Thelma Davies is an uncommon talent blessed with the strength to wield a gift her family believes was bestowed by the heavens.
Recent turmoil, however, has also revealed an internal fortitude that could help the Girard College junior track phenom compete in the 2020 Olympics.
“A few months ago, I had an allergic reaction to ibuprofen, and it kind of left me devastated,” said Davies, who set PIAA state records in the 100 and 200 meters as a freshman. She won the 100 in 11.58 seconds and the 200 in 23.85.
In March, Davies was diagnosed with erythema multiforme, a hypersensitivity disorder affecting mostly children and young adults and characterized by patchy lesions primarily on the arms and legs, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
The exact cause of erythema multiforme is unknown, but in some cases it is believed to be a reaction to medication.
In front of onlookers last weekend — a scenario unfathomable weeks ago — Davies broke her own district record by winning the Class AA 200 in 23.49 during the District I championships at Coatesville. She also bested her own district record in the 100 with a time of 11.60. But the wind was measured in excess of allowable limits.
With a favorable forecast and temperatures expected in the 80s this weekend, Davies hopes to rewrite the record books again on Friday and Saturday in the state championships at Shippensburg University.
Back in February, however, darkness nearly consumed her.
”I just felt alone at that time,” she said.
Davies had taken ibuprofen for minor soreness just before a rash flared up overnight and left painful, itchy bumps all over her body.
Scared and in pain, Davies had difficulty sleeping, putting on clothes and stopping herself from scratching.
Her mother, Eliza, took her to a doctor, whose initial diagnosis was eczema, though neither Davies nor her coach, Diamond Woolford, believed that to be the case.
A topical ointment was prescribed, but it made acne break out on her chest and neck.
Eventually, the family visited a dermatologist who confirmed the allergy to ibuprofen through testing and then diagnosed erythema multiforme.
Meanwhile, Davies would look at her skin and feel “disgusted.”
Exercise became a struggle, fatigue plagued her, and her spirit waned.
A track uniform, she knew, would keep no secrets.
“That was my main focus,” she said. “How can I run track if I have this all over? I don’t want anybody to see.”
Early on, she covered up as much as possible. Still, people whispered at meets, though she said she never felt teased or bullied.
Coaches and competitors, who could see black spots on the skin she couldn’t conceal, expressed concern, which she appreciated.
Her mind, however, wasn’t always focused on track.
Though she rarely let a smile leave her face, internally Davies felt lethargic and sometimes felt as though she was “running in slow motion.”
Steroids were eventually prescribed, but the side effects would have stopped her from competing.
So Davies and Woolford delayed the steroids until after the New Balance Indoor Nationals in March, where Davies still competed and set a personal record in the 60 meters. She finished in 7.33 seconds but took second to Florida phenom Tamari Davis.
It was around then that Davies decided to embrace her struggle.
“It was just trying to build up my own confidence because letting this get the best of me would affect how I perform on the track, and I did not want that, especially being my junior year going into my senior year,” she said. “This is the year that I need to [break] every ceiling performance-wise and time-wise, so I couldn’t let this get the best of me.
“So I just tried to embrace it and remember that everyone goes through something, and this is what I have to go through.”
Plenty of support
Friends, family, Woolford and others, she said, were the network of supporters who helped rebuild Davies’ esteem.
Neumann-Goretti track coach Lincoln Townsend, who was a track star at Overbrook in 1986 and now coaches his talented daughter, Sydni Townsend, said that Davies has already achieved great success.
“Her having to endure what people think about her is amazing, and to do it well and not have it deter her from her goals … says a lot about her as a person,” he said. “It also tells me a lot about her village as well. That tells me she has strong people in her life.”
The rash, Davies says, is improving and doctors told her it might not be permanent. She also feels healthy for the first time since the rash erupted.
When she began to tell her story, she also helped rebuild the confidence of others.
Davies posted a video that explained her struggle on Instagram. Some viewers responded with private messages of support, gratitude, and hope.
A friend who struggles with eczema called Davies in tears and detailed her own story.
“To me, beauty is just within,” Davies said. “Having a great personality … and just being humble. That’s what I think beauty is.”
Her parents agree and pointed to Davies as the perfect example.
“She is very brave and very strong, and I’m very, very proud of her,” said Eliza Davies, a native of Liberia.
“I feel hurt [for her], but I feel proud of her, too,” said her father, Emmanuel Davies, also from Liberia. “A great athlete determined to reach her goals in spite of her condition.”
Eliza Davies joked that her daughter — the first of three children — even entered the world with speed. “With Thelma, I was not in labor at all,” she said, laughing.
Later, she added, “Before I even yelled, she was down.”
“The gift in her,” Eliza said, “is the gift from God.”
Soon, it could be showcased in the Olympics. The rash, Thelma Davies said, is improving, and she doesn’t expect it to be permanent. She also feels healthy for the first time since the rash began.
“So I feel like my confidence level is better than it was before my allergic reaction,” Davies said. “So I feel like I’m more confident to go into my races.”
Davies’ personal record in the 100 of 11.43 seconds was set last year at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals. Her PR in the 200 is 23.49 and was set last week in the trials of the District 1 meet.
For context, the U.S. Olympic trials qualifying standards for the 2016 Games in the 100 and 200 meters were 11.32 and 23.20, respectively.
The standards are subject to change, and Woolford said last year they were 11.26 and 23.20.
To that end, Davies’ goal is to hit the U.S. track and field world championship team trials qualifying standard for next year.
The improvement needed is something Woolford, who was also a standout on the track at Girard College, has been building toward for years.
Davies, 18, and Woolford, 37, have an obvious bond, one that is strengthened by their shared history with Rick Leek, the late Girard College teacher and track coach. Leek saw potential in both Woolford (Class of 1999) and Davies while each was in still in middle school before his death in February 2014 from a heart attack.
In July 2015, Davies also lost her beloved grandmother, Anna Johnson, who died about four months after being diagnosed with cancer.
Davies now runs in memory of both.
Woolford, a sprinter and a long and triple jumper at Penn State, said he is careful not to introduce too much too soon.
Davies already has college interest from most — if not all — major track programs, but has only been competing in earnest since ninth grade.
Woolford has waited until this season to introduce weightlifting to Davies’ regimen so that she could first grow accustomed to the natural power of her body.
Coupled with the strengthening of her internal fortitude, the magic in this young black girl might someday be on display for the world to see.
“This was just a step I had to go over,” Davies said of erythema multiforme. “It was just a challenge God put for me. So if I can just face a small challenge [like this], I’m pretty sure I can face a bigger challenge, which is going on to the collegiate/pro level.”