Olympics: “That’s Gabby, that’s the Gabby Thomas we know”

  • Florence’s Gabby Thomas is the betting favorite to win the gold medal in the 200 meters at the Olympic Games. Her pursuit begins Sunday. COURTESY/Weston Carls Photography

  • Gabby Thomas celebrates after winning the final in the women's 200-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on June 26 in Eugene, Ore. Thomas will open her Olympic experience Sunday night in the 200 meters. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2021 5:51:40 PM

A mere 21.62 seconds on a warm track in Oregon transformed Gabby Thomas’ life.

When the Florence native placed her feet in the starting blocks before the U.S. Olympic Trials 200-meter final, she was a Harvard graduate and a favorite of deeply invested track nerds. Then the starting gun fired.

Thomas doesn’t recall much of the next 20 seconds.

“I blacked out. I remember getting in the blocks and thinking I was going to chase (now four-time Olympian) Allyson (Felix) the vet up to 20 meters, and after that I couldn’t feel my legs, it was just in the zone,” Thomas said on the Today Show.

She crossed the line first, minting herself as an Olympian for the first time and posting the second fastest women’s 200 time ever behind Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 21.34 at the 1988 Seoul games.

It turned her into a national sensation. Thomas, 24, appeared on the Today Show three days after the Trials. CNN’s Chris Cuomo interviewed her. The New York Times and Washington Post interviewed her.

“Any time you win the Olympic trials on TV and become the second fastest person on the planet, ever, and you’re a Harvard grad, you’re a Black female, those things all come together to create a new level of awareness,” said Kebba Tolbert, Thomas’ coach at Harvard. “It’s in some ways unexpected. In Olympic years, that’s how Olympic legends are made.”

Thomas gasped after she crossed the line, covering her mouth with her hands adorned with white nail polish. She shocked the stadium. She shocked herself. She didn’t shock everyone. Her coach, three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey, sat in the Hayward Field stands serene. She knew who she was working with.

Jennifer Randall, Thomas’ mother, reacted similarly watching from Western Massachusetts. She told her daughter she was going to the Olympics when she was 11. The Gabby on her TV is the same one she’s known for two decades.

“She handles it a lot better than I would, all of the attention, all of the interviews, her name being all over social media. She has handled it with remarkable grace for someone for whom it happened so quickly,” Randall said. “She went from being under the radar to the second fastest 200 meter runner ever. I’ve been impressed. When I say she’s absolutely the same Gabby, she’s Gabby Thomas.”

Being Gabby

Not long after Randall conferred her Olympic prediction upon Thomas, she enrolled her daughter at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton. She quickly showed coaches and teachers the potential she’s realizing now.

Williston students are required to participate in a sport or activity each season. Thomas played soccer in the fall. Before games, her coach Monique Conroy would tell the referees, “she’s not offsides, she’s just that fast.”

Thomas originally chose softball as a spring sport before Randall steered her away from it and toward track and field. It was the best decision for all involved. Thomas won the NEPSAC championship as an eighth grader and every season after. Her 100 and 200 times and long jump and triple jump distances were ranked nationally.

“She was on a national stage. These kind of track and field athletes typically aren’t from Western Mass.,” Williston athletic director Mark Conroy said. “The bigger the moment, the more she seemed to rise to the occasion. She never got overwhelmed, she never got nervous. There was a maturity she had as a competitor.”

It wasn’t limited to the track. Thomas excelled as a student. She took math classes a year earlier than they’re typically prescribed and was a leader in those classes.

“She’s an incredibly grounded, positive, wonderful down to earth person. There’s plenty of examples of people who have talent like that who are full of themselves,” said Martha McCullagh, Thomas’ academic advisor and sprints coach at Williston. “Jennifer had more expectations on Gabby academically than athletically.”

Thomas followed through on her promise in both. She ran three years of track at Harvard and was a four-time All-American. She set the indoor collegiate 200 record at the 2018 indoor national championships to win the national title.

As a freshman, she finished sixth in the 200 at the 2016 Olympic Trials. That’s when Tolbert, who recruited her to the Crimson, saw glimpses of an even brighter future.

“A lot of people get third in the NCAAs or sixth at the Olympic Trials and never make it to the top. It’s not like it’s preordained,” he said. “I think she works really hard, and I think that she had some luck. She stayed relatively healthy. She matured.”

That junior national title-winning season was her last as a collegiate athlete. Thomas signed a professional contract with New Balance in October of 2018. She remained a Harvard student, though, completing her degree while New Balance paid her tuition.

“No matter what, track and field athletes retire. They peak at 28 then you have 60 more years of life. What are you going to do with that?” Randall said. “I’ve always been the person telling her you have to also have something to do afterwards, because no matter what, you will have to do something afterwards.”

Thomas graduated with a neurobiology degree and a secondary in global health and health policy in 2019. She moved to Austin, Texas, shortly after for both track and school. Now training with Buford-Bailey, she also is attending graduate school at the University of Texas for epidemiology.

“She loves the South, I know she’s a Southern person just like her mother, so I know she’s happy there. I think for track but also for life, she has always been meant to be a Southern person,” said Randall, who is from Atlanta and has two degrees from Duke. “She does well when she does a lot. Being in school and the pressures that come from being in graduate school, and she had a job for quite some time, it’s made her better, all of it. A better student, a better athlete, a better worker a better advocate.”

She adopted a pug named Rico, participated in voting rights campaigns and worked with a nonprofit to donate shoes to frontline workers. Her long term career goal is to transform the healthcare industry through community efforts with a focus on mental health resources.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” Conroy said. “That’s just Gabby, that’s the Gabby Thomas we know.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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