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Eggers: Sports saved kid from rough side of town

 - Korey Thieleke never ran a competitive college 400 meters until December. Now he's earned a spot in the NCAA championships as one of the top 24 in the nation. 
A year ago at this time, if someone had predicted Korey Thieleke would be running the 400 meters in the NCAA championships at Eugene next week, a mental competency test would have been justified.

So Thieleke will be pinching himself when the University of Portland senior toes the line for 400 qualifying at Hayward Field on Wednesday, June 10.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Thieleke said Monday before a training session. “Everybody comes up and congratulates me, and I saw the video clip of the West regionals, and I’m like, ‘Wow. It’s a big thing.’”

The 6-3, 170-pound Thieleke — a four-year UP basketball letterman who ran the 100 and 200 in his first track season with the Pilots last spring — clocked a personal-record 46.61 seconds to place fifth in his qualifying final race at the regionals in Austin, Texas, last Saturday. The top three in each of the three heats, along with the other three fastest times, sent a dozen runners from Austin to Eugene.

Not bad for a guy who ran his first competitive 400 in December at an indoor meet at Boise. Thieleke won in 48.5 on a banked track, beginning a remarkable ascension that will bring him to Hayward next week.

The Bakersfield, Calif., native becomes the first Pilot sprinter to reach the NCAA championships in 36 years. UP’s Larry Bradley made it in the 200 in 1979.

“Phenomenal,” Portland sprints coach Chad Colwell said. “For someone who had never run the 400, to end up in Eugene as one of the top 24 guys in the country — it’s amazing.

“He has been going up against college guys who have been running the 400 since high school. They have years of experience developing themselves, where he’s had nine months. It’s a testament to his athletic ability and competitiveness.”

What’s more, Thieleke is doing it with a distance running-dominated program that is without a track. The Pilots practice three days a week at Roosevelt High, then go through more low-key workouts twice weekly at UP’s soccer practice field.

“We usually share the track with a (high school) P.E. class,” Thieleke said. “Sometimes we have to move out to the last three lanes for our warmup.”

Thieleke went to Austin with the 29th-best time among the 48 entrants at 46.82. Running in lane nine in Friday’s qualifying heat, he placed third in a PR 46.75. On Saturday, he struggled through the middle part of the race before finishing strong in 46.61.

“It came down to the last five meters,” Colwell said. “He closed really well, and that saved him.”

Thieleke ran the 100, 200 and sprint relay at Bakersfield’s West High, clocking 10.5 in the 100 and 21.4 in the 200 and finishing fifth at state in the latter race as a senior.

For college, Thieleke said, “It was either basketball or track, but I’d been playing basketball my whole life. I wanted to do that. I was good in track, but I wasn’t sure I could compete at the next level.”

Thieleke signed a basketball letter-of-intent with Portland, the first school to offer a scholarship.

“I needed to get out of Bakersfield, and California, period,” he said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere close.”

UP assistant coach Mike Wolf saw him first at a Los Angeles camp in the summer between Thieleke’s sophomore and junior years.

“He was raw, but the length and athleticism were obvious, and he had a natural feel for basketball,” Wolf said. “There was the question how he would handle an adjustment to the Northwest and academics, but you take a hunch.

“Everybody in his community was so positive of what they thought of Korey as a kid — how unique he was, how they felt he had what it took to succeed despite the circumstances lined up against him.”

Thieleke grew up on the lower-class, gang-riddled west side of Bakersfield. His parents never lived together and were in and out of jail — Tony Wright for gang involvement, Sandy Thieleke with drug addiction. Korey and his younger siblings, Mariah and Donovan, grew up with their paternal grandparents, Johnny and April Hobson, who moved from St. Louis to raise their grandkids.

“They used foster-care checks to pay bills,” Thieleke said. “It was rough. We didn’t have a lot — clothes, money. But my grandparents did the best they could. Grandma was disabled. Grandpa worked 20 years as a janitor.

“My mother gave me up with I was four months old. I stayed with my grandparents for 18 years. I owe a lot to them.”

The children, Thieleke said, “were exposed to a lot. We were surrounded by drugs and gangs. At a young age, it was hard to deal with, but I avoided it the best I could. I had my grandparents there for stability.”

Most of the players on the West High basketball team were gang members.

“We’d have whole gangs come to our games,” Thieleke said. “I grew up with the (gang members), so I was cool with them. If you’re a sports star, you’re protected. They’ve got your back. My teammates were Bloods. The west-side Crips were all around where my mom lived in an apartment. Even Domino’s wouldn’t deliver there.

“We stole a lot. It was a necessity. Got in trouble one time pretty bad when I was 15. Was charged with grand theft. Had to go to juvenile court. They found us guilty. I paid a fine and did community service.”

Sports was Thieleke’s salvation. His best friend, Taiyon Jackson, wound up playing football at Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Texas.

“We tried to stay close together and keep our heads right,” Thieleke said. “We knew if we were to get involved in any of that, we’d go down the wrong path like 90 percent of my friends. I have lost friends (to gang-related deaths) since I’ve graduated in high school.”

Thieleke survived, graduating with a 3.1 grade-point average, and headed for The Bluff.

“It was a huge culture shock,” he said.

Thieleke adapted, serving as an occasional starter and a rotation player through his final three seasons under basketball coach Eric Reveno.

“He did really well for us,” Wolf said, “but he impressed us most with the stuff he has been able to accomplish off the court — giving back, becoming a mentor to young kids, some of them in situations a lot like his.”

Thieleke graduated on schedule last spring in organizational communications, becoming the first member of his family to earn a diploma.

“It was a big moment,” he said. “My grandparents told me the whole time I was here, ‘As long as you get that education.’ They took a 28-hour train ride from Bakersfield to be there with me at graduation.”

Since then, Thieleke has taken education and psychology classes with an eye on a second degree in education. He wants to pursue a counseling career, perhaps at the middle-school or high-school level. “That’s my life’s goal,” he said.

Since September, Thieleke has worked as a tutor at Parkrose High through the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program.

“It’s helping kids who don’t have resources or come from low economic backgrounds, getting them on track to graduate,” Thieleke said. “I went through the same program in high school. I can pass on my knowledge to them.

“It becomes mentorship and counseling. I like establishing relationships with them. I relate to most of their experiences and stories. If I can help them, I want to do it.”

Thieleke has also served as sprints coach for the Parkrose track team.

“All the stuff coach Chad has taught me, I’m passing that on to them,” he said.

During his freshman year at UP, Thieleke turned out for track but didn’t do much with it. He didn’t run track again until after his senior season in basketball, running the 100 and 200 until a pulled hamstring ended his campaign.

During that spring, head track coach Rob Connor stopped him in a hallway at Chiles Center.

“It’s rare you get an athlete like Korey to consider being on our team,” Connor said. “We had a competent, national-level sprint coach in place who could take an athlete with that potential and try to fulfill it.

“I challenged Korey. I said, ‘We’d like you to turn out again next year. To sweeten the deal, if you give us a real good effort, we’ll consider bringing you back on scholarship.' ”

“After thinking about it, I told Coach Connor, ‘I’ll definitely do that,’” Thieleke said.

Thieleke began working last fall to run the 100 and 200. Soon enough, Colwell recommended he move up to the 400. Thieleke was willing, and the results have been spectacular.

In his first outdoor race at Willamette in March, Thieleke won in 47.8.

“I left my spikes at home and had to use a distance runner’s spikes — two sizes smaller than mine,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I’m just going to have to squeeze into them.’ I was happy with my time under the circumstances.”

In April, Thieleke won a 400 at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., in 47.2, breaking the 37-year-old school record of 47.74 held by Tony Everson. The next day, Thieleke brought it down further, running 46.81 to win a race at Long Beach, Calif.

Thieleke gives plenty of credit for his success to Colwell.

“He teaches me everything — form, technique,” Thieleke said. “Even after running in high school, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I always just went out and ran. He has been super helpful about focus, energy levels, teaching me how to run the race.”

Thieleke has been more than just a rare talent on the underdog Pilot track squad.

“He has been a tremendous asset to the team with the energy and charisma he brings,” Colwell said. “He has made a huge impact on the team environment with his personality. He is one of the most-liked people in the athletic department, if not on campus. He is always smiling, always positive.”

Thieleke’s goal at nationals is to make the finals. It’s going to be a tall order, but he has made a practice of providing surprises this season.

“That’s a big goal for him, but he finished the last race in Austin knowing he’d not run his best race,” Colwell said. “He knows he is capable of running faster. He’ll have to do that in Eugene. I told him, ‘I want you to finish the season with one you know is your best effort.’”

That’s what Thieleke intends to give.

“I’ll use my grandpa’s motivational words to me,” he said. “The other guys have been doing this their whole life. I’m a few months into training. At nationals, I’ll just give it everything I have. I haven’t done that in a race yet.”

Thieleke, 23, hopes his track career isn’t over at Eugene.

“All the stuff I’ve accomplished in one year, I see myself doing a whole lot better with more time to train,” he said.

That would probably require financial help from a sponsor such as Nike or Adidas. That’s not easy to come by. Colwell says Thieleke reminds him of defending Olympic champion Kirani James.

“He has the potential to run better times,” Colwell said. “He has potential to be world-class if he wants to focus on it and can financially afford it. We’ll have that conversation with Korey after the NCAAs.”

Regardless, Thieleke has been an unusual success story from where it all began.

“You go to West High,” he said, “they always say, ‘You’re not going to go anywhere.’”

Thieleke has done a beautiful job proving that’s not always the case.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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