By Ella B. Webster ’20
“Who would have thought, when I was sitting in biology class as a student, that one day I would know how to ship a car from coast to coast?” laughs Dr. Karen Thomas. Thomas is a Converse alumna, a long-practicing chiropractor, a wife, and a mother. In addition, she’s a racecar driver – specifically, the driver of a Tesla Model X P100D, complete with the Converse Valkyrie herself on its side.
“I thought, ‘That Valkyrie would look so cool on the track’… I wanted to be an empowered girl. Nothing says that more than Val.”
A member of the Ultimate Street Car Association (USCA), Thomas has flourished in the auto racing community through the help of her small but committed team, which includes her husband, David. Dr. Thomas spoke with me about how she went from a biology major to a successful and avid auto racer who recently won second place in the USCA finals in Las Vegas.
Dr. Karen Thomas ’84 Thomas graduated from Converse in 1984. She had always known she would go to Converse. “I was raised in Spartanburg,” she said. “So anytime we would go to dance or whatever, Mom would always say, ‘That’s where you’re going to college!’ When it came time in senior year of high school to start applying for colleges, I only applied to Converse.” However, not everything about Thomas’ future was set in stone. Though she planned to study orthopedics when she was younger, her plans changed just before her freshman year of college when she suffered a debilitating back injury. Thomas ruptured a disc in her back, and the injury became so painful she was unable to even sit down — much less continue dancing, one of her favorite pastimes. Nevertheless, Converse accommodated her, placing podiums in the back of her classes so that she could stand during lessons. Thomas was only 18 years old when the doctor told her she would have to undergo back surgery. “My dad said, ‘I don’t think we want to do surgery on my 18-year-old’,” she says. Instead, Thomas and her parents decided that she would try chiropractic first. It was an experience that shaped her life from that point forward: following a few months of chiropractic adjustments, she was back on her feet, leaping back into her world of dance and once again able to fully enjoy her life as a Converse student.
“Never be afraid because you’re a woman, because you’re young, because you’re old – those are all things you should never even ask yourself.”
Thomas says experiencing these results made her realize how many people were having surgery when they could be benefitting from seeing a chiropractor. After working as an intern with a doctor’s office and realizing others could benefit from her experience, Thomas made her decision: she would become a chiropractor. Though she had already taken the MCAT for medical school, her Converse education gave her the confidence to pursue a new path. ‘I was prepared to do whatever I wanted to do,” she said. Thomas continued her education with this new goal in mind and became a chiropractor at the impressively young age of 25. But Thomas’ story of success was far from over. She describes the balanced relationship she and her husband have, in which they each participate in the other’s interests: “That’s the great thing about being in a marriage that is a partnership — you support each other. As much as I’ve learned about his passions, he has also learned about mine.”
One of her husband’s interests is racing, and over the years she has been his “first cheerleader, supporter, and pit crew.” He began racing with USCA, which is unique in that its focus is racing the “everyday street car”. Thomas immersed herself in USCA racing, too, and eventually someone told her she knew so much about racing that she should try it for herself. “I had always thought of myself as a support position,” she says, but she decided to apply another key lesson learned from Converse: “If you want to do it, do it! Never be afraid because you’re a woman, because you’re young, because you’re old – those are all things you should never even ask yourself.”
And so she committed to the opportunity. She began to race with her husband and quickly fell in love with the sport. One thing that is overtly clear about Thomas is her love of Converse. Ultimately, this was what inspired her to have the Converse Valkyrie put on her Tesla. “I thought, ‘That Valkyrie would look so cool on the track’… I wanted to be an empowered girl. Nothing says that more than Val.” In addition to racing with Val by her side, Thomas has also shown her appreciation for Converse by attending several Converse events, such as a recent alumnae gathering where she demonstrated her Tesla’s amazing features: “The team at Tesla invented a command that has a two-minute program timed to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas song,” Thomas says. The car essentially performs to the song, utilizing “the lights, and the doors, and the side doors, and the mirrors…it’s fully choreographed.”
There’s no doubt Thomas has leveraged her Converse education to the fullest in building the fulfilling life she has now. I ask her what she would say to a current student who is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her future, and she offers three pieces of advice. First, she says ,“Everything you do is an opportunity.” Every day, Thomas makes a list of tasks she must complete, tasks she should complete, and tasks she wants to complete. She then tackles them, trying to balance tasks from each list to accomplish not only necessary things, but things that make her happy as well. Second, Thomas says, “Never be afraid to learn new things.” She points out that you never know what benefits may come from immersing yourself in new things. Finally, she urges all students to pursue internships, which were key in guiding her as she made career choices. She emphasizes the point that it is difficult to know what you truly want to do until you try it, and Converse makes that opportunity available to its students.
Thomas says her Converse experiences have remained with her throughout the years – that Converse shaped her into a woman who is able to successfully navigate the complexities of her busy life. She believes that no matter what you may face and no matter who you may be, when you’re equipped with the lessons and strength bestowed by Converse and an adventurous, empowered attitude, there’s no limit to what you can achieve and where you can go. “It’s all about empowering women,” she says of her alma mater. “There is nothing that can stand in our way.”