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Turquoise Thompson’s talent in track and field runs in the family

UCLA's Turquoise Thompson, who has the sickle cell trait, holds the third-fastest time in the 400-meter hurdles this season at 55.18 seconds.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Turquoise Thompson, UCLA’s explosive hurdler, hasn’t always had a say in things.

Her eclectic forget-me-not name? That was her mom’s call, the result of Lori Smith-Thompson’s schoolgirl crush on Julius Erving, whose wife at the time was named Turquoise.

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A childhood chasing personal bests in track? Her parents insisted. Donn Thompson and Smith-Thompson were college track stars who went into coaching.

“I think I had less say in my name,” Thompson said, smiling. As for track, she laughed and said, “I tried to do some other sports, but my parents weren’t having it. I grew to love it.”

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Other choices that define Thompson were her own. She was born with sickle cell trait. Though not as serious as the disease, it can have tragic, even fatal results if not properly managed.

Thompson, a senior, decided to push on with her track career. Quitting was not an option. Her choice.

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“What’s the old saying, ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’?” said Thompson, who became aware as a freshman that the severe cramps in her legs were the result of the trait.

“I was going through all of this and was still on top of certain charts,” she said. “I was struggling and did well, so imagine what I could do if I was able to manage it.”

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It doesn’t take imagination at this point. Thompson was second nationally in the 400-meter hurdles the last two seasons and finished sixth at the Olympic trials last summer. She enters the NCAA West Regional in Austin, Texas, on Thursday with the third-fastest time in the nation at 55.18 seconds.

Her success comes as no surprise to Smith-Thompson, who is the track coach at Gardena Serra High.

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“As a kid, she won so much you knew she was going to be special,” Smith-Thompson said.

It was, after all, the family business.

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Smith-Thompson was a star athlete at Gardena High, where she was known in basketball as “Nurse L” — a nickname born from her Dr. J crush. Smith-Thompson, who competed at Long Beach State and San Diego State, reached the semifinals in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympic trials.

And then there is father Donn, a sprinter and track and field team captain at UCLA in the late 1970s. He won the 400 meters at the 1978 Pac-10 championships.

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“Turquoise never got to decide about track,” Smith-Thompson joked. “We’re a track family.”

In her first race, at age 5, “she tumbled head over heels at the finish line,” Smith-Thompson said. And she still won.

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“I’ve been falling ever since,” Thompson said. “I fall a lot, trying to get every little inch at the finish line.”

As a senior at Serra, Thompson ranked first nationally among high school girls in the 400-meter hurdles, second in the 300 hurdles and seventh in the 400.

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Her talent, and her father’s history, pointed her to UCLA — where four generations of Thompsons have attended college.

Thompson’s first season was challenging. Smith-Thompson knew her daughter was born with the sickle cell trait. The family, though, didn’t connect it to Thompson’s injury troubles.

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Thompson sustained a torn hamstring as a sophomore in high school. “After that, I would get cramps and had exercise-induced asthma,” Thompson said. “We didn’t think too much of it. It was track, and injuries happen.”

A severe cramp during her freshman year at UCLA changed that.

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“I went to the locker room mad,” Thompson recalled. “There was this flier on the counter about sickle cell trait. I remembered my mom had told me I had it.”

Thompson went through the checklist on the flier and thought, “Wow, sickle cell trait is trying to kill me.”

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The family became proactive.

“We had a meeting with the coaches, trainers and doctors,” Smith-Thompson said. “We came up with a plan that would allow her to get something out of training without continually getting injured.”

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Thompson monitors her hydration throughout the day and follows a strict nutrition plan. There is constant communication with coaches during practice.

“It’s about compromise,” Thompson said. “Sometimes I just have to say, ‘I can’t finish practice.’ You have to really listen to your body because you can drop dead from this.”

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The diet, vitamins and training have allowed Thompson to excel. She finished third in the 400 hurdles at the Pac-12 championships — a race that produced the three fastest NCAA times in the nation this season. Stanford’s Kori Carter finished first at 54.21 seconds and Arizona’s Georganne Moline finished second in 54.54.

The three are likely to meet again in the regional finals this week, as well as at the NCAA championships in June.

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It’s all part of a larger agenda for Thompson — one she chose.

“Of course the ultimate goal is the Olympics,” Thompson said. “I feel I’m a fraction of the way there.”

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chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes


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