Life moving fast for Florence’s Gabby Thomas after historic run at the Olympic Trials

  • Florence’s Gabby Thomas celebrates after winning the final in the women's 200-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials last weekend in Eugene, Ore. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/1/2021 7:01:03 PM

Stardom caught up to Gabby Thomas at the Olympic Trials. It was the only thing that could stay with the sprinter from Florence.

She qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo by winning the 200-meter dash in 21.61 seconds. That’s the fastest in the world this year and second-fastest all time to Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 1988 sprint in Seoul.

“That’s hard to wrap my head around,” Thomas said. “Being stuck between Flo Jo and Marion Jones, I didn’t think that was something I was even driving toward.”

She entered the meet in Eugene, Ore., with a simple goal: win each heat and qualify for her first Olympic Games. As she kept setting personal bests and winning heats against some of America’s fastest women, her goalposts kept moving.

“It’s crazy because after each race and each round I became more confident I was going to come out of trials an Olympian. Then my goal changed to ‘I want to win this race I want to be a national champion, I want to be a favorite going in,’” Thomas said. “It’s set in because my goal has immediately changed to now not only am I going to the Olympics, I want to win a gold medal. I’m so focused on medaling now that I haven’t taken the time to think about it or really celebrate it. I have to go there and I have to medal now.”

Throwing down the second-fastest time ever would draw attention on its own, but Thomas’ charisma and backstory made her a sensation. She appeared on the Today Show and CNN, and received congratulations from celebrities.

“It’s been very, very overwhelming. Everything’s been moving really, really fast. I didn’t expect to get this much attention mostly because I didn’t expect to drop a time that fast,” Thomas said. “I didn’t expect so much media to catch onto it, this narrative to be made. It’s been a whirlwind of excitement.”

Thomas graduated from Harvard and is in grad school at the University of Texas studying epidemiology and public health. She used to not feel like she belonged at major track and field events because of where she’s from and went to school. People there weren't used to seeing a sprinter from the Ivy League and didn’t expect much of her.

“It’s funny to see that happen. I felt like I didn’t belong in these spaces. I was overwhelmed. Nobody knew who I was,” Thomas said. “Now they’re like ‘that’s a plus.’ I really appreciate it. I love, love, love the support I’ve been getting. It makes me so happy.”

Ashton Kutcher messaged her. She talked to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Actress and producer Kerry Washington called her a queen on Twitter. Serena Williams’ husband Alexis Ohanian told Thomas the whole family was rooting for her.

“Does that mean you and Serena Williams were talking about me over the dinner table? Oh my god,” Thomas said.

But one mention stood out: actress Gabrielle Union made Thomas her Woman Crush Wednesday on Twitter. Thomas styled her own Twitter name after Union’s: @itsgabriellet – compared to Union’s @itsgabrielleu. Recently Thomas hosted a one-on-one interview with herself on Instagram and said she would want Union to play her in a movie.

“I was star struck,” Thomas said. “It is definitely more motivating to go back in the lab. I know I’m on the right track.”

Now she’s presented with a conundrum: run in a meet or two between now and July 25 when she heads to Japan to keep the competitive edge, or rest mentally and physically before the biggest race of her life.

“I’m still a little bit exhausted from trials. I need that mental recovery,” Thomas said. “I have a lot to think about but I am excited to get back to work and see what I can do.”

Thankfully her coach, three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey, has been through this before and has her back.

“It’s been invaluable having her insight of what I need to do. We had a very long heart to heart about the lifestyle changes I needed to have because she knows what it takes,” Thomas said. “She understands the mental aspect of it being in that environment with her and two other girls who are Olympic medalists themselves and having them, they push me to get here.”

Thomas will arrive in Tokyo five days before her race and will leave almost immediately after. She and the other athletes won’t participate in the Opening Ceremonies because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s kind of sad because they don’t have opening ceremonies for us, which was something I was looking forward to,” she said. “I’m still excited to be able to experience it.”

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