Georgia Tech quarterback Lucas Johnson hydrates during the Yellow Jackets' 14-10 win over South Florida at Bobby Dodd Stadium September 7, 2019. (AJC photo by Alyssa Pointer)

Inside the involved process of hydrating the Yellow Jackets

Shortly after 7 a.m. Sept. 5, Georgia Tech position meetings were interrupted by a squadron of support staffers brandishing packets of electrolyte-supplement gels. Players were required to consume the formula, which could be mixed with water, on the spot.

“We made a game out of it,” Tech nutritionist Leah Thomas said.

It was the first phase of a coordinated effort to ensure that, two days later, when temperatures in Atlanta reached 96 degrees, the Yellow Jackets would not wilt against South Florida on the Grant Field turf.

The final stage of the program arrived between the third and fourth quarters of Saturday’s game. As Jackets fans did the Budweiser Bob, sports-medicine staff, Thomas and her assistant Chandler Knox fanned out on the sideline with water and snacks like honey-based energy bars and gummies, specifically targeting players deemed before the game to be at greatest risk to run out of gas.

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Three days later, at his weekly news conference, coach Geoff Collins sang the praises of Thomas and Knox for their role in keeping the Jackets hydrated and fueled in the 14-10 win over the Bulls.

“Gotta give a shout-out to Leah Thomas and Chandler in our nutrition program,” Collins said in his opening remarks. “What a great job they did hydrating our guys because it was a hot environment.”

Under Thomas’ direction, the plan to prevent the Jackets from losing steam was far more than directives to drink a lot of water, though it did include that. Players weigh themselves before and after every practice, and are expected to drink 16 to 20 ounces of fluid for every pound of sweat that drips out of their bodies. Weight loss of three to four pounds is common, meaning a half gallon or more on top of the daily liquid intake.

Beginning Thursday morning with the “ambush,” as the support staff called it, Tech players were required to take Right Stuff gels times Thursday and Friday at three different prescribed times each day. Some coaches went so far as to instruct players, when they were away from the football offices, to connect via video so that they could witness them taking the gels.

On Saturday, players took three more pouches of Right Stuff, a product developed by NASA scientists  – at the pregame meal, upon arrival at the stadium and then at halftime. In the aforementioned break between the third and fourth quarter, about 30 players identified as most in need of a burst of simple carbohydrates – mostly, players with the highest workload, such as offensive linemen and defensive players who rarely leave the field such as safety Juanyeh Thomas and cornerback Tre Swilling – were brought items like Honey Stinger waffles.

Beyond that, Leah Thomas oversees design of team pregame meals and the meals served in the athletic department dining hall. She acknowledged that the attentiveness of the hydration plan might seem over the top.

“But that’s our job, to care for them and to help them do the best on the field,” she said.

Tech players would probably beg to differ with any reservations that she might hold about her zeal.

“I feel like, if we don’t have her helping us, everybody would have cramped,” Juanyeh Thomas (no relation) said. “We only had one person cramp. That shows that she was on her job and she did a great job at it, too.”

Georgia Tech assistant athletic director for student development Leah Thomas at the Yellow Jackets' game at Clemson August 29, 2019. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Leah Thomas has been in the athletic department’s employ since 2003, a holder of a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Chattanooga (where she ran track and cross country) and a master’s in exercise science from Georgia State. She has served as dietitian for Yellow Jackets teams since 2003 and in 2008 took on oversight of the Total Person Program, which focuses on off-field development in areas such as community service and leadership training.

Former Tech captain KeShun Freeman said Thomas, who is married with three children who are often seen running about Tech’s sports facilities, was “kind of like a big sister” who doubled as a valuable resource.

“I’m really appreciative to have had her my four years at Georgia Tech,” Freeman said. “Not only was she a great nutritionist, but she helped me so much with life, too.”

Athletic director Todd Stansbury has put his weight behind both offices, authorizing hires that have freed Thomas to invest more of herself in programs such as the one implemented for the football team. Among other projects was a nutrition and hydration plan for the ACC champion golf team in which players have a prescribed intake for each segment of their rounds – carbs and proteins on holes 1-6, a more substantive meal, like a peanut-butter sandwich, on holes 7-12, and then a sports drink and a couple of Honey Stinger products for the closing holes.

“It’s a fun time in my career, that’s for sure,” she said.

Men’s basketball coach Josh Pastner said that he relies on Thomas to set menus for team meals and to provide expertise with team members on their diets.

“She’s a big part of our program,” Pastner said. “She’s a part of our staff.”

Thomas has worked with the football team – the team followed a similar hydration protocol for the South Florida game at Tampa, Fla., last year – but, with the hire of Knox to the nutrition staff and Collins’ support, her involvement has considerably expanded. Where Thomas had not previously traveled with the team, either she or Knox will staff every road game this season.

Thomas has a champion in Collins, whose degree at Western Carolina was in sport management and exercise science, giving him a window into Thomas’ field. 

“I’m not having to sell him on anything and he’s seen some of the work that I’ve done with other teams,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t question. He just (says), ‘What Leah says is what goes,’ and I appreciate that.”

With a high of 89 degrees for Saturday’s home game against The Citadel, the same three-day hydration plan has been in place. Against South Florida, Thomas watched from the sidelines with a modicum of satisfaction as the Jackets held fast in the fourth quarter, generating a game-changing goal-line stand on defense and running out the final 3:23 for the win.

“They didn’t fade at the end,” Thomas said. “While we would never claim to be responsible for any wins – or losses, mind you – we would like to think that, yes, we played a small role.”

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