June 28, 2024 

Alyssa Thomas’ journey from Terrapin to Team USA

Sun forward is first Maryland alum from Frese era to make a U.S. Olympic team

At age 32, Alyssa Thomas’ wait to make an Olympic debut is longer than the norm. After all, the Connecticut Sun forward has been breaking WNBA records for the past decade. But before she was a World Cup champion and perennial All-Star, her story began at the University of Maryland.

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The Terrapins have been waiting just as long for a U.S. Olympian — Vicky Bullett, who first won gold at Seoul in 1988, was Maryland’s most recent. Bullett won the bronze medal with Team USA in Barcelona in 1992, the same year Thomas was born.

“It’s long overdue,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese told The Next. “I am so happy and so proud. It’s been a long course for her, and just reflective of the time when she tore her Achilles tendon and having to come back from that and just seeing all of the years that she stacked together to be named an Olympian and one who is recognized as one of the best in the world.”

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Frese took over the Maryland program from Chris Weller in 2002 and quickly established one of the nation’s elite programs. Only four years later, the Terrapins won the 2006 national title. Frese’s roster always boasted phenomenal players — however, when she saw the 6’2 forward from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the captivation was eminent.

“She was a relentless competitor,” Frese remembered from recruiting Thomas. “From the first time I saw her on the layup line, she did everything hard and wanted to be first at everything. When you look at her, you can kind of compare her to a female version of LeBron James. She has a strong, muscular, athletic build and really plays the game the right way. She impacts it physically with her triple doubles and she wants to make a championship play every time out on the court.”

Thomas energized Maryland in nearly every facet of the game from 2010 to 2014. Her senior year, Thomas scored 18.9 points per game, grabbed 10.8 rebounds, and dished 4.3 assists — all team highs — and the team made it to the Final Four.

“I knew she was pretty special,” Frese said. “I knew we had a pro and an All-American on our hands once her college career unfolded.”

Frese listed Thomas’ treasure chest of accolades. She is Maryland’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder — both women’s and men’s. Thomas was also the ACC Player of the Year her final three years, which were also Maryland’s final three before moving to the Big Ten.

“When you watch those kinds of things taking place,” Frese noted, “it’s a natural progression, and a long time in the making for this dream to come true.”

However, despite the awards, Thomas’ unselfishness is the characteristic that stands out the most to her.

“She is all about winning; she’s not about stats,” Frese explained. “She doesn’t need to be the leading scorer. That’s how you win a gold medal. If it’s going to be a defensive stop or a rebound or a great screen for her teammate, she’s going to do it. I think that’s what separates her in so many categories. She just wants to make the right winning play, and credit to her she can do it — on both ends of the floor.”

After missing the first 30 games of the 2021 season with the Achilles injury, Thomas returned in elite form. In September 2022, she recorded the first two triple-doubles in WNBA Finals history. One week later, she won the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in Australia. She is currently the WNBA’s career triple-double leader.

“She was doing triple-doubles when she was with us,” Frese continued, “and it’s just remarkable to see how many more she is doing. Now, she is doing it against the best of the best. With the Sun, they never take her off the court. She is in elite-level shape. She was always a kid who’s been in shape, but in the next level, where the challenge is so much greater, it’s incredible to see her continue to dominate across the board.”

Brenda Frese and Alyssa Thomas wave to the crowd
Alyssa Thomas and head coach Brenda Frese made it to the Final Four together in 2014. (Photo credit: Maryland Athletics)

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A history of Terrapins in the Olympics

In addition to Bullett, the Weller-era Maryland teams had strong Olympic ties. Terrapins Kris Kirchner and Tara Heiss were both members of the 1980 U.S. team that would boycott the Moscow Games. Jasmina Perazic, who is from Novi Sad, Serbia, played for the Yugoslavian national team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as well.

Frese herself is no stranger to coaching Olympians. She spent the 2001-02 season as head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. That was also the sophomore season of Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen, who went on to win gold medals in both London 2012 and Rio 2016. In addition, Diandra Tchatchouang played for Frese at Maryland and for France at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

But Thomas is the first U.S. Olympian from the Frese-era Maryland teams. This is a program that has only missed the NCAA Tournament once in the past 20 years.

“It’s really a proud moment,” Frese proclaimed. “We are able to turn out so many pros who go on to play in the WNBA and overseas. Our program is known for that. But now, to have your first true Olympian! Who knows, [Sun forward] Brionna Jones may be someday. I think she was trending that way before she got hurt. But, it’s a pretty exciting moment for our program.”

A year together in College Park

Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough was a freshman when Thomas was a senior and was second on the 2013-14 Terrapins season with 9.8 points per game.

“Well deserved,” Walker-Kimbrough told The Next. “I’m talking about one of my favorite teammates ever and one of the GOATs at Maryland. I was fortunate to play with her, even though it was only one year. She is still winning people over and is still competitive.”

Walker-Kimbrough highlighted Thomas’ physicality and athleticism. Her first practice with Thomas caught Walker-Kimbrough off guard.

“I knew she was like a bigger, stockier person,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “I’m fast, and I noticed how fast she was running besides me. Normally, when I am running sprints, I am by myself. Everyone [in Paris] is going to get ran over, and I am super happy for her.”

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Walker-Kimbrough also remembered a story about Thomas traveling to the Final Four as a junior for her All-American honor. Thomas remarked that she wasn’t coming back without her teammates. Maryland made it to the Final Four the next season.

Thomas and the program are still intertwined. Thus, the current Terrapins celebrated the Team USA roster news like a Selection Sunday team name revealing.

“They are super excited,” Frese added. “On her breaks, she will come back and practice with the team — so when they heard the news, they were ecstatic.”

The Next’s Jenn Hatfield contributed reporting for this story.

Editor’s note (June 28, 9:50 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story stated that Alyssa Thomas is the first player from the Frese-era Maryland teams to be an Olympian. She is the first Frese-era player to play for Team USA in the Olympics, but she is not the first Olympian. Diandra Tchatchouang, another Frese product, played for France at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Written by Scott Mammoser

Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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