While some people watch the world go by, the world has the distinct pleasure of watching Soula Thomas go by–fast!
“I’ve been racewalking for 18 years,” said Thomas, who worked in the Department of Communicative Disorders from 1966 to 1987 and then worked in the dean’s office of the School of Humanities until her retirement in 1990. “I was much faster. Now, I guess as I’m getting older (she’s 85), my timing is getting slower. That’s okay. I’m in the 85th percentile nationally, which is very good.”
This past July, Thomas won a bronze medal in the 5K racewalking competition during the XVIII World Masters Athletics Championships, held in Lahti, Finland. Approximately 5,300 athletes from around the world, ages 35 years old and above, participated in this bi-annual event, and many of the athletes were current or former Olympians or world record holders.
The win in Finland added to Thomas’ international collection of medals, which include another bronze in racewalking at the 2001 World Masters Athletics Championships in Brisbane, Australia.
She has also competed in England and Spain. Locally, she has won numerous medals, including first place at a Riverside, Calif., event in 2009. Typically, she competes in three to six races a year, almost always including the local races in Huntington Central Park (Orange County), Riverside and at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“Now, I just do the 5Ks, though I’ve raced in Paramount so there I’ve done six miles,” she added. “I’ve done half marathons (13 miles) in Long Beach three times. The first race (my time) was three hours and 10 minutes, the second race was three hours and the third race was two hours and 50 minutes. I was improving, but I haven’t done one since 2001.”
Thomas is a member of an Orange County walking club called Easy Striders. They meet for a group practice once a week on Saturdays, from 7-9 a.m., at the Irvine High School track, where Jim Coots, their coach and founder of Easy Striders, puts them through their paces.
“Jim is such a wonderful person,” Thomas said with a smile. “He makes you feel like you’re the greatest. ‘You’re an athlete, Soula,’ he says. ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not.’”
Easy Striders is one of six race-walking leagues in Southern California, and the leagues take turns hosting and volunteering for the various competitions in the region. In 2007, Thomas received the annual Buddy Award for her volunteerism.
“It’s sort of a spirit award,” she said. “The times I don’t race because I wasn’t ready or didn’t feel ready to race, I help. There’s a lot to do. During a race, we do lap counts. It’s 12 laps around the track, and we have a sheet and we mark it. There are also five judges placed around the track to watch a competitor’s form. When you’re racewalking, you have to come out with a straight leg; don’t bend your knee. Otherwise, that counts against you.”
Although she didn’t take up the sport until her retirement from CSULB, Thomas was introduced to racewalking by a fellow colleague.
“The lady who started me was the executive assistant to the Psychology Department, Joann Beers,” she recalled. “I used to walk for a half hour on my lunch break. Joann said, ‘You’re a fast walker, why don’t you join us? It’s so much fun.’ At the time, I was already going to the gym three times a week, and I told her that my husband would divorce me if I took any more time away from him. After I retired, I started practicing racewalking once a week here (at CSULB) on Wednesday nights at our campus track and then Saturday mornings in Irvine. I really miss Joann. She died in 1999 (while hiking in Germany).”
Thomas lives in Rossmoor with her husband of 58 years, Bill. They have three children: Tim, Mary and Zoe, all married; and seven grandchildren. While Thomas is the only racewalker, the rest of her family supports her by cheering her on at races and taking pictures for the ever-growing photo albums.
When asked if she will continue racewalking, Thomas responded, “Yes, as long as I can. I believe very much in walking and being active. I grew up in Europe. I was born in New York, and when I was nine, (my family) moved to Greece. We were there 11 years, and I experienced the war; we were under the German occupation for four years. We did a lot of walking because the transportation was very poor during those war years. It seems like walking is a part of me. I am so fortunate; no problems with my knees or any other part of my body. I feel great.”