Zyra Thomas, a senior at Schalick, was a larger-than-life presence in her community even before she won a national shot put championship last week with the farthest throw ever recorded by a South Jersey high school girls' athlete.
Stories abound of her uncommon strength — she excelled on the Schalick football team as a freshman — and her uncommon motivation. Her goal, that she boasts of proudly, is to compete in the Olympics someday.
"Some people would tell me to set more realistic goals," Thomas said, "But, to me, someone telling me to be realistic is a biased opinion — that only limits you."
And there's her uncommon work ethic — she once tried to give back a state championship medal because she wasn't happy with her effort. She walked to the scorer's table with her coach and attempted to return it to the judges.
"You should never sit back and be satisfied — especially when you really believe that you haven't done your best," said Thomas, who is also known for having wisdom beyond her years.
So it's no surprise that when was Thomas was crowned victorious at the New Balance National Indoor Championships in New York City on March 10, it wasn't as much a cause for celebration as a cause for reflection.
For Thomas, winning a national championship was just another lesson learned, another reason to reach even higher.
"I feel like I'm just now starting," said Thomas, who shocked the rest of the field with a winning throw of 47 feet, 5 3/4 inches — two feet better than her previous personal best and topping the South Jersey outdoor record held by Cherokee's Jess Woodard (47-1 1/4) and the indoor record held by Vineland's Najeaya Singleton (46-15). "When I finally got home, that night I did take some time to myself just to soak everything in. But it didn't change my perspective on hard work. At the end of the day, I know I didn't throw as far as I could have. So my motivation is to go even harder next time."
The story — one that only adds to Thomas' growing legend — is that she didn't realize she had won a national title until long after it was announced.
As she took position for her sixth and final throw, most in the crowd heard it through the speakers: Next up, your 2018 national champion, Zyra Thomas.
Thomas had already clinched the title at that point. But she thought she was in second place. She faulted on her final throw — her third fault in a row. And she walked toward her coach, dejected.
Keep in mind that she was fully aware that she had already set a new personal best and broken her school record and, at worst, was second in a prestigious national tournament.
"But I felt I had more in me," Thomas said. And she still does.
Since returning to Schalick, she's been treated like something of a local celebrity. And she took it upon herself to to address her teammates, boys and girls, at a recent practice.
As much Thomas is known for her strength and athleticism, she's known for her ability to motivate and inspire those around her.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to let them know that I'm not going to switch up just because I'm the national champion," Thomas said.
Thomas started throwing when she was a freshman, and she quickly set lofty goals and resigned herself to doing whatever it took to reach them.
"She's a student of throwing the shot," said Schalick coach Steve Pierangeli. "All around, she's just a great kid. That's why we're all so thrilled."
Thomas credits Pierangeli, and particularly her throwing coach, Todd Greenwood, for helping her refine her craft. But she spends hours watching film and even more time in the weight room.
She sees the sky as the limit when it comes to her fitness.
"I've been pushing myself harder and harder and because of that, I'm seeing results that a lot of people never thought possible," Thomas said. "And every time I reach a new level in the weight room — whether it's squatting 400 pounds or whatever it is — I know that work is what got me to where I am now in shot put."
Although the national title itself was something of a surprise, Thomas had been building toward elite status for some time. She recently changed her motion from a glide to a spin in order to generate more power. And, in practice, she's been regularly throwing bombs like the one she threw at the national championships.
Thomas is a six-time state champion (combined indoor and outdoor seasons) and has her sights set on the Meet of Champions this spring. Beyond high school, she sees herself as a Division I athlete, although she hasn't quite decided on where yet. And beyond that, who knows?
Thomas doesn't limit her expectations. She never has. Being realistic, she'll remind herself, is biased.
That mind-set — the drive to be the best — is what led her to where she is today. And it's the lesson she wants everyone to understand.