While Girard College’s Thelma Davies will leave a remarkable legacy in Pennsylvania, perseverance and persistence have defined her career
It’s early June and Thelma Davies is sitting at the corner of the track on the campus of Girard College, stretching with teammates as they wait for their coach to show up.
The music that blares from a phone is briefly interrupted by the Route 15 trolley, which makes its way along Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia and runs parallel with the homestretch of the school’s track on the other side of a stone wall.
Let’s talk about that oval. It’s roughly a month old, thanks to a much-needed renovation of its surface, though it should be said that it was virtually unusable before. Back then, visible cracks extended into lane 1 and presented a safety hazard for athletes looking to get a good workout in. But now? It’s a welcome addition for those who were used to training elsewhere -- usually inside -- for much of any spring season.
Today is a key workout as Davies prepares for a big end of the month, a two week stretch that includes two national meets.
While she’s just a few days shy of graduation at the independent boarding high school and will enroll at Louisiana State University this fall -- where she will wear her Philly and Girard roots as a badge of honor -- her resume won’t be forgotten: For the past four years she’s solidified herself as the greatest sprinter in Pennsylvania high school history.
And yet, her career hasn’t been perfectly designed. Hardships, both mental and physical, have shaped the woman Davies has become on the track. Her coach, Diamond Woolford, knows that.
He arrives to the track a few minutes after Davies and her teammates to let them know what the workout will be.
This time it’s a few 150s, followed by some 80 meter intervals. Then they’ll close it out with some hurdle drills -- although Davies doesn’t know that last part yet.
“Yes, sir!” Davies barks at Woolford, playfully.
Those who know Davies can easily sense the sarcasm.
“I’ve been dealing with that for the last few months,” Woolford jokes.
In truth, it’s rare not to see a smile on her face these days, except for maybe those first few moments after completing an interval. Even during a tough workout, her smile beams through any overcast Philly sky.
Last weekend, Davies became the first girl in state history to break 23 seconds at 200 meters, winning the girls championship race at New Balance Nationals Outdoor in 22.95 seconds.
This weekend, she will be in pursuit of the 100 meter record, and she’s entered in the 100 and 200 meter events at the USA Track and Field Junior National Championships in Miramar, Florida. A top two finish means a spot on Team USA’s Junior squad for the Pan-American U20 Championships in Costa Rica in late July.
While there’s little left to prove, Davies has never been one to step off the gas.
Naturally, she’s pursuing more national glory to close out her prep career.
A visit to Girard’s practice tells you a lot about the program Woolford has helped build over the last four years. The jokes between Davies and Woolford often continue far beyond the hard intervals.
The line between coach and athlete is perhaps a bit blurred at Girard. Davies and Woolford describe their relationship as father-daughter, though at times it can seem more like brother-sister.
Regardless, there’s still a recognition of respect. Davies is working hard during each 150, but she’s not going to let Woolford off easy. It’s a unique chemistry, borne out of the pair’s unusual path.
Davies ascent from unknown sprint talent to the national and state limelight occurred virtually overnight. She had little to no experience in the sport, save for a few appearances at a few Penn-Jersey League meets as an eighth grader.
But soon, Davies and the entire state of Pennsylvania took notice.
In 2016, at the Delco Championships at Haverford College that January, Davies, then a freshman, dropped a time of 7.75 to win the 60 meters. It was a PA No. 1 time and the reverberations were instantly felt.
But she didn’t exactly make it look easy.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Davies laughs.
She didn’t own spikes at the time, so she raced in flats. Neither did she use starting blocks and was very slow off the line. But once she got going, it was hard not to notice her star ceiling. She dominated the field en route to her state-leading time, which tied Chanel Brissett’s PA No. 1 in the 60.
Those stats, though, were lost on Davies.
“I was so new,” she explained. “I didn’t know what I did. A couple races went by and I still didn’t understand it.”
That first race also came in a Penn Wood High School uniform. Davies was attending Girard College at the time, but Girard’s track and field program was virtually nonexistent at that point. So Davies, who is from Darby, found a team to compete for in Penn Wood.
That’s when Woolford stepped in.
Woolford was a 1999 graduate of Girard College. He attended Girard from the time he was in the first grade to the time he graduated. From there, the talented sprinter and jumper went to Penn State University, where he enjoyed a solid track career and even made a run at being a professional afterwards.
In 2014, the program lost its longtime leader, Rick Leek, who passed away suddenly at age 58. He had coached the Girard program for decades before his passing, including during Woolford’s tenure. Ultimately, Woolford says, Leek helped get him off to college. Leek noticed Woolford’s athletic ability and convinced him to focus on track rather than basketball. Looking at it now, Woolford speculates he may have gone into the military if not for his track and field talent.
“Leek influenced my path in life,” he says.
Leek also took notice of Davies’ talent on the track, too ... when she was a sixth grader. Like he did with Woolford, he implored her to pursue the sport.
“He was the first person to tell me I had potential,” Davies says. “I didn’t know track was a sport.”
After Penn State, Woolford had been helping out on an occasional basis at Girard, but with low numbers the once-storied program had essentially been going under after the death of Leek.
With the emergence of Davies, Woolford knew it was time to take his former coaches’ words to heart and make an effort to save the team.
“Leek used to say nonstop, ‘You gotta give back,’’’ Woolford said. “It was never in my thoughts to come back in this capacity. That was never in my plans, but he ingrained in me that I have to give back.”
So Woolford, who had been privy to Davies’ ability, decided it was time to give back to his alma mater and took the reins.
That first winter season, he had just one athlete: Davies.
But it was Davies that convinced Woolford—who had his doubts about coaching—to take over the team full-time.
“Truly, I never planned on being a high school coach,” he explained. “It was all her that got my juices flowing, like let’s do this high school coaching thing.
“I had seen the potential,” Woolford added. “She wanted to run and we both had the excitement of ‘let’s see what we can do.’”
Back at the track, Davies takes off, this straight line bullet with impeccable form. It’s hard not to spot her, this human with such power and force. One look says, ‘Division I athlete.’
But a look deeper reveals something more.
And one year ago, Davies was battling with that identity.
The season started innocently enough. She had a successful indoor campaign that included another 60-200 double at the state meet. At indoor nationals, she took second in 7.33, breaking her own state record.
But it was leading up to that state meet that year that Davies noticed something wasn’t right.
Shortly before the 2018 PTFCA Indoor State Championships, she woke up one night scratching her arms and legs uncontrollably. Within a few weeks, her body would be covered in a painful and itchy rash.
She was diagnosed with erythema multiforme, a condition caused by an allergic reaction to ibuprofen. And while that pain would eventually get under control -- thanks to a steroid -- there were physical remnants in the form of scars.
“The scars left something really mental on me,” Davies says. “I lowkey became very depressed and didn’t want to show my skin at all.
“I wasn’t really running 100-percent—-I can’t even say 50-percent,” she adds.
At that point, track wasn’t physical anymore. It was mental.
“I didn’t know fully how it was affecting her,” Woolford says. “Forget trying to teach her how to come out of the blocks; getting through that was the hardest thing.”
Those marks had a profound effect on Davies, who for a time was embarrassed to show her body to the world.
And then, it changed. One day, something clicked and Davies was ready to move on. She made the decision to let it all go. Covered up less. She let her skin—scars and all—show.
Over a year later, the scars are still there but are improving. Davies says it doesn’t matter: “This is who I am now,” she says.
She closed out her junior campaign with her best season yet. After winning her third straight 100 and 200 meter PA state titles, she shined at the USATF Junior Outdoor Championships in Bloomington, Indiana, dropping personal best and all-time PA state records of 11.42 in the 100 and 23.10 in the 200, a flying end to the outdoor season.
Then that summer, tragedy struck.
Kristian Marche, a future college student who spent his final track season training under Woolford with the Girard team, was shot and killed outside his home in Philadelphia. It was a mere day before he was set to leave for Penn State University, Woolford’s alma mater.
Marche graduated from Imhotep Charter, which didn’t have much in the way of coaching or facilities. So Woolford, with an assist from Davies, offered to train the budding sprint star across the city at Girard. Davies and Marche, two of the state’s top talents, formed an even closer bond and friendship at practice.
At the New Balance Grand Prix in Boston the previous winter, Woolford’s athletes swept the 60 meter dash, with Davies winning the girls race and Marche taking the win in the boys race.
“That was the ultimate proud coach moment, when both of my athletes in the high school section won,” Woolford says.
Then Marche’s life was cut short. A pair of teenagers attempted to break into his West Oak Lane home. When Marche confronted the pair, he was murdered.
It was devastating for those closest to him.
“He was not the normal Philly public school kid,” Woolford said. “He didn’t get into all the nonsense. He wanted to go into dentistry.”
“I wanted to see him grow as a person,” Davies says. “He had a lot of potential. I saw his heart for track.”
Davies still keeps that moment close. It’s a memory she’ll never forget. In time, though, it’s helped put things into perspective.
“It made me look at life differently,” Davies said. “Being from Philly, a lot of people don’t want to see you be great. I have more of a tunnel vision to know that I have goals that I need to set up.”
Following her remarkable freshman runs, Woolford and Davies were now set on a path that would lead to state immortality.
It would be a month until Davies would compete again after her stunning first race. Her school situation was sorted out.
That February, she won at the PTFCA Indoor Track Carnival, bettering that state-leading time in the 60.Then her big moment came at the indoor state championships at Penn State.
Brissett was looking to pull off the difficult 60 meter hurdle-60 meter dash double. But instead, Davies stole the spotlight and captured the victory in the 60 … in a photo finish. Davies clocked a 7.47 for the victory, shocking the defending champ.
On the big stage, Davies showed she was no fluke. She followed up that first state title with a 7.37 to break the all-time state record -- setting a new national freshman class record in the process -- at New Balance Nationals Indoor.
The gears just kept spinning for this quick newcomer.
Outdoors, it was more of the same. At the PIAA Class AA State Championships, Davies dazzled in front of a big crowd. She went 11.58 in the 100 and 23.85 in the 200 to claim the sprint double.
In the 100, she topped the state meet record formerly held by Olympian Lauryn Williams, which had stood since 2001. Davies’ 200 time tied Williams’ meet record, too.
But once again, the feat—breaking Williams’ meet record—didn’t register with Davies.
Others around the Pennsylvania track and field community were shocked, but Davies thought, “I was like, ‘who’s that?’” of Williams.
Year one was about learning the sport down to its most fundamental level.
“I was basically some legos,” Davies says. “(Woolford) had to build me up.”
Her sophomore season brought more state titles, with a repeat state title in the 60. She added her first indoor 200 state crown that winter, too. Outdoors, she repeated as 100 and 200 state champion. Then at outdoor nationals, Davies took down Dawn Sowell’s 34-year-old all-time state record in the 100 meters, running 11.43 for third place in the entire country.
“That one hurt!” Davies yells after her final 150 meter interval.
It’s hard to distinguish if she’s talking about the interval itself or her body, which has been plagued by aches and pains throughout a good chunk of her career.
It could be both.
As she makes her way over to her backpack to pull out a large rubber band, she massages the muscles around her hip.
That nagging hip injury is bugging her a little more than usual today, same with the hamstring. Davies lets Woolford know before she gets started with the next interval.
Woolford listens intently.
He knows Davies better than anyone in the world, and he knows how to balance a good workout between keeping his star pupil healthy enough to race at a high level. Regardless, Davies says it’s nice to get the opportunity to train outside on the new track.
Woolford and Davies don’t hold back when discussing some of the limitations being an athlete at Girard College presents.
The new six-lane track at Girard is nice, but it was finished just two weeks before the District 1 Championships. So Davies and her teammates were relegated to less-than-optimal indoor facilities at Girard. That included an 170-meter loop that overlooks a basketball court, complete with 90-degree turns and wood planks on the surface.
There’s also a gym downstairs with a rubber surface that allows athletes to wear spikes. But the space is too small. Because of this muscle memory from training, she often finds herself coming out of her drive phase sooner than she would like.
“I can’t drive for a perfect 20 meters,” Davies says. “I usually get up because I’m scared to hit the wall.”
At the track, Woolford set up cones at various points to teach Davies how to avoid those instincts and to pop up and out of the driving part too early.
“My main focus that we’ve worked on is my first six steps,” Davies says. “Staying low for 20 meters and finishing well.”
Woolford knew four years ago when he started working with her that he couldn’t overdo it. He needed to build her up slowly. The rallying cry in Philadelphia, as has been taught by this city’s NBA team, is Trust The Process.
“One thing Diamond did with me was take it one step at a time,” Davies says. “He just didn’t throw everything at me because I overthink things a lot.”
Every year of her career, Woolford emphasized a different part of her race.
Freshman year was about introducing Davies to the start and getting out of blocks. Sophomore year was about working on the drive phase. Junior year moved to the middle of her race and tweaking the more technical aspects. Her senior year was about polishing those parts of the race and working on her finish.
Some things — like the start — Davies still struggles with. Woolford closed out today’s workout with hurdle drills. She jumps over a pair of hurdles in succession eight times, something the coach hopes will help her will her explosiveness out of the blocks.
Other coaches may have been overzealous with such a generational talent. Woolford understood the need for the little things first.
Fortunately, Davies has managed to stay relatively healthy.
While she says she’s dealt with plenty of aches and pains and a few nagging issues over the years, she’s always been healthy enough to win state titles and compete at a very high level come national championship season.
“I’d rather give her rest instead of trying to overwork her to where she has injuries,” Woolford says.
This is also part of a plan to ensure Davies continues her upward trajectory when she hits the collegiate scene next year at LSU.
Crazy as it sounds, she’s headed toward a perfect situation. This past year, LSU head coach Dennis Shaver mentored the country’s top collegiate sprinter, Sha’Carri Richardson, toward an NCAA title in a record time of 10.75. She turned pro a few days later.
Davies will enter Baton Rouge with personal bests similar to Richardson’s high school bests.
LSU was a dream school for Davies dating back to 2017 when Woolford showed her a video of the Tigers’ national championship-winning 4x100-meter relay. The purple and gold kits caught her eye.
But what really resonated with Davies was when Shaver visited Girard.
“He came to see what I practice on. He saw the cracks in the track before it got fixed,” Davies says of the head coaches’ trip to Philly. “He tried to understand my story. That’s one thing I’m really grateful for because he understands that I have room to grow.”
Like Richardson this year, Davies believes she’s in a position to eclipse the 11-second barrier in as a freshman. She did some stats digging and saw the kind of time drops Tiger sprinters showed in their first year in Baton Rouge.
“I took the times they ran in high school and the times that they run right now,” Davies says, taking the improvement difference of the program’s sprinters. “I basically calculated how fast how I will get if that same process works for me.”
Because of his process, Woolford believes Davies has plenty more in the tank when she heads south to LSU.
“I’m not wearing out like other girls,” Davies agrees. “Even with the (best) times that I’ve run, I’m still not at me peak.”
Like practically every season of her high school career, the best is yet to come for Davies.
She trains to run at her best during the summer, when she’ll face off against national-level competition. But during this past indoor season, she also found some in-state competition for the first time since her ninth grade year.
It came in the form of an upstart freshman.
Moforehan “Fore” Abinusawa of Germantown Academy burst onto the scene much like Davies did in 2016, dropping times that were, well, Davies-like.
Like Davies of a few years earlier, Abinusawa was turning heads and posed a serious threat to Davies’ bid for a four-peat in the 60 and a third straight title in the 200.
Woolford was quick to correct some “senioritis” at practice. Driving Davies home from practice one day, Woolford got real.
“If you keep up with how lackadaisical you are, you’re gonna lose,” he told her. “We didn’t come all this way for you to lose your senior year, especially in PA.
The two had not ran head-to-head leading up to the indoor state meet at Penn State, so the stage was set for a memorable battle between the state’s fastest high school females.
It lived up to the hype.
Abinusawa got a major advantage out of the blocks, but Davies responded in a big way over the second half. She caught the freshman and nipped her at the line, clocking a 7.31 to Abinusawa’s 7.32.
At the time, it was PA No. 1 and PA No. 2 all-time.
“I don’t want to lose, especially when I built something for myself in PA,” Davies says. “I built a legacy, so I just wanted to keep it going, and I knew I had to give everything for that race.”
Davies came back later to win the 200 -- again over Abinusawa -- and broke the state record with a 23.51, the only “short sprint” state record she hadn’t achieved yet, indoors or outdoors.
During the outdoor season, she completed the heralded double four-peat at the state meet.
At the state championships at Shippensburg, Davies became the first athlete in state history to win four straight state titles in two events, running to 100 and 200 meter wins in Class AA. And her time of 23.74 in the 200 gave her sole possession of the meet record, which until that point she had shared with Lauryn Williams since her freshman year.
The struggle for facilities and ideal conditions in Philadelphia is not unlike the experience many inner-city programs deal with.
Woolford uniquely understands many of the issues that Davies experiences on a daily basis because he’s seen it firsthand.
As a student, he went through the “Girard Process,” as the pair call it. Students at Girard normally attend school from first through 12th grade and students live on campus all those years. Girard is for students “from families with limited financial resources.” Each student receives a full scholarship.
As Coach Leek did for him, Woolford invested his time and effort to make sure Davies’ potential has been maximized. Sometimes that means an endless string of emails with videos of collegiate and professional sprinters.
“I sent her a video of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce,” Woolford says of a recent email, referring to the Jamaican sprint queen. “She is probably the best starter of all females. Why not try to emulate what she does?”
“It’s annoying sometimes,” Davies says.
“I don’t care!” Woolford returns.
Davies and Woolford graduated 20 years apart, but their stories share many similarities.
In many ways, this has helped shape the bond the two share.
“We built that with me being the only athlete my freshman year,” Davies says of the relationship. “He’s become a father figure to me and my own dad says the same thing.
“Diamond treats us all like his kids, even though he doesn’t want to have any right now,” she adds. “He genuinely has love for each and every one of us.”
The team is bigger now, thanks to what Woolford has called “The Thelma Effect.” Davies’ success has driven more students from Girard to come out for the team. Donovan Sanders came to Girard as a freshman and has quickly risen the ranks to become one of the state’s top sprinters. The junior ran a PR of 48.04 to take a very close second in the 400 final at the state championships in May.
Another standout has been Margaret Conteh. The sophomore quarter-miler only started running the 400 this spring. But in a few short months, she’s dropped nearly six seconds in the event, culminating with a 55.37 for second place at the state meet. That time was two seconds faster than Woolford and Davies’ preseason projections for the budding star.
Most days, the vibe at practice is very relaxed. Davies will frequently drop a complaint after an interval, but an accompanying smile follows. On to the next one.
Davies is proud of the legacy she will leave at Girard and in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s in the form of athlete’s like Conteh.
“I feel it’s my responsibility as a Girard sister and a track sister to help her out,” Davies says of her young 400 up-and-comer.
“She told me herself that she want to do big things just like me,” Davies adds. “For me doing what I did and setting up a legacy for Girard, I just want her to do the same. I feel like next year she’s going to be a big name.”
The same goes for Sanders.
“Donovan came his freshman year and he was really shy,” she says. “It just brought him out more. He’s starting a legacy for himself.”
Both Conteh and Sanders will return as some of the top names to watch for next year in Pennsylvania.
Davies, of course, will be in Louisiana. But the Girard sprinters can be rest assured their big sister will be keeping tabs on their results, and texting them commentary and advice.
Returning to the hallowed grounds of Girard College — where Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke in 1965 in a successful effort to desegregate the school — has been a full circle moment in Woolford’s life.
“It’s a very good feeling seeing how this circle is starting to come around,” Woolford says. “Giving back to the school in this magnitude—helping other kids reach their goals and going on their path in life—there’s no better feeling.”
A day doesn’t go by when Davies doesn’t think of her scars. She can still see them every time she looks down at her arms and legs. She can also see them any time she thinks of her late friend Kristian, or Coach Leek, who nudged her in the right direction.
But at this point, they’re also positive symbols. Her hardships have pushed her to become the best sprinter Pennsylvania has ever seen.
Perhaps on that start line, as she prepares to race the rest of the country’s best this weekend in Florida, she will remember a mantra of sorts that she told me as she sat on Girard’s track after practice in North Philadelphia.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be and this is where I have to be.”