Eric Thomas, a Garrison High School graduate who was one of the fastest hurdlers in the world and represented America at the 2000 Olympics, died Friday in Houston. He was 49.
Thomas’ death was first reported Friday evening by Ato Boldon, a former Olympic sprinter from Trinidad who is lead track and field analyst for NBC Sports.
Boldon did not specify how Thomas died.
Thomas recently had hip replacement surgery. Friends say they believe he suffered a blood clot while recovering, although his cause of death remained unclear Tuesday.
Thomas’ career in track speaks for itself and his legacy as a competitor and trainer was evident in the outpouring of condolences immediately after his death.
He was ranked in the top 10 track and field athletes in the world for eight years. In 2003, he was the U.S. champion in the 400 meter hurdles and won silver at the Pan-American games. He finished in the top 15 at the 2000 Olympics.
“I was a big, big fan of Eric Thomas and I’ll always remember him,” said retired Daily Sentinel sports editor Kevin Gore. “He was a master of track and he excelled at what he wanted to master and excel at. I admire him.”
Thomas was also an alternate for the 400 hurdles at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where the U.S. won gold and bronze. He missed qualifying by a fraction of a second.
“It was a bittersweet kind of deal,” Thomas said in 2012.
News of Thomas’ death created an outpouring of grief and condolences on social media by some of the world’s top track and field stars over the past few decades.
“My heart is so broken,” wrote Dr. Sharrieffa Braksdale, a 1984 Olympian in the women’s 400 meter hurdles and member of the USA Track and Field Alumni Association. “I’m in disbelief. He was such a great man.”
Others Olympians including Shane Brathwaite of Barbados, and Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, who is now Minister of Health and Wellness for Jamaica, offered a simple “Wow,” in disbelief over Thomas’s death as such a young age.
Thomas’ athletic career began at Garrison ISD, which didn’t have a track when he was in school. Gore first met Thomas around 1984 when he tossed passes to the 10-year-old future Olympian during a high school football game.
It didn’t take long for Gore and others to realize the kid from Garrison was truly someone special.
“He maximized his God-given ability and talents. He got every drop out,” Gore said.
Thomas went to Blinn College on football and track scholarships. But track was his passion. As a freshman he was recognized as the fastest hurdler in the nation.
“My coach sat me down and told me I could probably be an Olympic athlete,” Thomas said in 2012.
The next year, he set the National Junior College Athletic Association record, running the 400 hurdles in a blistering 49.29 seconds. The record still stands nearly 20 years later.
After junior college, Thomas transferred to Abilene Christian where he was an All-American. He moved to Houston after college to train for the 1996 Olympics, and lived in the city for the rest of his life.
Thomas was born Dec. 1, 1973 in Garrison. His father died of a heart attack when he was 6. Watching his mother work to support six children alone instilled a work ethic that would drive him to the top of the track and field world.
His father's heart attack also led the track star to a life of promoting health. He founded the Hurdling Over Obesity and Diabetes for Health program and The Eric Thomas Foundation, which provides support for underprivileged youth.
Over the years, he regularly visited Garrison where he put on athletic camps. He visited as recently as Juneteenth when he talked with Garrison Mayor Keith Yarbrough about bringing his camp back in 2023.
“Everyone in town is devastated,” Yarbrough said.
Thomas also ran Champion Trainers, a company that provides individual fitness and athletic programs, in Houston.
Funeral services had not been announced Tuesday.