What: Pac-12 Men's and Women's Track & Field Championships.
When: Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Husky Track, University of Washington, Seattle.
More information: Go to Pac-12.com for an event schedule and live results.
Jaron Thomas never set out to be a spokesperson, or even a role model.
He always has just wanted to be himself. Yet by pursuing that most simple of personal liberties, Thomas nonetheless is striking a path for others to follow.
A standout junior hurdler for the University of Colorado track and field program, Thomas is a rarity in Division I athletics as an openly gay athlete. Combining his physical skills with strong mental perseverance, in just three years Thomas has made an indelible mark on and off the track for the Buffaloes heading into the second weekend of the Pac-12 Conference Championships in Seattle.
"I guess in Division I athletics you have to be a strong-willed person in the first place," Thomas said. "I think that when I set my mind to do something I'm going to put 110 percent of myself into it. I attack every aspect of life with that same attitude — my academics, any social work that I do in the community or social justice work in the community, or anything I do on the track."
Thomas devotes much of his personal time to social justice causes, serving on a number of organizations at CU devoted to inclusiveness and diversity issues. He is a frequent public speaker, often discussing issues faced by the LBGT community with faculty and student groups. Thomas recently was named the winner of the Tito Torres Award, given to a CU student who has demonstrated passion for and commitment to social justice.
Thomas came out before high school ended in Midlothian, Texas, and while on the surface the easy assumption is that Boulder would be more open and understanding to social issues than the Southwest, the Buffs' junior still gets stung by occasional off-putting comments and bigotry.
"I had relatively good experiences (in high school) considering where I lived," Thomas said. "Coming here, I would say the bad experiences I've had here are actually worse than the bad experiences I had back home. But the bad experiences were more frequent back home.
"The good experiences are what motivate me the most. You're going to have bad experiences all the time, but it's the good ones that make everything worthwhile. Whenever people are just open and accepting or really just don't care about my sexuality, that's what's more exciting for me — just when people treat you like a person. I hope everyone gets that good experience and has less bad experiences."
Of course, a big reason why Thomas has a podium to speak from is due to his success on the track. As a freshman two years ago, Thomas became just the fourth CU athlete to post a time of under 14 seconds in the 110 hurdles, and last year at the Pac-12 finals he finished sixth in the 400 hurdles and seventh in the 110 hurdles.
Thomas will look to improve on those marks this weekend and is coming off a victory in the 400 hurdles at the Air Force Twilight Open.
"Working with the group I work with, especially the hurdlers, everyone is an individual," CU sprints coach Burke Bockman said. "Everyone is a little bit different than the other. Some of them, like Jaron, that's a great thing. He's independent and I can rely on him. I can rely on Jaron also to help me with other student-athletes who have questions or maybe aren't doing things right."
Following the opening weekend of the league finals last week, the Buffs sit in sixth place in the men's competition and are tied for third in the women's field. The meet will be held at the University of Washington on Saturday and Sunday.