Fast lane: Gabby Thomas’ journey on the track continues with pro debut at New Balance Indoor Grand Prix

  • New Balance announced on Monday, Oct. 8 that it signed Harvard senior Gabby Thomas to a multi-year contract. COURTESY NEW BALANCE

  • New Balance announced on Monday, Oct. 8 that it signed Harvard senior Gabby Thomas to a multi-year contract. COURTESY NEW BALANCE

  • New Balance announced last October that it signed Harvard senior Gabby Thomas to a multiyear contract. COURTESY NEW BALANCE

  • Jenna Prandini of the U.S., center right, and Gabrielle Thomas of the U.S., center left, compete in the women's 200 meters race at the IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting at London Stadium in London, Sunday, July 22, 2018. AP photo

  • Gabby Thomas, right, stands with her twin brother Andrew at her home in Florence in December. COURTESY GABBY THOMAS

  • Gabby Thomas, left, sits with her mom Jennifer Randall at her home in Florence in December. COURTESY GABBY THOMAS

Staff writer
Published: 1/25/2019 9:18:06 PM

Gabby Thomas chased down an Olympian when she was a junior in college.

Her Harvard University 4x400-meter relay team trailed Columbia by 2.8 seconds — a sprinting eternity — when she took the baton from Karina Joiner. None of them even wanted to run. The race closed the 2018 Outdoor Ivy League Championships, a long weekend of track and field at Penn University.

“We were so exhausted,” Thomas said.

Harvard couldn’t win the meet. Penn had already sealed a victory on its home track. The 4x4 relay could only run for pride.

“We’re still Harvard — people need to see us compete a certain way,” Crimson sprints coach Kebba Tolbert said. “Let’s go out with a bang.”

Thomas exploded from the start line certain she’d catch Columbia’s Akua Obeng-Akrofi, who ran for Ghana at the 2016 Olympics. But she didn’t.

She tired over the second 100, slightly annoyed at her teammates’ cheering.

“I was like ‘shut up, I’m really struggling right now,’ ” Thomas said, and laughing on a clear, cold January afternoon at a Harvard Square Starbucks. “I’m not going to catch her.”

But she didn’t give up. Thomas knew how amazing it would be to overtake Obeng-Akrofi. She had to try.

“I let everything out the window,” she said.

Thomas didn’t think about her form; she just kept striding one long leg in front of the other with purpose. Obeng-Akrofi never saw her coming. Thomas took the lead two strides before the finish line, winning the race by .04 seconds.

Her face contorted into a mixture of joy, relief and pain as she pushed her bleached blond hair behind her ears. Her teammates mobbed her, and someone shoved a cameraphone in her face to capture the moment.

“I was so upset. I was in so much pain. People were recording me,” Thomas said.

Once they backed off, she doubled over, surrounded by her teammates — her friends.

“Being a part of a team is so special, especially being a part of a 4x4 relay. It’s one of the most rewarding parts of being on a track team,” Thomas said. “Those are my best friends. I love them a lot.”

That anchor leg stands out in Thomas’ sprinting career, itself a rarity. She grew up in Florence and attended the Williston Northampton School before matriculating to Harvard. Few elite sprinters grow up in New England or run for the Crimson. Thomas signed a professional endorsement deal with New Balance in October. Her first professional meet is Saturday at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston. She’ll run the 300-meter dash at 5:30 p.m.

When Thomas eases into the Reggie Lewis Center starting blocks, she’ll resemble her competitors: long legs, toned, focused. Her story, however, looks much different.

‘Running on air’

Gabby and her twin brother, Andrew, were born in Atlanta in 1996. Their parents, Jennifer Randall and Desmond Thomas, met at Duke University in the 1990s. Desmond played football. They moved to Atlanta and split up when the twins were 4.

Seven years later, after Randall earned her PhD from Emory University, she joined the UMass faculty that fall. She and her two kids moved to Belchertown when they were 11.

Randall has always valued education and enrolled her twins at Williston for seventh grade. The family moved to Florence to shorten the kids’ commute.

“I think she’s always seen the value of education,” Randall said of her daughter. “I made a decision early on for it to be the thing.”

Williston requires its students to participate in afternoon sports or activities every semester. Thomas, always athletic, needed a spring sport in seventh grade and initially chose softball.

Randall steered her toward the track instead.

“(Softball’s) an incredibly boring sport,” Randall said. “She’s always been so fast. Even as a toddler, she used to look like she was running on air.”

Thomas embraced both the social and competitive aspects of track and field. She made friends all over the 70-member track team.

“She’s disciplined and driven, but she’s still quick to smile and even quicker to laugh,” said former teammate Lena Gandevia. “Especially if it’s a bad math joke.”

She also won 12 New England prep championships, 10 in individual events and two relay titles.

Gandevia ran with Thomas on both relay teams along with Rebecca Sundell and Sideya Dill.

Dill came to Williston from Bermuda to play soccer as a sophomore and picked up track in the spring. Since she hailed from the Caribbean, a part of the world famous for its sprinters, other students theorized she would be the one to beat Thomas, then a junior.

“I disappointed everyone and learned quickly that nobody could beat Gabby Thomas,” Dill said.​​​​​​

Harvard-bound

Thomas initially started running for fun and to fulfill her school requirements, but started to take it seriously as a junior when colleges began recruiting her. She viewed it as an opportunity to further her education.

Tim Cheney, her counselor, reached out to Harvard among a long list of schools. Tolbert, the Crimson’s recruiting coordinator, receives those types of calls all the time: prep school athletes with pretty good times and pretty good grades.

“I take it with a grain of salt,” Tolbert said. “You might get three of those a week.”

Thomas stuck out not because of her times but by how much she was winning. Her physicality projected well, too.

Tolbert contacted her that summer, and both sides’ interest grew. Thomas narrowed her choices to Harvard, Duke and “kind of” Brown, she said.

Her mother advocated for her alma mater but couldn’t argue with the opportunities Harvard presented.

“I still tease her that she made the wrong choice. I felt for sure she was going to pick Duke,” Randall said.

When Thomas was struggling with the decision, Randall asked her, “Which school would you regret not attending?”

“That was it — all the struggle and the back and forth kind of stopped,” Randall said.

Once in Cambridge, she didn’t settle in immediately. A neurobiology major doesn’t necessarily mix well with Division I athletics.

“I was still trying to have fun,” Thomas said. “I quickly realized they were not playing around here.”

Her grades suffered. She questioned whether to transfer.

Thomas often called her mom for support. Working in academia, Randall recognized her struggles as typical freshman problems.

“All these other people look like they had it together,” Randall said. “When you’re 18, none of you have it together.”

Randall listened, encouraged, made Thomas laugh and waited for the next phone call. Eventually, Thomas adjusted. Her performances on the track clicked, and she settled in socially.

“Things got infinitely better when she found her tribe,” Randall said. “Gabby has always valued friendships in a way that is extraordinary. She’s relied on them.”

Her freshman season culminated in a third-place finish in the 200 at the 2016 NCAA outdoor championships. She qualified for the Olympic trials and ran against six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix in the final.

“I could not believe it. I was a freshman in college, and I was there with them,” Thomas said. “It happened so quickly.”

Slowing down — but not on the track

Life moves pretty fast when you’re Gabby Thomas. She purposely slowed down her sophomore year. Not on the track — her times remained consistent — but she focused on other aspects of life.

Thomas participated in Harvard’s prestigious final clubs, worked at a dry cleaners on campus — a job she still holds — and joined Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business, becoming the organization’s diversity director.

She repeated her third-place performance at the NCAA championships and cut her outdoor season short, opting for a summer study abroad program in Senegal over the U.S. championships.

“I needed some space away to recuperate, reflect and get more mentally mature. I knew I didn’t care about my season that year,” Thomas said.

The break was just what she needed. Thomas started her junior year more motivated than ever.

“The fall workouts, I was killing it,” she said.

She won her first national title at the 2018 NCAA Indoor Championships in March, breaking a 10-year old collegiate record in the 200. Thomas was the first Ivy League women’s sprinter to win a national title.

“After she broke the collegiate record, she became more coachable,” Tolbert said. “Usually it’s the opposite, like, ‘Coach, I’m the s–t now.’”

Thomas remained grounded and humble, torching the 2018 Ivy League Championships and again finishing second in the 200 at the outdoor NCAA championships. She was an eight-time All-American and sensed her time as a collegiate athlete ending.

Competing over the summer in Europe as an amateur in the Diamond League, a series of elite meets sponsored by the international track federation, confirmed those suspicions.

“If I can do this after a long collegiate season, and I didn’t even train or plan for this, I can do it,” she said.

Her deal with New Balance includes education and travel stipends. She remains enrolled at Harvard and will finish her senior year while competing on the professional circuit. Thomas hired Tolbert as her personal coach and still practices at Harvard’s facilities. Harvard mixes much better with professional athletics than collegiate.

She left the Crimson’s roster, not the team. Thomas still calls Harvard athletes her teammates.

“She still makes a huge effort to reach out and connect with all of us,” freshman Fredericka Lucas said. “One of our first team gatherings, she held it in her room. That was one of the first times I felt like really part of the team.”

Thomas craves those connections with teammates and friends. She sometimes struggles balancing her desire to be one of the best in the world with just being a regular person. She said she didn’t even look at a track for months once she returned from Europe. Thomas spent a lot of time with her friends, a luxury she can’t always enjoy when training takes over her schedule.

“It’s something I’m very conscious of, and I hate it, but I just don’t have energy a lot of the time for hanging out,” Gabby said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me, and they don’t get it, but they were really happy to see me a lot more.”

Her friends haven’t seen much of her since she resumed training in October. The 300 she’ll run at the Reggie Lewis Center, while not her favored distance, provides both a comfortable professional starting point and a glimpse into her future. Thomas always ran the 100 and 200, track’s glamour events, but she and her coach realize that her best races are likely the 200 and 400.

“You naturally gravitate toward certain events,” Thomas said.

She’ll be competing in those events on the world stage for the first time Saturday. Not many people who grew up where she’s from and went to the schools she attended reach this point.

“People are so confused like, ‘Where are you from?’ ” Thomas said, flashing a huge smile. “Western Massachusetts. I love having thatbackground, being me.”

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



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