Harvard’s Gabby Thomas ready for the Olympic Trials, the biggest track meet of her life

  • Harvard’s Gabrielle Thomas, of Florence, places third in the 200-meter dash in 22.47 seconds at the NCAA championships earlier this month. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/30/2016 8:08:08 PM

Gabrielle Thomas stepped off the plane in Eugene, Oregon, and felt the rush.

“Even before we left the airport people were like ‘are you here for the track meet?’ Everything is so track-oriented here,” the Harvard freshman said. “You’re treated like a celebrity if you run track here.”

Thomas, who is from Florence and attended the Williston Northampton School, is in Eugene for the second time in a month for the biggest track meet of her life.

She finished third at the NCAA Championships in mid-June, running the 200-meter dash in 22.47 seconds.

Now she’s back in “TrackTown, USA” for the Olympic Trials, which begin Friday.

“For me they’re pretty similar because nationals is the biggest track meet I’ve ever been to, and now this is the biggest track meet I’ve ever been to. Nationals is different because I went there to place because I was competing against other collegiate athletes, and I knew I could do it if I focused during the race. This is a little different because the stakes are kind of higher,” Thomas said. “In a way it makes me less nervous because I made it here, I have less to lose. It’s also scarier because these are big-time athletes.”

Defending Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix will carry the top seed at 21.98 seconds.

Tori Bowie is seeded second at 21.99, and Candyce McGrone is third at 22.01.

Thomas also is entered in the 100, and she qualified with a time of 11.3 seconds.

English Gardner tops the field at 10.79.

The top three finishers qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s not out of the question she could get third (in the 200). She’s 13th in the world right now, but she’s seventh in the U.S.,” Harvard associate head coach Kebba Tolbert said. “If you get to the finals, everyone’s got a shot. Don’t concede to anybody, but don’t think they’re going to give you anything.”

Thomas went to Harvard to face that kind of challenge.

She dominated prep school competition before joining the Crimson.

“I did want to go somewhere where I would be pushed and I wasn’t just running recreationally,” Thomas said. “I knew I wanted an Ivy League education and I wanted to do track with a purpose, and that’s what I found at Harvard.”

Tolbert saw the talent and the drive when he recruited Thomas.

She just needed to get used to the coaching.

“It’s not the talent that’s gotten her here. She’s coachable. She’s learned to be coachable,” he said. “Coming in, there were a lot of things that I was trying to get her to fix, and she didn’t understand. She’d listen, take things under advisement, and she’d try to do it. She hadn’t really been beaten a lot. She had this mindset for a while of ‘what I did got me here.’”

Once the coaching clicked, Thomas wasn’t beaten much at Harvard, either.

She won the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference title and the Ivy League championship in the 200.

“Being at Harvard definitely changed the idea for track and field for me,” Thomas said. “Being around such talented and dedicated athletes played a big part for me mentally.”

Four other Harvard athletes qualified for the Olympic trials — Autumne Franklin (400 hurdles), Jade Miller (400 hurdles), Paige Kouba (3,000 steeplechase) and Courtney Smith (10,000).

They helped Harvard reach its highest ever ranking this season at No. 10 in April.

“We have a really strong group culture,” Tolbert said. “Having people who have been there and are older than you leading you makes a difference. It’s a lot to put on a freshman, but when you’re part of a group, it’s what you do.”

Still, Tolbert didn’t imagine Thomas would be here this early.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted she was going to be here,” he said. “She’s finished third at the NCAA championships and qualified for the Olympic trials, if she had done that in four years we’d have said, ‘man, she’s had a great career.”

Thomas has filled the time between the national championships and Olympic Trials with rest.

“At home there’s a lot of working out, and I have a job in the lab,” Thomas said. “(Finding time to rest) is one of the hardest things to do when you’re a student athlete, especially at Harvard.”

Her first event is the 100 at 12:33 p.m. Saturday.

The semifinals follow at 4:02 p.m. with the final at 5:44 p.m.

The 200 quarterfinals are at 3:30 p.m. July 8 with the semifinals at 5:37 p.m.

The final is at 5:42 p.m. Saturday, July 9.

NBC and its affiliate networks are broadcasting the trials.

“I think that I could get a lot from this experience. I think that the more experience I have in high stakes meets, the better for me personally because I get really nervous in high pressure situations,” Thomas said. “It only happens once every four years. This is as good a time as any.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.


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