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2021 TCS NYC Marathon: Thomas Valles, runner featured in Disney film ‘McFarland, USA,’ set for 1st New York City race

NEW YORK (WABC) — As a boy, Thomas Valles could never have imagined that his running ability would shape the course of his life or someday inspire a Hollywood movie, but that’s exactly what happened.

“Hollywood came calling one day and, you know, was interested in talking about our lives on the big screen,” Valles said.

The Disney film ‘McFarland, USA’ was released in 2015 and is based on the true story of a team of novice runners from a predominantly Latino high school in rural California which guided to greatness under the leadership of an outsider, coach Jim White.

“We grew up working in the fields, in agriculture. Mr. White found me and recruited me in junior high to run because I was in his P.E. class, but he knew I was going through some tough times in school because I’m dyslexic, grew up in a home with domestic violence, my dad was an alcoholic. So he kind of helped me and took me under his wing. The Whites and this team became my family, my second family,” Valles said.

In 1987, Valles was captain of the legendary McFarland High School running team that became unlikely champions by winning California’s first cross country state title and for Valles, it was a transformative achievement.

“We persevered, especially me, through sport. It opened up the doors for me to go to college. I had a career with the California Department of Corrections after serving in the coast guard for four years,” Valles said. “I realized had somebody not intervened in my life at a young age, I would have been one of those statistics and I would have been wearing the orange jumpsuit instead of wearing the uniform and the badge.”

Valles is now a coach at McFarland High School, a motivational speaker, and he’s training for his first New York City Marathon.

“I’m 52 now, I try to run some miles in the morning and then do a few miles with my team in the evenings. I kind of feel the aches and pains in my calves, in one of my knees,” Valles said.

Although his speed isn’t what it used to be, every step Valles takes still inspires.

“In the movie, it kind of shows two hours and nine minutes in length, the challenges we had growing up in the community and we’re still there trying to give back to kids that are still struggling with some of the challenges we had,” Valles said.

The Walt Disney Company is the parent company of ESPN and this ABC station.

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