Josh Thompson Impressing As A Late Bloomer

It wasn’t until he was 26 that Josh Thompson won a national title, this ’20 USATF Indoor 1500. (KEVIN MORRIS)

IT’S A JOURNEY for all of us and Josh Thompson is OK with that. The 27-year-old Bowerman TC miler hopes his trip lands him on Team USA for Tokyo and he is heartened by the steps forward he has taken in the last couple of years.

When Thompson placed 3rd in the frenetic finish of the ‘19 USATF 1500 in Des Moines, the one thing he lacked was a World Championships qualifying time. The standard was 3:36.00 and Thompson’s best in the Q period was 3:38.71 a couple weeks before Nationals. He wouldn’t be flying to Doha but he wasn’t devastated.

“I was very happy to finish 3rd,” Thompson says. “There’s rules in track & field, and I knew the rules beforehand. In, I guess, USATF’s defense, I should have gotten the time beforehand and I didn’t. So I mean, I was very happy with getting 3rd place — then my highest finish ever — and it was a great race for me and it really, I guess, proved to myself that I can still compete in the sport. So I was very happy after that.”

Less than two months earlier, Thompson’s efforts had been directed toward steeplechasing — although he had shown flashes of miling promise all along.

Sixth in the NCAA Indoor mile and 4th outdoors in the 1500 as an Oklahoma State senior in ’17, Thompson had broken out to sub-4:00 territory indoors the school year before. Those who at the time may have seen Thompson’s as an emergence from obscurity were not entirely off the mark.

The Nevada native matriculated at Arizona’s Glendale CC following his prep graduation in ’11, but soon thereafter disappeared from the track grid for a 2-year Mormon mission in Nicaragua.

He returned to competition in the fall of ‘14 and placed 13th at the JUCO Nationals, then 2nd in the JUCO Indoor mile the following winter. For the next autumn Thompson found his way to coach Dave Smith’s vaunted Oke State program, for which he finished 101st at the NCAA Cross Country in ’15 and 36th in ’16.

It is, indeed, a journey. Two days after earning that NCAA 4th in ’17’s 1500 Thompson traveled up the road from Eugene to Portland and steepled 8:32.90 for 4th in a class field. After a performance like that in his first known serious outing over the barriers, it’s not shocking that he explored the event in his first two seasons with the elite Bowerman group.

Abruptly, though, in June of ‘19 Thompson’s steeple career headed south. “I had a couple of bad races and things just weren’t quite clicking in the steeple as much as I wanted it to,” he says. “I had a pretty, pretty poor race in Portland [9:02.84 for 12th at the Portland Track Fest] and I didn’t feel very good going into that race.

Afterwards [coach Jerry Schumacher] was just like, ‘Hey, well, we’ve got to focus on the 1500; we’ll come back to the steeple.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t think you’re ready for the steeple yet.’ And I agree with him. I don’t think I was fully ready. We started training for the 1500m and then it ended up working out in the end.”

While Thompson missed what would have been his first World Champs opportunity for lack of a Q mark, he raced through the rest of the ’19 summer recording no losses. He won the Falmouth mile in August, plus 1500s in Berlin (a 3:35.01 PR that was a WC Standard mark that came too late) and the USA–Europe meet in September.

The sum of his newfound miling game earned Thompson the No. 3 U.S. Ranking for ’19, and in ’20 before the COVID competition shutdown, he won at the USATF Indoor, his first national crown.

Married with a son who is about to turn 2, Thompson is running determinedly forward. He is pleased with his results in Schumacher’s program — not a huge departure, he says, from Smith’s at Oklahoma State: “Jerry’s a little more volume and more intense volume. I think Dave was a little different in the sense that he would hold us back more, where, for example, we might do at Oklahoma State a 4M tempo, and then with Jerry we might do 2 x 4M tempo. So it’s different in that sense, but it’s relatively the same, I guess. Oklahoma State was a good stepping stone to transition into the Bowerman Track Club training.”

As a Bowerman miler, Thompson naturally rubs shoulders in training with the current American miler supreme, Olympic champ Matthew Centrowitz. “I’m learning,” Thompson says. “I’m learning a lot from Matthew Centrowitz and he’s, you know, known as like the master technician.

“So learning, talking about races with him, talking about races with Jerry, I think I have a pretty good understanding of how to race a 1500. One of the things we kind of preach in the group is ‘strength is speed.’ You gotta have that strength to have that final kick the last lap or 200, just depending on whatever race you’re in. So I think being in Jerry’s group, my strength has increased, which has helped my closing speed coming down the homestretch.”

Next up for Thompson, a race at the Austin Qualifier Saturday evening with pacing pointed at the Tokyo Olympic standard, 3:35.00.

Thompson has not lost a 1500 or mile since that ’19 USATF Championships. He lowered his PR to 3:34.77 indoors a year ago in Boston. He is on a roll and aims to stay there approaching the Olympic Trials.

“I’m excited,” he says. “I’m ready to go. I got big goals on my mind and if I keep training the way I’m doing, it’s going to be fun. It’s gonna be exciting to watch.”