Harvard Grad Gabby Thomas Mastering The Science of Speed As Emerging Sprint Star
by Karen Rosen
Gabby Thomas competes in the Women's 100m during the Adidas Boost Boston Games and World Athletics Continental Tour event on May 23, 2021 in Boston.
Gabby Thomas is used to having a foot in two different worlds.
She’s an elite sprinter who began studying epidemiology and health care administration just as the pandemic hit.
But while Thomas said fellow runners haven’t quizzed her about Covid-19, she noted that her grad school classmates at the University of Texas “definitely do not understand what it entails” to be a professional track and field athlete.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, cool. Are you going to the Olympics?’” she said.
Thomas hopes so.
And that brings up what she calls a “weird split” between two track and field traditions that she can claim - or that can claim her.
The 24-year-old spent the first half of her life in Atlanta, hometown of Edith McGuire, 1964 Olympic champion in the 200 meters, and Gwen Torrence, who won the 200-meter Olympic title in 1992.
That’s a gap of 28 years and 28 years later (29 with the postponement) Thomas is a top contender in the women’s 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field, which begin June 18 in Eugene, Oregon.
She posted the world-leading time of 22.17 sections back in March, which was also her personal best. Thomas has since dropped to No. 6 in the world behind Team USA's Sha'Carri Richardson (22.11), Cambrea Sturgis (22.12) and Tamara Clark (22.13), which promises to make the event one of the most hotly contested at the Trials.
But while McGuire was a member of the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles and Torrence ran for the Georgia Bulldogs, Thomas is a proud representative of the Harvard Crimson.
“It’s very, very rare to see a sprinter have this type of career trajectory coming out of an Ivy League school,” Thomas said. “I’ve always been the underdog coming into meets, and even prior to college, just coming from Massachusetts, it’s not really your typical story.”
Her mother, Jennifer Randall, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette that “even as a toddler, she used to look like she was running on air.”
Yet Thomas preferred soccer and softball and only started running track at her mother’s insistence when she was in middle school.
As a Harvard freshman, Thomas finished sixth at the 2016 Olympic Trials. “I was just so inexperienced,” she said. “I was really just a baby, so new to the sport, I didn’t even know how Olympic Trials worked. I didn’t have intentional dreams for track and field the way that I do now.”
It was also a challenge to juggle athletics with academics – she was majoring in neurobiology and global health and health policy – as well as extracurricular activities at Harvard. “I wasn’t sure if it was worth it,” Thomas said.
She decided to study neurobiology when she was a senior in high school. “I have a little brother with autism and I was just very fascinated with how the brain worked,” Thomas said.
However, after doing research at a hospital, she figured out that working in a lab wasn’t the best fit for her “and then track started taking off.”
Thomas proved so adept at the science of speed that she became the first Ivy League female sprinter to win a national title - the 2018 NCAA indoor championships in the 200 - and was the runner-up in the 200 outdoors. That’s when Thomas finally realized she could actually make money as a pro athlete while continuing her education.
Although she considered remaining at Harvard to train while going to graduate school, Thomas met Tonja Buford-Bailey, the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, at a meet in Monaco in the summer of 2019. Later that year, she became part of the Bailey Bunch in Austin, Texas.
“I decided to place myself in an environment where people were serious about track and where I could be serious about track,” said Thomas, whose teammates include Ashley Spencer and Morolake Akinosun. “I love this training group that has very accomplished, motivated black women and the coach being a black woman is also very, very cool.”
She also found the graduate program she needed at Texas and worked at a health care tech start-up.
“Following track, I’d like to do something in health care policy or health care administration,” said Thomas, who already has formulated some ideas. “In America, I’d start with having walkable communities - communities where you can actually go out and feel incentivized to exercise. I’d also make sure there is access to quality food and grocery stores.”
She said the Olympic postponement gave her extra buffer time to adapt and learn in her new environment.
“I am focused and prepared and trying to make an Olympic team, so I’m in a very different headspace from 2016,” said Thomas. “I’m happy things did end up the way they did. I’m having so much fun now, but it’s just not what you would expect.”
A Health Scare
And there’s the newest chapter to her narrative. After running a slightly wind-aided 22.12 to win the Golden Games on May 9, defeating six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, Thomas underwent a harrowing few weeks that few people knew about.
She had been advised not to run in the California meet because of a worrisome hamstring problem, but Thomas said, “I couldn’t pass up that opportunity to run such in a great race.”
Doctors thought her lower back was aggravating her hamstring, so Thomas underwent an MRI. That revealed a tumor on her liver.
Writing about her ordeal on Instagram on June 7, Thomas said, “The more and more I spoke to people, the more the word ‘cancer’ was used. I was scared.”
She acknowledged that she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the results before the Olympic Trials, “but the stress of not knowing was worse.”
Thomas was relieved to find out the mass is benign and won’t need treatment or surgery. She said she’s excited to go into the Trials “feeling much lighter with this weight off of my shoulders. One of the greatest gifts in life is our health. P.S. that hamstring seemed to fix itself.”
Thomas later said, “I can head into Trials with a clear mind and healthy body.”
There was just one lingering issue. Earlier this month, Thomas was still grappling with the choice between doubling at the Trials in the 100 or in the 400. She ran a wind-aided 10.94 seconds on May 31 in Jacksonville for an all-conditions personal best, while on the same day posting a personal best of 51.15 seconds in the the 400.
Thomas said she spoke to a lot of people to get insight into which race to pick. “I feel like the odds are in my favor to make the relay pool and possibly to get top three and make the 400 team,” she said. “It’s just a question of whether or not I can do the rounds of the quarter with no experience and come back and bring 100 percent to the 200. The 100 is more of a gamble – the field is stacked – but less of a gamble towards being recovered for my 200. I’ve run rounds of the 100 my entire career.”
In college, Thomas mostly ran the 100, 200 and long jumped. Yet she is also known for a sizzling 49.44-second split on the 4 x 400-meter relay, grabbing the baton with Harvard trailing Columbia by 2.8 seconds to win the Ivy League title in the event.
However, Thomas admitted, “The 400 hurts. It’s a painful race.”
She said her running style is most similar to Felix’s in that they both have great speed endurance and a finishing kick.
“I wanted to work on the 100 because there are a lot of pieces of the 200 that I can still improve on,” Thomas said, “like hitting those gear shifts in the first 100 and not just waiting until I get off the turn would be very helpful. But at the same time that 200 strength that I have could also be very useful in the 400.”
By the time she had to declare her official entries, Thomas had arrived at a decision: the 100. However, she could still be considered for a leg on the the 4 x 400 meter relays based on what she has already run or a fast time she posts in Europe after the Trials.
Now that she’s settled on her schedule, the 5-foot-11 sprinter won’t worry about who is in the lanes next to her at historic Hayward Field.
“It’s so far out of your control,” said Thomas. “The crazy thing about Trials is all that matters is what you do on that day. So it doesn’t matter how anyone else has been running, to be honest.”
During the abbreviated 2020 season due to the pandemic, Thomas kept her equilibrium with candle making – she filled a whole cabinet - while also doing some painting.
“I wanted to get with my creative side,” Thomas said. “I have a twin brother who’s the arty one. I don’t have any art skills, so I’ve been trying.”
But she has plenty of skills on the track, even though they may have taken longer to emerge than for other runners.
“I want people to know that I was confident and comfortable in following my own path and my own journey to get to where I am,” Thomas said, “and just being true to myself in what I wanted to do, and having that work out for me. I’m really proud of just doing that.”
Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.