A Bitter Memory Is Track Star's Final Hurdle

Times Staff Writer

Pasadena High School hurdler Damon Thomas still has bitter memories about not qualifying for the state prep track and field finals last year.

Thomas, then a junior, was one of the favorites in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Southern California qualifying meet, only to get bumped twice by George Porter of Cabrillo early in the race and finish dead last.

"What happened is George Porter elbowed me twice in the second and third hurdles and I just couldn't come back," Thomas recalled. "It was the worst I've ever finished in a race."

Thomas says he was angry with Porter and vowed that this year would be different.

"Ever since, I knew I could beat him so my goal was to beat him and go on from there," Thomas said.

That was the last time Thomas lost in the 110-meter high hurdles.

Beaten Porter Twice

The 18-year-old senior has won all 20 of his races this season, including two against Porter, to establish himself as the top high hurdler in the state heading into the CIF state finals Friday and Saturday at Hughes Stadium in Sacramento.

Thomas is ranked among the top prep runners in the nation in the 110 high hurdles, with a top time of 13.87 seconds this year at an invitational meet in Las Vegas. He posted the fastest time, 13.95, at the CIF Masters qualifying meet last week.

It is performances like those that earn him high marks from his coach, Art Large, who calls the 5-10, 150-pound Thomas one of the best performers ever for tradition-rich Pasadena.

"He's one of those guys who comes along once every 10 years, like (former Pasadena track stars) Ivan Cleveland or James and Michael Sanford," Large said. "As a high hurdler, I would say that mechanically he's the best I've ever coached."

What is it about the form of Thomas that Large likes?

"He has the lean and his trail leg is quick," Large said. "He's just like a machine. Everything works very mechanically. He has a great trail leg and great lead leg and he works the three steps (between hurdles) perfectly. He's a natural athlete. The speed was there before, but with hard work he has really improved in other areas."

Pushes Teammates

Large said hard work has helped Thomas most and has rubbed off on the rest of the team.

"He has the innate quality of a winner and he expresses that in the way he practices," Large said. "He makes the other kids work a little harder than they normally would. When the guys are sitting around and lagging a little he always says, 'Come on guys, let's go.'

"He's team-oriented and even though track is more of an individual thing, he wants everybody to excel in their event. He's a real rah-rah guy."

Pretty good for a guy who was more interested in playing football when he arrived at Pasadena.

"Ever since I was 9 years old I wanted to be a football player," Thomas said. "It was in the seventh grade when I really took to track."

It was about three years ago when Large first heard rave reports of a freshman at school named Thomas who was supposed to be an outstanding hurdler.

The problem was persuading Thomas to try out for the team.

"When he was a freshman, (sprinter) Cleo Bates told me there's a great hurdler named Damon Thomas, but I had two or three good hurdlers at the time," Large recalled. "So I asked him to come out, but he didn't want to and I didn't really push him."

'A Little Outspoken'

Thomas was more enthusiastic about trying out when Large asked him again the following year.

"When I talked to him, he was a little outspoken," Large said. "He told me he could beat these guys so I told him, 'Well, why don't you show me what kind of a hurdler you are.' "

It did not take Thomas long to prove it.

Thomas started the season as a member of the sophomore team, but it took him less than a season to establish himself as the best high hurdler in the school. "He ran the 110 high hurdles in 14.9 during his sophomore season and that's when we decided to move him up to the varsity," Large said.

He finished second in the Pacific League in the 110 high hurdles as a sophomore and won the league title and reached the CIF Southern California finals as a junior.

Thomas said improved endurance has been a big factor in his success as a senior. "I was doing strictly sprint work last year and I didn't have a lot of energy left at the end of a race."

Large said he placed Thomas on a more strenuous workout schedule, with longer practice runs, before this season. During the season, Thomas competed in the 330-meter low hurdles and the 800-meter run. He also is a member of Pasadena's 1,600-meter relay team that has qualified for the state finals.

"He's a very dedicated youngster," Large said. "He running longer distances, he does a lot of sit-ups and he does all of the workouts we ask of him all the time."

Determined to Beat Porter

Of course, Thomas admits he is also more motivated this year, partly because of the incident with Porter.

Thomas received a measure of revenge when he defeated the highly regarded Porter in the 110 high hurdles at the Arcadia Prep Invitational Meet in April, a race that also greatly improved his stock on the national level.

"That was the race that did it," Thomas said. "I had to win that race so people would know who Damon Thomas was. I came into that race and people were looking more at George Porter. So I wanted to show them."

Thomas doesn't need to convince people any longer.

One more victory and Thomas can call it a perfect season.

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