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Senior distance runner Thomas Awad will compete at Franklin Field for the final time as a Penn student at this weekend’s Penn Relays.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

He came to campus with dreams of seeing the Penn track team become a powerhouse, and leaves University City with dreams of racing in the Olympics. For Thomas Awad, it’s been a successful four years.

Awad, who will race at Franklin Field for the final time as a Penn undergraduate, is a three-time NCAA Championship qualifier in the 5,000 meter run and multiple first team All-Ivy honoree who has continuously shattered expectations en route to a storied Penn career.

The Making of a Track Star

Growing up, Awad was not a racer, opting instead to play sports more common to the schoolyard like basketball and soccer. However, he saw signs of what would be his real calling.

“I was always pretty good at those sports, but I’m kind of small, so I got bumped off the ball easily,” he said. “Basketball, if you’re not six-foot you’re not that good. I was always good with the endurance stuff and running.”

Before high school, his only formal running experiences were with his father, a recreational runner.

“I ran some local rotary 5Ks with my dad when I was younger. I had an idea I was pretty good at it, so when I went to high school I said I wanted to get into running because I like sports and I’m actually good at this,” he said.

Awad said his big moment in high school came at the Millrose Games in his junior year, where he ran the mile in 4:16 and began to garner media attention. In his words, he shifted from being “just a pretty good runner to a big name in New York State.”

With that attention, he caught the eye of some prestigious programs, and was left to think about what he wanted out of the university he chose.

“I ended up being much better than I thought I would get, and it came to the point where I was getting recruited by the top schools in the country and ended up picking Penn.”

Now, with Penn men’s track and field on the bubble of the USTFCCCA top 25, one might not think much of that last sentence. However, when Awad committed, things were far different.

Building a Program

In the spring of 2012, when Awad graduated from high school, the Red and Blue’s lone first team All-Ivy representative in outdoor season was then-sophomore Maalik Reynolds in the high jump, with Tim Carey and Karl Ingram making the second team.

“When we recruited Tommy we weren’t that good,” men’s track head coach Robin Martin said. “I don’t think there was anybody on that team who broke 15 minutes in the 5K, right now we probably have 15."

Martin, who was involved in Awad’s recruitment along with former head cross country coach Blake Boldon, said it was sometimes tough to recruit on the pitch of developing a program, but that pitch resonated with those who wanted to build a program rather than join one.

“We didn’t have an accomplished program so we couldn’t sell one. We were selling the idea of what was possible, what we could create,” he said.

Martin and Boldon had the vision of Penn as a top program, and wanted to find others who shared that belief. Martin said Awad was one of the first.

“I was getting recruited by a bunch of established programs, and I was thinking, ‘Well, I can go to Georgetown or one of these other schools but I’m just going to be another guy there. Or I can go to Penn and make us really good and start something big.’ I ended up picking Penn on that,” Awad said. “They were into trying to make this program great, and I bought into that because I kind of believed they were going to do it.”

However, Boldon and Penn Athletics parted ways, leaving a coaching vacancy and a worried pre-frosh Awad.

“Coach Boldon ended up leaving, which I was pretty devastated at, and I thought about transferring for a little bit because I picked this school because I thought this guy was going to be my coach, and now I don’t have that coach,” he said.

He decided to stay at Penn for at least his first year, and if he didn’t like it, he had the option to transfer.

Enter Steve Dolan, the former Princeton cross country and assistant track coach who spent part of the summer before his first year at Penn coaching former Tigers standout Donn Cabral. Under Dolan’s direction, Cabral was an NCAA champion and placed eighth in the 2012 London Olympics.

Dolan was recognized as a top distance coach, evidenced by Princeton claiming five of six Ivy League titles at cross country Heps. Dolan won NCAA Regional Coach of the Year four times, and in the spring immediately prior to his hiring, Princeton became the first Ivy team to sweep the DMR and 4xMile in over half a decade.

It turned out that Dolan shared the view of Penn track’s potential, and it didn’t take long for Awad to buy into his new coach, whom he describes as “unbelievable.”

Endless Determination

One can only become an Ivy League champion through hard work, and Awad is no exception. He practices with the team, part of a smaller group that will undergo a “higher volume of training”, per Dolan.

“We’ll do things like he’ll run the interval workouts a bit faster than the group, similar, but at a faster pace,” Dolan said. “Sometimes he’ll work with the group and other times he’ll chase or lead. We have a good group of guys that train at a similar intensity, it’s just that he can go a little faster than those guys.”

While junior Nick Tuck spoke highly of Awad’s competitiveness when it came to racing, he noted the difference in attitude between races and practices.

“I only see that side of him when he’s racing,” Tuck said. “He’s usually pretty laid-back. He just wants to get his work done.”

Awad’s team-oriented nature is noticed by his teammates. Senior co-captain Amy Darlington recalled their becoming fast friends at the team’s cross country camp during their freshman year, and echoed the importance of team success.

“Tommy’s not just my friend on the track, he’s my friend off the track, and I think he’s that way with everyone,” Darlington said. “I think it’s great to see Tommy have individual success, but you can also see the team success, and he definitely has a huge impact on that because he’s one of the leaders.”

According to Martin, it is not always the fastest or fittest racer that wins. Maximizing what one can get out of one’s talent is a skill, and Awad has shown that ability in his running career.

“There are some people that are competitive with everything. I wouldn’t say that’s Tommy,” Martin said. “He turns it on and turns it off. When I think about racing, he’s the prototypical racer. He puts himself in good positions, he’s really savvy as a racer.”

Awad’s determination to win allows him to set himself apart from competitors when he needs to, making it simply a matter of who can push further.

“Tommy stands on the line with a lot of people who are as talented or more fit or more talented, and he finds a way to win and he has this ability to ‘go there’, where most people are unwilling or unable to go,” Martin added.

In the spring of his sophomore year, Awad was planning to compete in the 10,000-meter run and 5,000-meter run at the Ivy League Outdoor Championships, which was to be his first time competing in the 10K.

“At the time, there were two guys that were nationally ranked at Harvard, and they were going to beat him,” Martin said. “He was going to get second or third, and for a sophomore and his first 10K, that would have been fine.”

Doing his best to stay at the front, Awad fell late into second place behind Harvard’s James Leakos. He admitted that he didn’t even think he was going to win, but that changed when Leakos looked back and Awad knew he could close the gap.

To the surprise of spectators, Awad, who said he was already running hard, reached an almost sprint-like level and caught up with Leakos with 200 meters to go. He won the race.

“He just found something and just ran this guy down and won the 10K,” Martin said. “The team flooded the track, and the 10K is not the most popular event, so to have the team flood the track for a 10K is pretty rare.”

After the event, Awad was taxed. He decided to withdraw from the 5K, convinced he would finish last if he pushed himself to race the next day.

“The 10K is one hell of an event, it’s so grueling, it’s so different than cross, and I don’t know why,” Awad said. “It’s just so much harder on your body and I finished and it was weird because I never feel that bad after a race. You’re usually tired, but that one I felt really off.”

Two weeks prior to that race, Awad broke four minutes in the mile for the first time ever, to win the Olympic Development Mile at the Penn Relays.

“He’d been running really well,” Dolan said. “Two weeks previous he’d ran a very good 1,500 that showed how strong he was. I told him that with a couple of good weeks of training and if the race was right, he certainly could do it.”

Awad’s 3:58.34 time was the second-best outdoor mile in Ivy League history per, second to only Elton Fikes, the former Quaker who is currently the athletic department’s compliance officer.

“Tommy entered that race with the understanding that he could break four minutes,” Dolan said. “What he did with the race, which was how he often does it, is he really didn’t run for the time, he ran to try to beat the other runners of the race, and he won the race and got the time.”

Olympic Dreams

Awad has lofty goals for racing after Penn: to make the Olympic Trials for the 2016 Rio Olympics and to make racing his career. He had been considering qualifying in the 1,500 or 5,000, but he has recently concluded his best shot is in the 1,500 because of the competitiveness of the upcoming races.

“There just aren’t races [in the 5,000 meters] that go that fast. Maybe the Payton Jordan [Invitational] out at Stanford might be a 13:20s race, but that’s also the Monday after Penn Relays, so I obviously can’t go,” Awad said.

“If that’s the only race in America that’s going to be a 13:20’s-type race, then I’m not going to be able to qualify for the trials in that event, which is a shame just because I think that’s my best event. I think I’m pretty strong in the 1,500 also, and we’re going to go 1,500 because we have to at this point, but if some weird opportunity presents itself in the 5K, we’ll probably end up taking it.”

Dolan recognizes the odds of Awad cracking the Olympic team are not ideal, but that could be where the captain’s competitive spirit steps in.

“It’s difficult in our system for collegiate runners to make the Olympic team because of their age relative to the guys post-college, but he’s an outstanding competitor and the first step will be to post his time to make the Olympic trials, that’s goal number one for him,” Dolan said.

“When you get there, you take it race-by-race. He’s a competitor, and never sell him short in any race he gets in.”

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