The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

For close to four decades, University of Saint Thomas women’s track and field coach Joe Sweeney has had two traditions take place near the end of May. He usually has one or more members of his team competing at the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships that month and, even if he doesn’t have a runner entered, he’ll listen to the public address announcer just before the start of the 10,000-meter race.

“The same guy has been doing it for years,” Sweeney said. “After he introduces the runners, he mentions the NCAA record time for the event and notes it’s the oldest record still standing.”

The announcer also mentions the record holder—Debbie Thometz. On a warm May afternoon in 1983 at North Central, Illinois, Thometz swamped the field, winning the lengthy race in a time of 33:50.82. It’s one of the many reasons why Thometz (now Leyden) recently became just the ninth athlete from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to be named to the U.S. Track and Field Coaches’ Association Athlete Hall of Fame.

Leyden joined field jumper Leonard Jones and runner Kelly Copps as UST alums who made the list. (Macalester’s Julia Kirtland, a 1987 grad who won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races twice, was inducted in 2013.)

“I’m surprised the record still stands,” Leyden said. “I feel so lucky everything worked out.”  

It wasn’t something Leyden ever envisioned when she first enrolled at Saint Thomas. Although she had been a stalwart runner in high school, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue in track. Women’s athletics were still taking shape in college at the time. The MIAC didn’t even have a conference meet when Leyden started. She ran cross-country in the fall and decided to give track a try that spring. Sometime during the season she realized she could hold her own with the upperclassmen.

“I never thought I could compete with them when I started out as a freshman,” she recalled. “When I realized I was staying with them, it gave me a boost of confidence.” 

Things changed dramatically in her sophomore year. Sweeney, a superb distance runner who once won a race at the MIAC championships running barefoot, became her head coach that year. “Joe lit a fire under me,” Leyden said. “When you have a coach who runs with you on workouts and can challenge you every day, you’re going to get better.” 

Sweeney remembers it a bit differently. “Debbie was like Seabiscuit,” he said, referring to the famed champion thoroughbred racehorse. “She needed a challenge and she bought what I was selling.”  

Under Sweeney’s tutelage, Leyden blossomed. As a sophomore, she won the inaugural MIAC cross-country race at Como Golf Course in 1981. Her time of 17:37 ranks as the third fastest ever when it was a 5K race. (It became a 6K in 2005.).

A couple of weeks later, Leyden won the AIAW cross-country championship and helped her team to a national title win over Holy Cross. The next year, she finished second in the national cross-country race and Saint Thomas won the NCAA Division III meet, defeating Wisconsin-La Crosse by 39 points.  

Women’s athletics, particularly cross-country and track, were now really starting to take form. Leyden added the grueling 3K and 5K races to her track repertoire. “Distance races are a mental thing,” she said. “You’re in a zone—almost meditative. I loved it.” 

In early May 1983, Leyden won the conference 10K race in 34:22.8, a record that still stands. At the NCAA meet, she grabbed the lead early and slowly pulled away from the pack. “I always felt more relaxed with the lead,” she said. “It allowed me to push harder and run better.” She won the 10K race that day by a whopping 68 seconds. 

Debbie Thometz Leyden
Debbie (Thometz) Leyden

“I’m surprised the record still stands,” Leyden said. “I feel so lucky everything worked out.”  

Though she was the dominant runner of her era in the MIAC, Leyden had a genuine rival at regional and national races in La Crosse’s Tori Neubauer. The pair faced off in the NCAA 3K and 5K races that year. Leyden’s times in each race are still school records, but Neubauer bested her by seconds in both contests.

At the time, the winners of those races earned an invitation to the NCAA Division I meet in Houston the following week. “I took a few days off,” Leyden recalled, “did a couple of quick runs and then headed to Houston.” As is often the case in Houson, it was beastly hot the day of the race. “I told her we had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Sweeney said.  

Leyden held her own nicely, finishing 11th, beating several Division I runners in the process.  

After her college career was completed, Leyden went back to the classroom to earn an elementary education degree from the University of Minnesota. She taught grade school for many years and still fills in from time to time. She also still goes out for runs. “I still go out and enjoy it,” she said. “I miss it when I can’t do it.”

Her children also ran cross-country, one of them for the University of Saint Louis. She offered this thought for those who wish to compete in cross-country in the future.

“Distance running is a mental thing. You can have the strength, but it also demands mental toughness,” Leyden said. “Desire is very important.”

The latter is something her college coach saw in her and worked to bring it to the forefront. “Debbie had a lot of hidden potential,” Sweeney said. “It was simply a matter of getting the desire going.” 

Welcome to the big leagues  

A quick check of the Saint Thomas athletic website revealed the new opponents the Tommies will be facing this fall in football, soccer and volleyball. Cross-country’s schedules are not up yet for a good reason.  

The Summit League will hold its cross-country championships on October 30 at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The NCAA Division I regional is two weeks later in Iowa City and the NCAA championships are a week after that in Tallahassee, Florida.  

Until then, Sweeney and UST men’s cross-country coach Pete Wareham will be left to their own devices to find meets. Fortunately, there are several options in the area where Division I and III runners often face off. The biggest is the annual Roy Griak Invitational at the University of Minnesota’s Les Bolstad Golf Course on September 24. “We’re still trying to decide where we want to run,” Sweeney said. “We’d prefer not to travel too far.”

Bethel, Saint Olaf, Hamline and La Crosse all have meets scheduled where the Tommies could send runners. The trick will be getting a feel for what they’ll see at their new championship meet. The winning time for the men in the 8K race at the 2019 Summit meet was 24:43.6. The best UST time that year was not far off at 25:05. For the women, however, the Tommies have some work to do. The winning 6K time at the Summit race that year was 20:35.1. The top UST woman runner that year came in at 22:33.6.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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