Oct. 12, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - You might say that Leslie Thomas had a real Gomer Pyle weekend at Homecoming.
"Surrrr-prise! ... Surrrr-prise!"
Thomas and her Marshall cross country teammates traveled to Indiana on Friday to compete in the Evansville Invitational this Saturday. Whatever happens to the Thundering Herd runner in that event, it can't match her Homecoming weekend of several days ago.
"Surprised not once, but twice," Thomas said in a Thursday interview in MU's track and cross country offices. "I've had a lot of good things happen in my life, but that was really, really good."
Thomas, a senior biology major, was shocked last Saturday when she was crowned Miss Marshall 2012. It's not often an athlete is voted as Homecoming queen at any school, but Thomas was the choice of her fellow students.
Thomas - she owns the Marshall track record in the 3,000 meters (10:05.92) and also has run the second fastest 5,000 in school history -- began in a field of 16 that had been whittled down from applicants among women who have significant academics, extracurriculars and a potential project if selected.
That field was trimmed to nine after interviews, then to three finalists who were on the Edwards Stadium turf for the annual ceremony at halftime of the Tulsa-Marshall game.
Surprised to win?
"Oh, well, definitely," said Thomas, a Montgomery native who carries a 3.76 GPA and has recently applied the five veterinary schools for postgraduate work. "There are plenty of photos to show that. In particular, there was my mom (Nancy Thomas); she started crying. It was really special for her. She drove nine hours (from her Ridgeland, S.C., home) to get here.
"I didn't get into this expecting to be the one picked. I did it as a representation of my faith, as kind of a unique way to witness, to lift the name of Jesus. It all turned out pretty neat."
And, it was just a warmup for the next night.
As usual, Thomas went to Sunday evening church services, and then for a walk in Ritter Park with her boyfriend, fellow cross country runner Peter Starnes of Celina, Ohio.
"After church we have a small church group that always goes there, maybe to the dog park, just go into Ritter Park - it's nice there -- and take a walk," Thomas said.
This walk was a little different.
Starnes had "carved two little jack o'lanterns with `Will you marry me?'" Thomas said. "That was a sweet little surprise."
Thomas said yes, and the wedding is planned for June 2013, just before the Thomas hopefully will start vet school at one of her five options - Mississippi State, Auburn, Virginia Tech, NC State and Oregon State.
She said Starnes has applied for graduate work in geology to the same schools, although after two summer internships with Natural Resource Partners and seeking a career in hydrology, Thomas said her fiance should have no trouble finding a job thanks in part to the Marcellus shale development era.
Did she expect the engagement ring?
"No inkling, none," Thomas said. "I figured it might be happening sometime around this point in my life. It was about 7:30 (p.m.). Since then, everyone's been heckling us about why we didn't (get engaged) Saturday at the football game, but that's not us. That would be a little too commercialized for us.
"Which was more surprising? I'd say the engagement. Really, both. They were just two different kind of surprises."
Then, Thomas landed a trifecta of sorts, but no surprise this time. The next day - Monday - she celebrated her 22nd birthday ... but it was hardly a celebration.
Actually, it was hard, period. She had "a huge" embryology test and a microbiology quiz that day, and then her and two teammates "went to Barboursville Park to run, which is kind of out of the ordinary," Thomas said.
While most other Miss Marshall candidates chose potential projects relating the community to the university and vice versa, Thomas went a different direction. She chose to work with the Golden Girl Group Home in Ceredo.
Golden Girl is a non-profit group home for girls and young women (ages 12-21) who have been neglected or pre-delinquent, where Thomas wants to do what she calls a "non-traditional clothing drive." It's more about the person than what they're wearing that is her focus.
"The message is that clothes don't make you who you are," Thomas said.
That fits with the Golden Girl program, which points toward encouragement for change and growth through a series of educational, recreational, treatment and support services in a loving environment that will aid transition into foster homes or a return to the girls' own families.
Meanwhile, Thomas - she owns four track and field records at Riverside High School, too -- keeps running through her own struggles. Due to injury, she missed the Herd's opening cross country meet in early September, at Akron, Ohio.
She has had acupuncture, other treatment and eventually an MRI on her left foot and learned she has osteonecrosis - "a big word for bone death," she said - in her medial sesamoid bone (tiny bone under her big toe).
"I've set me own personal goals aside to focus completely on the team and our goals," Thomas said, "because I can still be beneficial to the team (score). I hope I can make to the very end of the season (Conference USA championships in about two weeks).
"I got a cortisone injection and it felt better at first, and I've been running with a wrap over a doughnut pad on my foot, and it, and it's not as bad as it was. Right now, we have three pretty solid (women) runners, and Nos. 4 and 5 are coming along.
"Hopefully, we'll do pretty decent at conference this year."
Thomas hopes to run indoor and outdoor track. She will graduate in May. She will get married in June. She could start vet school as early as July.
But as good months ago, she'll have a hard time topping October 2012, when she got a crown and a ring and a test-filled birthday in three days.