UVa Track Star Undeterred by Early Obstacles
Oct. 21, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thomas Porter wears the scar on his upper right arm like a badge of honor. When he’s in his track singlet and his arm is uncovered, “it’s fantastic,” Porter said.
After the operation that produced the five-inch scar, he said, the medical staff “gave me the Vitamin E, and they were like, `You need to put this on to make sure the scar goes away.’ “
Porter smiled at the memory. “I was like, `I don’t want the scar to go away.’ “
A graduate student at the University of Virginia, Porter is on track to receive a master’s degree in exercise physiology in May. He’s one of the ACC’s top distance runners. He’s also a fortunate young man. A cardiac MRI taken early in the 2010-11 school year — not long after he transferred to UVa from Stanford — revealed a brachial artery aneurysm in his right arm.
Had the aneurysm not been discovered, Porter said, “at some point it would have clotted or exploded, and I may have lost the arm or died.”
Porter enrolled at Stanford in the summer of 2009 after a stellar career at Mountain View High in Stafford County, where he won three Group AAA titles — one each in cross country, the indoor 3,200 meters and the outdoor 1,600. Moreover, he was a three-time finalist at the Foot Locker national cross country championships, with a top finish of third in 2008.
Porter’s freshman year at Stanford, though, did not go as expected. Injuries forced him to miss all three seasons of competition, and in Palo Alto he was keenly aware of how far away his family was.
“I got hurt a couple times,” Porter recalled, “and like any 18-year-old that has things not going so well, I just thought maybe if I changed my environment I could do better. So I came back closer to home.”
Porter landed at UVa, which he had seriously considered before choosing Stanford. The University requires every student-athlete who is a freshman or a transfer to take an electrocardiogram and an echochardiogram. A cardiologist then evaluates the results of those exams before deciding whether to clear the student-athlete for participation.
“We tend to be very thorough,” said Shelley Blakey, an athletic trainer who works with UVa’s cross country and track and field teams. “The EKG looks at the rhythm and rate of your heart, and then the echo looks for any structural abnormalities, and you put those two together in order to determine whether you need any more testing.”
In Porter’s case, his EKG and echocardiogram raised concerns, and so his doctors scheduled a cardiac MRI for him.
“So I got one, and then went in the next morning to evaluate it,” Porter recalled. “They looked at the heart and they said, `You’re good to go. Nothing wrong.’ That afternoon I had packed my bags, ready to go to practice for the first time. It had taken like two to three weeks before I was finally able to get back to practice. But then they gave me another phone call and said, `Sorry, we found something else we don’t like.’ “
What they found was serious: a brachial artery aneurysm in his right arm that, fortunately for Porter, had shown up on the MRI of his heart. Porter had shown no symptoms of an aneurysm, and Blakey was stunned when she got the news.
“I was kind of like, `He just got a cardiac MRI. [The aneurysm] is in his arm. How do you even see that?’ ” she said. “So if it had been past his elbow, they probably wouldn’t have seen it.”
Porter said: “There was no reason to believe that a 19-year-old, endurance-trained athlete was going to have an aneurysm in his right arm. No doctor would have ever looked for that.”
In November 2010, UVa’s Dr. Gilbert Upchurch operated on Porter and removed the aneurysm. Upchurch, mindful of his patient’s passion for and talent in running, grafted a vein from one of Porter’s arms and not a leg.
Upchurch made the incision in the armpit. Porter suffered no ill effects from the surgery, though the start of his college career was delayed again.
“For three months following the surgery, I wasn’t able to do any exercise, anything that elevated my heartbeat,” Porter said. “That included walking to class. So they [sent a] Yellow Cab to come pick me up at my house and drive me to class.
“I was just doing a lot of sitting on the couch, watching shows. It’s the most TV I’ve ever watched in a semester.”
In February 2011, Porter was allowed to exercise for the first time since his surgery. His workout consisted of a 10-minute walk on a treadmill set at “three miles an hour or something,” Porter said.
For an athlete accustomed to running 70 to 80 miles a week, as well as 10,000-meter races, this was a dramatic change, and not an easy one.
“The nice thing about Thomas is, he had an interest in science and health care, and he’s very bright, so he kind of understood the reasoning behind taking things slowly,” said Blakey, whose track coach at Hylton High in Woodbridge later coached Porter at Mountain View. “But still, he’s an athlete wanting to do a little bit more, and we’re telling him, `No, this is why we can’t go as quickly as you’d like to.’ “
About a month after he was cleared to begin a modest exercise program, Porter started walk-jogging, as he put it. He soon learned, however, that the toe problem that had sidelined him at Stanford — sesamoiditis — had not disappeared after his months of inactivity.
Jay Dicharry, then director of UVa’s Speed Clinic and an acclaimed biomechanical analyst, helped Porter return to running without pain. During his recovery, Porter also met regularly with athletic trainers, doctors, sports nutritionists and sports psychologists at the University.
“I was in there getting checked up on every day, which really helped me to feel comfortable, just safe, that I was taken care of,” Porter said. “That really helped me in getting over that initial shock from the surgery and trying to get back into normal function. So I felt really well-taken care of by the entire staff here at UVa.”
In large part because of those experiences — he also took classes taught by Dicharry — Porter chose to major in kinesiology, with a focus on exercise physiology. He earned his bachelor’s in May.
“I think I was just so impressed by the sports medicine staff, because several of them are affiliated with the kinesiology program,” Porter said. “Shelley is a graduate of the program, and she does a fantastic job.”
Porter was a good patient, Blakey said, “but also very inquisitive. For us, he’s one of the student-athletes that definitely keep us on our toes, because he’s often going to really inquire of us of why we’re doing what we’re doing, which is really fun for me, and I think him spending as much time in the athletic training room as he did made him really think about kinesiology and exercise phys.”
In the spring, Porter hopes to become a licensed exercise physiologist. “So that’ll prepare me to either work in a fitness center, just doing general health and wellness stuff for the general population,” he said, “or I could work in a hospital setting where I would be doing lifestyle intervention for at-risk individuals.”
Porter comes from a family of athletes. He’s the youngest of four children, and his siblings all ran in Division I: brothers Michael and Daniel at Maryland and East Carolina, respectively, and sister Christina at LSU. (Michael now is an assistant coach at Clemson in cross country and track.) Their parents ran in college too: father Mike at the U.S. Naval Academy and mother Debra at Maryland.
Not surprisingly, there were running shoes throughout the house when Porter was growing up, but his siblings played various sports growing up, and so did he, including football, soccer and baseball.
“Our parents encouraged us to be involved,” Porter said. “We couldn’t go straight home after school, so we always had something going on. There was no pressure to go into running. We were all competitive individuals, we all that had athletic fire from young. It was just: Which sport is the best environment for me to participate in? Which sport can I most succeed in? And given our family genetics, it was likely that we’d all wind up running.”
His father was in the Marine Corps, and Porter was born at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The family moved to Stafford County a couple of years later — Mike Porter was stationed at Quantico — and then to Japan.
“We lived in Okinawa for three years,” Porter recalled. “It was an island, and we lived right across the street from the baseball and soccer fields. That was kind of a breeding ground for athletics.”
When he was in the third grade, the family moved back to Virginia, where Porter grew into one of the nation’s top young distance runners.
“He really was a big deal in high school,” Pete Watson recalled.
Watson, who took over as head men’s cross country coach and a track assistant at UVa in January 2012, also has coached at Auburn and North Carolina. Before coming to Charlottesville, Watson said, he “knew who Thomas Porter was, but then he kind of disappeared. He was one of those guys, a high school superstar who just disappeared and you never hear from again.”
Fortunately for Porter, that would not be his fate. In 2011-12, his second year at UVa, he returned to competition. After a lackluster cross country season — he placed 57th at the ACC meet — Porter finished third in the 5,000 meters at the conference’s indoor championships. That spring, he placed seventh in the 10,000m and 10th in the 5,000m at the ACC outdoor meet.
In 2012-13, Porter earned All-ACC honors in cross country and then finished seventh in the 5,000m and 16th at the 3,000m at conference’s indoor meet. Last spring, he placed second in the 10,000m and fifth in the 5,000m at the ACC outdoor championships. He then finished 16th in the 10,000m at the NCAA meet, a performance that made Porter a second-team All-American.
“He’s very analytical,” Watson said. “He follows directions really well. He just wants facts. He wants direction. He doesn’t want ambiguous comments.”
In races, Watson said, Porter “doesn’t rush things. He doesn’t get emotional about things and panic, like some kids do. He just knows that at the ACCs and [NCAA] regionals, he’ll be there.”
A season ago, the UVa men placed second at the ACC cross country meet. This year’s race is Nov. 1 in Winston-Salem, N.C., and the Cavaliers should contend for the title again. Virginia will host the NCAA Southeast Regional on Nov. 15 at Panorama Farms in Earlysville.
“I think the guys are good,” Watson said. “I think they’re better than last year. Thomas is a huge part. I think with Thomas, we have three big hitters up front, with him, Kyle King and Adam Visokay.”
“I just think everyone can count on Thomas. There’s no doubting. It’s kind of a calming thing, knowing he’s going to be there.”