries and dropped from first place to last.
However, she was able to turn it into a positive.
“I think it definitely helped me,” Harmon-Thomas said. “Because that was my transition to being more aggressive. That was the race that my mindset changed.”
Afterward, Harmon-Thomas ramped up her training with Gwen Wentland-Mikinski, a two-time U.S. indoor track champion. Wentland-Mikinski designs Harmon-Thomas’ workouts everyday, and they train together about twice a week.
“We don’t set a ceiling on what she’s capable of doing,” Wentland-Mikinski said. “When she sets a (personal record), we look onto the next mark that we think she can achieve.”
Last spring, Harmon-Thomas dominated at the state meet, helping Free State to its first state title. She won the 100-meter hurdles, matched a state record while winning the 300-meter hurdles, won the long jump and tied for first in the high jump before falling to second because of a tiebreaker.
At the IAAF World Youth Championships in July, Harmon-Thomas finished 10th in the high jump and 16th in the heptathlon. Against other heptathletes across the globe, she finished third in the long jump and sixth in the 100-meter hurdles.
“That was probably the best experience that I ever had,” she said. “Just being to be able to go out and compete with the people who are going to be the highest level of track athletes in the future and also getting to go away for about a month and living on my own and seeing what that’s like. I really enjoyed that.”
Being surrounded by only other athletes in a different country helped Harmon-Thomas focus on track more than she ever had in the past. It also played a factor in her choice to commit to the University of Texas.
“I was really able to grow throughout that process, and it really made me want to go somewhere else and get new experiences because it was just a great experience,” said Harmon-Thomas, who chose the Longhorns over UCLA, the University of Oregon and Kansas University. Her mother had to inform the other schools about her choice because Harmon-Thomas found it so difficult to tell coaches she liked that she wanted to go elsewhere.
Harmon-Thomas also chose Texas for its focus on academics. She maintains an A average and is also a National Merit Semifinalist, which is awarded to the top 1 percent of participants in each state based upon Preliminary SAT scores.
“I will tell you I’m more proud of this than anything she has done on the track,” Harmon said. “I am because that’s a big, big deal. It’s awfully hard.”
Though Harmon-Thomas is usually relegated to studying while in the car on her way to personal training, it’s part of her personality to make sure she has the best grades.
“It’s definitely my expectation,” Harmon-Thomas said. “I like to be good at everything I do. I get frustrated if I’m not doing well in something ... I force myself to be good at it. It really gets at me if I’m not doing well in something.”
Harmon-Thomas certainly has followed her father’s athletic footsteps. She hopes to set the national high school record in the pentathlon in March and help Free State defend its state title in May. At the state meet last year, the announcer said her name as “Alexa Harmon-Thomas, the daughter of Derrick Thomas,” which she thought was a nice touch.
“I don’t mind it at all because I think it’s just cool that he was able to accomplish such incredible things, and I don’t think it overshadows what I’m doing,” she said. “I think I’m doing something different; I’m doing my own thing. I don’t need that label, but I think it’s cool that it comes along with it.”
Harmon, who was sitting next to her daughter, grabbed her left shoulder for extra emphasis before speaking to her.
“I think he’d be very proud of you,” she said. “I know he would.”