It was like any other day for Katie Thronson at the University of Tennessee – she’d wake up, go to practice, get a run in with her teammates and spend the rest prepping to run her fifth year for the Lady Volunteers.
But this wasn’t like any typical day for the former Lewis and Clark running star.
About an hour after she got home from practice, Thronson received a phone call from her coach Beth Alford-Sullivan and got the most unexpected news – her coach had mutually parted ways with Tennessee.
“I definitely was very shocked,” Thronson said. “It was not something we had really anticipated coming off a third-place finish for the boys at nationals. I had left practice by 10:30, 11 and by 12:30 I found out the coach had been fired, so it was a difficult day.”
Alford-Sullivan served eight years as the director of both the men’s and women’s track and field and cross country programs at Tennessee, leading the Volunteers men to six top-10 NCAA teams finishes in track and field, including a third-place trophy for the men at the 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships. When she was hired in 2014, Alford-Sullivan became the first woman to lead a men’s program in any sport in SEC history.
Thronson was among the many athletes who found success under Alford-Sullivan’s coaching. In the 2021 outdoor season, Thronson set the Tennessee school record in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Tennessee Challenge with a time of 10 minutes, 13.42 seconds, only to break her own record two weeks later at the SEC Championships with a time of 10:06.87.
This past spring, she again set a new best at the SEC Championships, lowering her time to 10:04.15.
With that aside, Thronson was now left without a coach for her final year.
“All of a sudden in one day my entire future and plans were kind of up in the air,” Thronson said.
Like so many athletes whose coaches have been let go, the transfer portal has been a space that athletes could venture into. Thronson chose that route.
“I immediately started looking at what were my options for graduating this summer,” she said. My previous plan was to take a fifth year and do my last year at Tennessee, but because of a coaching change, my parents and I decided that I might be better off just to decide who my coach was going to be in the next year.”
Once Thronson’s name entered the portal, coaches from around the country began reaching out immediately, including a familiar name that had Spokane ties with her – former Mead running great and current Notre Dame assistant coach Baylee Mires.
“I got excited when I saw her name in the transfer portal,” Mires said. “This is a kid I know who has unlimited potential and I’d like to get her here.”
The relationship between the two began back in 2017 when Thronson was a senior at LC and Mires was a year into her professional career with the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts. As part of the annual trip down to Footlocker West Regionals put on by the Bloomsday Road Runners Club, Thronson was one of 20 athletes selected from the greater Spokane area to go compete in California. Mires volunteered to go on the trip and was Thronson’s chaperone.
“I was just in awe the whole time,” Thronson said. “I remember sitting and picking her brain for hours and she would put up with me, but she gave us so much advice. It was good to get to know someone whose been through the whole college and pros area and get to kind of know her from high school.”
Five years later, the two reconnected.
“The conversation was good and productive,” Mires said. “I think she had a lot of people reaching out with a lot of options. Just to get my foot in the door was nice, and our head coach gave me a little free range to have conversations with her.”
In Mires’ first season as an assistant, the Irish finished fifth at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships last fall – the best finish for the program since fourth place in 2004. Of the seven individuals who competed at nationals, five of them will return this school year leaving two spots open for next year’s varsity roster.
“A little bit of it was catching up at first and saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ” Thronson said. “Then she essentially was like, ‘Listen, we got a spot for you.’ ”
The opportunity was too good to pass up, even if it meant for Thronson missing out on a chance to run one last time with her Tennessee team and potentially represent the Lady Vols at the national championships in the fall.
Thronson will also miss out on running one season with her younger sister, Audrey, who will join Tennessee and its newest head cross country coach Sean Carlson this fall after graduating from LC this past school year.
“I felt bad for leaving her for one year because we were both excited to have a year together on the same team,” Thronson said. “I think coach Carlson is a great coach and I think they’ll be a great fit at Tennessee for her, and obviously I love this girls’ team so much at Tennessee, so I’m just glad she’ll have that going for her.”
Along with Notre Dame reaching out, two more nationally ranked schools showed interest in Thronson – New Mexico and Arkansas. Thronson felt either of those three would have been a good fit for her, but only one truly stood out from the others.
“The education was something really hard to pass up, but ultimately I think it would be having Baylee be the familiar face from home,” Thronson said. “With my last year, it’s difficult deciding what type of training to go to next, what program. Do I put more emphasis on athletics or academics? I just have one year left, so it puts a lot of stress and pressure on that decision.”
She also felt the instant connection with Matt Sparks, the director of track and field and cross country for the Irish.
“I just really clicked with coach Sparks too,” Thronson said. “It was something where I wanted to have a coach that I felt I could trust, and I felt he and I can communicate well because I don’t have two or three years to build a relationship with this next coach. I really just have to go with my gut on what I think is going to be the best fit for the next year.”
Even through a tough process, Mires was fully supportive of whatever decision Thronson made. Knowing herself what it was like to go from one program to the next after being a part of two professional running groups in four years, Mires made it clear to Thronson what was going to be expected of her when she joins the Irish in the fall.
“I think if you go into a new program, a lot of times they are going to make you assimilate into their training style, but when you have one year left of eligibility, we need to figure out what works for you, replicate it, and add little twists but not change the entire system,” Mires said.
“We’re going to make her great and do it on her own terms,” she said. “She is the CEO of Katie Thronson and how can we make sure we are providing the best resources to get her where she wants to go. She wants to be really, really good, and we want to make that happen.”
Last Tuesday at the Gatorade Athlete of the Year Awards in Los Angeles, Thronson was awarded a $20,000 grant and was a recipient of the first Gatorade Play It Forward Alumni Award. Thronson, a 2017-18 Washington Gatorade Player of the Year winner in cross country, will donate her grant award to Active4Youth, a Spokane nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching sports and healthy habits.
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