When either song “Level Up” by Ciara or “Drip Too Hard” by Lil Baby and Gunna comes on during University of Georgia track and field practice, everyone knows to watch out for coach Althea Thomas’ dance moves.
“Everybody gets 30 extra seconds so I can level up,” Thomas said.
During practice and meets, Thomas is always the loudest voice on the track. She can be heard above everyone else.
“She’s very outgoing and spunky, and then when you get to the workout, she’s serious,” said Makenzi Kopp, who competes in the 400-meter hurdles and the 4×400-meter relay.
The UGA track and field athletes have seen both sides of their coaches — by design.
Head coach Petros Kyprianou, who primarily coaches athletes in the field events, makes a point to spend time with each athlete.
“They’re my team. They’re all my kids,” Kyprianou said.
Earlier this month, Kyprianou hosted a team get-together at his house. Kyprianou’s goofy side was on full display in a Twitter post on May 1. When his athletes thought he was about to give a speech, he jumped in the pool instead, splashing some of the athletes.
Thomas said she hopes the laid-back atmosphere helped the athletes relax as they looked ahead to the Southeastern Conference outdoor championships, which begin Thursday in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Last year, the UGA men’s team won the outdoor national championship for the first time in school history. The UGA women finished second, just one point behind champion Southern California.
Knowing each athlete on the team is important to all of the coaches. In addition to the full team dinner at Kyprianou’s house, the coaches also host team tailgates throughout football season and invite the athletes to their respective houses to spend time together outside of practice. They want to know each athlete as a person and not just another competitor.
“You coach to the person, not the event,” Thomas said.
Thomas, affectionately known as “AT” by her athletes and other coaches, joined the Bulldogs coaching staff in August 2017.
Since then, the team has improved in sprints, hurdles, and relays under her supervision.
During the 2019 indoor season, Micaiah Ransby, Sterling Lester, Amber Tanner and Lynna Irby set a school record in the 4×400-meter relay with a time of 3 minutes, 31.09 seconds. During the 2017 indoor season, before Thomas started with the Bulldogs, UGA’s best time for the event was 3:42.14, more than 11 seconds slower.
“It’s just humbling to think about like ‘Wow, we really did that,’ and we’re still going,” Tanner said.
Similar to professors, the UGA track and field coaches have office hours during which their athletes can come and talk to them about whatever they want.
For Chelsea Zoller, who runs the 400 hurdles and the 4×400, this has helped boost her confidence. Due to a broken foot, Zoller had to redshirt for all of last season. She now goes to see Thomas after meets to analyze not only what she needs to improve, but also the things she did right.
“It’s been very helpful to have that place of trust where we can just talk about whatever I want,” Zoller said.
This emphasis on getting to know the individual is also a major factor in recruiting, which Thomas coordinates. As a program, UGA tries to be upfront about expectations for each athlete. Thomas takes pride in the fact that her fellow coaches invest in each athlete and the athlete’s interests.
Aside from talented athletes, the coaches are looking for recruits that they feel fit the culture at UGA. According to Kyprianou, this means being a hard worker and staying humble .
The coaches are always keeping in mind that the recruit must fit in with the family atmosphere of the team.
“We go and watch them live and determine if they would be a good fit or not,” Kyprianou said of the international recruits. “All of those factors play to our decision of scholarships for them or not.”
As the Bulldogs enter the postseason, the support and encouragement from coaches like Thomas will be important for them.
“Coach AT has really pushed us to another level,” Kopp said. “She’s tough on us but in a good way. She just really picks you up and encourages you.
“It’s kind of a tough love.”
Mixed in with a little leveling up.
This story was written by Anna Catherine Alderman of the Grady Sports Bureau, part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.