When it comes to Thomas Awad, you can't judge a book by its cover.
With his long-ish curly hair, scruffy beard and glasses, the diminutive junior runner does not look like one of the premiere athletes in the nation.
But looks can be deceiving, and when he steps onto the track, he’s an absolute giant.
“Some guys in real competitive situations get nervous,” coach Steve Dolan said. “He doesn’t fear it. He welcomes it.”
Last year, he broke out and established himself as the clear face of Penn track and cross country.
In the fall, he placed third in cross country Heptagonals as a sophomore, and he earned a trip to Nationals.
His spring track campaign was even more impressive, as he broke four minutes in his mile run at the Penn Relays. He was a force for the Quakers all season, at one point winning six-straight races at six different distances and consistently flirting with top national times.
So how did Awad become one of the most dominant runners in the nation? To hear him tell it, it has everything to do with confidence.
“In my junior year [in high school] I had a huge [personal record], and I got to run the Millrose Games,” Awad remembers. “That was the point where I took the full commitment to running, and everything else has followed since then.”
Awad hadn’t even completed his freshman year before he decided he wanted to “go to big meets and compete to win.”
However, Awad’s success cannot be wholly contributed to his natural ability, although that certainly has a lot to do with it. Instead, his coaches are quick to point out his tireless work ethic and his uncanny competitive determination.
“He’s making the kind of sacrifices you have to make to be a great runner in terms of training and lifestyle,” Dolan said. “That’s inspiring to those around him.”
This willingness to lay it all on the line was on full display at last year’s Penn Relays, in which Awad became only the second athlete in school history to break four minutes in the mile. Despite being one of the smallest competitors in the race, he was able to lengthen his stride enough in his final kick to break the historic barrier.
As middle-distance coach Robin Martin affectionately noted following the race, Awad may not have the fastest 800-meter split, but he succeeds anyway because he “sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Runners have their own kind of mental toughness [that can’t be coached],” Dolan added. “That’s one of Tommy’s special instincts.”
Awad recognizes his competitive spirit, but he is hesitant to cast himself as an underdog.
“I really don’t think about [being an underdog]. I have the confidence,” he said. “You have to be able to run a lot of different ways, and I think I’m pretty good at that.”
He is also hesitant to rest on his laurels, largely due to the relative lack of team success he has enjoyed.
Moving from the shorter-distance training of track to the long-distance training of cross country has been a challenge — that much Awad admits — but he may face a larger challenge off the course, as he has been named a captain for the cross country season.
“As our team captain, I’ve asked him to focus a lot on his training, but also on building our team,” Dolan said. “He’s a good leader by example that way.”
Awad understands that in order for his talented men’s squad to compete in the Ivy League, it will take more than just an individual effort from him.
“Last year I was fifth in the region, so if this year I’m second or first, that’s such a small point difference,” he said.
Don’t think for a second that this means he has lost sight of his own individual goals, though.
According to Dolan, Awad has largely been in cruise control in the season’s opening meets, but this weekend’s race at Notre Dame will give Awad his first opportunity of the season to give it his all against some of the top competition.
So don’t be surprised if Awad continues to ignore the discussion of the book versus its cover and instead proceeds to rip the cover off of his competition once again.
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