This time last year, Tia Thevenin ’18, L’23 was training to compete for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. But all the talent in the world could never have prepared her for the summer games’ eventual postponement due to COVID-19.
“Our training suddenly got sporadic,” recalls the competitive hurdler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “I had planned to go to law school anyway, so I sped up my timeline. Walking away from the sport—and Team Canada—was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. It’s also exciting to do something new.”
That “something new” is studying law. Despite offers from other outstanding schools, Thevenin has returned to her alma mater as a first-year J.D. candidate in the University’s College of Law. She is eager to join the growing ranks of New York-qualified lawyers working in Canada—a credential enabling the Toronto native to argue cases on either side of the border.
Originally interested in criminal justice, Thevenin now sees herself going into sports and entertainment law or corporate law. “I want to use my skills to do the greatest good for the greatest number,” she says.
Igniting the Spark
Thevenin was a late bloomer when it came to athletics. Aside from running laps in gym class, she rarely laced up for the joy of it. That changed during her sophomore year of high school, when she was encouraged to try out for the relay team. “I went to practice, made the team and never looked back,” she remembers. “My life became a blur.”
Thevenin rocketed to fame as a Canadian junior-aged athlete, specializing in the 100-meter hurdles and the 4x100-meter relay. By her 17th birthday, she was a member of the Canadian National Track and Field Team, with a string of victories throughout the United States, Canada and Ukraine.
Tia Thevenin ’18, L’23: From Olympic Hopeful to Aspiring Lawyer
Before COVID-19, Thevenin entertained dreams of qualifying for the Summer Olympics. But after COVID postponed the Tokyo Olympics, Thevenin decided to focus on her other passion: making the legal system more accessible for disenfranchised citizens by studying at Syracuse University's College of Law.
Offers poured in from Division I universities, including Syracuse, Michigan State and Florida State, and narrowing down the field was hardly a jog in the park. For advice, Thevenin turned to Adrian Woodley ’01, a Syracuse letter winner and Canadian Olympian who was the brother of her high school hurdles coach. Woodley gave the University “glowing reviews,” and a campus tour clinched her decision. “Syracuse felt like home,” she says of that initial visit. “I also liked the fact it was a four-hour drive, door to door.”
As a member of the women’s track and field team, Thevenin became a hurdler par excellence. One of her proudest moments occurred in January 2017, when she ran the 60-meter hurdles in 8.32 seconds, breaking a 17-year University record. (She proceeded to shave off .11 seconds two weeks later.) That spring at the NCAA East Preliminary Round, she achieved another personal best by finishing the outdoor 100-meter hurdles in 13.27 seconds. “It was an amazing time of my life,” she says with a whiff of understatement.
Winning on and off the Track
Thevenin scored big in the classroom, too. In addition to landing on the Atlantic Coast Conference Honor Roll, she was a seven-time member of the Arts and Sciences dean’s list. Some of her best memories involved working part time in the biology and psychology departments, as well as the academic and career advising office. She also served on the University’s Academic Integrity Board, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and various Chancellor task forces.
Mark Trumbo, assistant athletics director for student-athlete engagement, considers Thevenin a classic “servant-leader”—someone who builds on the skills of others to make them better people. “She is a leader on and off the track and within her shared community,” he says. “Tia’s attitude of ‘leave it better than you’ve found it’ has shone through in her commitments to the team, the University and the campus community.”
Thevenin’s undergraduate experience proved transformative. A four-month stint at RISE, a Syracuse-based refugee resettlement agency, altered her worldview. “I worked with Syrian refugees who had fled their homes because of the civil war,” says Thevenin, who traces her own family history to the African diaspora. “I was inspired by their courage and resilience. I also was reminded of the economic disparity in the world—that some people have nothing to call their own.”
I’ve often wondered why my life turned out one way and theirs another because we had access to many of the same opportunities growing up. I want to make a difference.
—Tia Thevenin ’18, L’23
Meanwhile, Thevenin expanded her academic curriculum with a minor in strategic management from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management. The opportunity to blend the liberal arts with professional studies appealed to her interdisciplinary ethos. She also believed that having a baseline of knowledge about finance and accounting could help her understand real-world problems. “One of my Whitman classes looked at the impact of law on management decision making. There was a lot of emphasis on ethics and international topics, exposing me to the legal system and public policy issues,” she says.
Making a Difference
Having hung up her spikes for good, Thevenin is thrilled to be back in school, even if only virtually. (The COVID-related travel ban between the United States and Canada cannot lift soon enough, she says.) She currently is involved with student-run organizations like the National Black Law Students Association Constance Baker Motley Mock Trial Team and the Student Bar Association (SBA), where she is a class senator and member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Olivia Stevens L’22 was so impressed with Thevenin’s senatorial election speech that she immediately recruited Thevenin for her SBA committee. “I have since come to appreciate and respect Tia’s active willingness,” says Stevens, also a former Division I student-athlete. “She never backs away from a challenge, and she’s devoted to expanding and fostering diversity and justice.”
Thevenin admits that her decision to practice law has been triggered, in part, by the untimely deaths of two childhood friends. “I’ve often wondered why my life turned out one way and theirs another because we had access to many of the same opportunities growing up,” she admits. “I want to make a difference.”
Whether on the track or in the classroom, Thevenin considers herself a team player, putting others’ success before her own. “Studying law is not so different from running track,” says Thevenin, who recently launched a self-help podcast called “Off YOUR Record.” “My goal is not to compete with my classmates but to inspire them to reach their fullest potential.”
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