Thomas’ Path to UCLA Motivated by Perseverance Through Struggles
Zaylon Thomas sat alone in a temporary home after graduating from high school in 2018. He and his mother were close to being sent away from this house; they had nowhere to go.
Thomas, now a sophomore on UCLA's track & field team, excelled in the sport despite just a couple months of formal track training at Centennial High School in Las Vegas. He was set to graduate but a lack of structure throughout middle school and high school, as well as many years of homelessness with his mother and brother, threatened to deter Thomas from entering the world of higher education.
"One day, I woke up – I was kind of teary-eyed," recalled Thomas. "My family was proud of me for graduating, doing all this and then we get here and it seems like I'm about to throw my life away."
Feeling lost and unsure of his future, Thomas prayed and hoped for a sign – any sign that he could salvage his athletic and academic future.
Thomas recalled thinking, "God, please give me a sign – any sign of what I'm supposed to do, how I'm supposed to do it, and I'll go with it."
The sign emerged when he received a phone call from Kenny Jackson, Head Track & Field Coach for College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. Coach Jackson said that it was the last possible day Thomas could enroll at the school and compete for its track & field program.
"I told him, 'I'm going to come. I'm going to pack up everything I have right now.'", said Thomas. "It's probably 9:00 o'clock in the morning. I'm going to pack up everything I have right now and I'm going to drive out to Visalia. I'm going to make it happen."
Thomas arrived at College of the Sequoias in the summer of 2018 and began participating in a work study program at the college. After sitting out the 2019 athletic year, Thomas knew he needed to put it all together if he was ever going to compete at the Division I level and his dream school, UCLA. He had cultivated a relationship with UCLA sprints coach, Curtis Allen, who had Thomas on his radar and tried to keep him on a path to potentially be recruited by the Bruins.
"If I can't make it out of here, I'll never make it out," said Thomas. "Not only am I letting my family down, myself down, but I'm also letting Coach Allen down."
Thomas focused on his academics and was also impressive in competition in his first season with Sequoias, toeing the line in the long sprints but also clearing 2.05m (6-08.75) with hardly any training in the high jump. He recalls the joy of finding out from the UCLA coaching staff in the spring of 2020 that he had earned the right to transfer to UCLA and enroll during the 2020-21 academic year.
"I was in tears," recalled Thomas. "It was heartwarming because I really didn't know if I was going to be recruited. After all this trial and denial, and there was depression – everything I went through, this was the first thing that ever paid off."
Thomas has appeared in 12 meets for the Bruins across the 2021 and 2022 track & field seasons, competing in the 200m, 400m, 4x400m relay, high jump, and long jump. Notably, the 2021 campaign was his first full year of track across his career.
He's already etched his name in the UCLA record books, as he ran a leg for UCLA's 4x400m relay squad that ran 3:09.65 at the New Mexico Team Open this past January, good for the fourth-fastest time in program indoor history.
Coach Allen has maintained support and admiration for Thomas' tireless efforts to persevere through tough times and become a Bruin.
"His story needs to be told because just moving around, being homeless, and just being able to stay focused in junior college and get here – he's already a winner," said Allen. "He's going to be a successful person regardless of what happens with track. It's unbelievable for him to even be here. It's a miracle."