Mike Thomas, Former Cal Swimmer, A Firefighter Fighting California Wildfires

mike thomas, men's ncaa swimming championships
Mike Thomas at NCAAs. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Mike Thomas, Former Cal Swimmer, A Firefighter Fighting California Wildfires

By Gerrit Van Genderen, Cal Athletics

(originally posted on the Cal Bears page)

Mike Thomas traded diving into the pool for jumping into the fire.

In the 18 months since he helped lead the Golden Bears to the 2019 NCAA title with 32 individual points at the championship meet in Austin, Texas, Thomas has graduated from California and pushed himself through training to become a Wildland Firefighter 1 for Cal Fire. Now, the seven-time All-American swimmer finds himself on the front lines of a historic slew of wildfires throughout the state of California.

“It has been an eye-opening and incredible experience,” said Thomas, who’s first day with Cal Fire was July 13. “Cal Fire anticipated a significant wildfire season and I told my friends and family I probably wouldn’t be around much in the upcoming months.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic depleting numerous inmate fire crews, Cal Fire had many new employees thrown into the mix this season, Thomas being one of them. In his first two months as a wildland firefighter, Thomas has traveled as far north as Adin for the Gold Fire and as far south as Los Angeles for the Apple Fire. He was most recently was on hand for 17 straight days at the SCU Lightning Complex, the second-largest wildfire in California state history.

Though faced with a learning curve in his new line of work, Thomas has found parallels between the physical and mental endurance needed to be both a firefighter and a swimmer. Similar to digging deep for that last ounce of strength to finish a race, Thomas said firefighting requires a unique state of mind that not everyone has.

“That (state of mind) is having to chainsaw for eight consecutive hours, followed by a long hike to a lightning fire and battling it from 2 a.m. to sunrise, only to sleep for an hour or two and wake up to do it all over again,” Thomas said. “It’s also the grind of a full day of swim practice, weights and challenge competitions at high altitude during Cal’s annual trip to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“When you’re running on fumes but you know you have to keep pushing through until the work is finished, it’s a good feeling to know you’re fighting alongside a captain and a crew who carry the same mindset you do.”

After his collegiate swimming career culminated with the NCAA title in March 2019, Thomas shifted his focus toward graduating at the end of the following semester and providing service to a community through his professional work. The Horsham, Pa., native enrolled in a two-month, accelerated Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) course during the summer and completed pre-requisites to attend the Chabot College Fire Academy. By May 2020, Thomas had finished the fire academy, continued to work as a part-time EMT and added a Swiftwater and Flood Rescue Technician certification, which he did alongside fellow Cal swim alumnus Carson Sand.

Although he’s accomplished plenty within the last year and a half to get to where he is, firefighting wasn’t always a legitimate part of his future plans. It wasn’t until Thomas’ sophomore year in Berkeley when he and his teammates were required to complete a goal-oriented questionnaire, issued by Cal head coach David Durden, that he really considered the profession.

“I wanted to be a part of something greater than myself,” Thomas said. “One of the questions on the sheet asked us to list a dream job or profession. Putting (firefighting) down on paper was the first time it became real for me.”

Thomas’ answer on the questionnaire led to further discussions about his post-grad ambitions with Durden. Eventually, Durden was able to connect Thomas with Rick Graves, a firefighter in Portland, Ore., and a supporter of the Cal men’s swimming & diving program. Graves guided Thomas through the steps he would need to take to make his dream a reality.

“Rick is a great example of our program’s support system,” Durden said. “Being able to send him a quick text about helping out Mike and getting results by the next day really means a lot.”

The ability to talk about his career path with both Durden and Graves helped Thomas grasp the big picture of his future. With Paramedic school potentially ahead in 2021, that big picture includes multiple routes that can be taken. For now, he’s focused on growing to be the best firefighter he can be.

“The highs are high and the lows are low, but just like swimming I’m in these fights with my crew, and that’s real,” Thomas said. “I rely on these guys with my life and they have my total respect. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishing what seemed like an insurmountable feat and doing it beside your team.”

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