Olympics

Olympic star and Harvard grad Gabby Thomas chases history on the track, a healthier world off of it

Thomas, who is the third-fastest woman ever to run the 200-meter dash, is also studying public health while pursuing track and field full-time.

Gabby Thomas Olympics
Gabby Thomas celebrates after winning the final in the women's 200-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. AP Photo/Ashley Landis
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Gabby Thomas is used to life coming her way fast. Speed is literally the job description when you’re a world-class sprinter, after all.

But even she couldn’t have predicted how much 21.61 seconds would change her life.

When she got into the blocks for the 200-meter dash in the U.S. Olympic Trials last June, she was just focused on making the U.S. Olympic team. Well, that and trying not to be overwhelmed by the blistering Oregon heat or the prospect of outrunning legendary Olympian Allyson Felix, whom Thomas grew up watching run this very event, as Felix made one last run for glory at the Olympics.

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“Having her in the lane right outside of me was insane,” Thomas recalled to Boston.com. “I remember thinking, ‘I just have to beat her to the 20-meter mark,’ and it was crazy that I was saying that about Allyson Felix.'”

And 21.61 seconds after the gun sounded in that race, the track and field world watched in awe as Thomas stormed past Felix and two-time national champion Jenny Prandini to punch her ticket to the Toyko Olympics. That time would make Thomas the second-fastest woman in 200-meter history at the moment, trailing just the iconic Florence Griffith-Joyner.

“That day went from, ‘I really hope I can make an Olympic team’ to ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just ran that fast,” Thomas said. “And then, ‘I really want to medal in the Olympics.’”

A few weeks later, she did just that, earning a bronze medal in the Olympic 200m final in Tokyo. Elaine Thompson-Herah won that event and knocked Thomas down to just the third-best time ever, but Thomas’s radiant post-race smile stole the show nonetheless.

She also won a silver medal as the anchor for the U.S. women’s 4×100 meter relay team.

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Just like that, the 25-year-old Florence, Mass. native had solidified her place as one of track and field’s premier young stars — a turn that would alter the trajectory of her career.

You see, Thomas thought she’d be more of a scientist at this point after the Tokyo Olympics, not a sprinter.

Though she did star in track and field as an undergraduate at Harvard University, her original focus while attending the famous Ivy League school was academics, not athletics. She says her family’s history of developing neuroatypical conditions led her to major in neurobiology, and she graduated with her degree from Harvard in 2019 even after turning pro as a runner and signing a sponsorship deal with New Balance the previous year.

Learning about troubling healthcare disparities experienced by minorities, especially Black Americans, also motivated Thomas, a Black woman herself, to minor in global health at Harvard and pursue a Master’s degree in Public Health at the University of Texas in Austin, where she trains.

“I started right as the pandemic started, which was interesting and very validating of how important the work that I wanted to do was, especially when we saw the disparities in race and how different demographics were impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “And it was just validated that what I wanted to learn about, what I wanted to change in the world was really worth pursuing.

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“I think it’s important for people who look like me and who think like me to get in that workforce.”

Thomas says that was her original plan after last Olympic season: graduate with an MPH from the University of Texas and start looking for jobs in public health.

But while she says she’s on track to conclude her studies next semester, those 21.61 seconds in the Olympic trials and the Olympic medals that followed prompted a left turn in her career path — for now.

“I plan on running full-time for a very long time, for the next two Olympics,” she said. “I definitely do want to pursue public health afterward and maybe simultaneously. But for now, I’m pretty focused on making these world teams and medaling. But we’ll see where it goes.”

Thomas now seems set to take the reins from the likes of runners she grew up idolizing, like Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, as one of a new wave of young U.S. sprinting stars, including 400-meter hurdle record-holder and fellow New Balance ambassador Sydney McLaughlin.

On top of that, she says her race at the trials last year, as well as Thompson-Herah’s time in Toyko, suggests someone — maybe even her — could finally run down Griffith-Joyner’s borderline impossible 200m record of 21.34 seconds.

“If you’d asked me even a year ago today, I would have said ‘no way’ is Flo-Jo’s record attainable. And now I’m thinking, with how fast everybody is running and how much we’re pushing each other at each meet…and how high the stakes are, I do feel like it is a little bit attainable,” she said.

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“I always say I don’t focus on times and records because that’s not really how you run fast. It’s always going to be working on myself and improving my own race plan and my own times. And once you just go out and compete and have fun, the time’s come. But as of now, I do think the record is attainable…and I’m excited to see what I can do and how close I can get to that.”

But Thomas acknowledges she’s also taking center stage in another way: being a high-profile woman athlete at a time where women’s sports are gaining prominence and re-defining what’s possible for young girls everywhere.

“I look across, you know, the whole field of women’s sports, not just track and field right now, and I’m seeing a lot of really strong women who are vocal about things that they believe in,” she said. “We all look certain ways. We have different interests and we’re kind of owning who we are as people on and off the track, on and off the court, on and off the field and that’s really special.

“One thing that I just really hope the next generation takes from my career and who I am is that you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. Just own it and have confidence in it and you’ll find success in that…Whether that’s at school and studying health and speaking about health, whether it’s speaking up for myself and my body image and what I believe in or whether it’s just killing it on the track, I just hope people see that and do feel inspired by that.”

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