Olympics: Gabby Thomas perfect for 200

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

  • 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 June 26 in Eugene, Ore. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 7/29/2021 7:23:52 PM

Two hundred meters is twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

That’s the distance that separates Florence’s Gabby Thomas from an Olympic medal in Tokyo. She has the fastest time in the world this year — 21.61 seconds at the U.S. Olympic Trials. That mark is the second quickest ever behind Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988.

Thomas will make her Olympic debut in the first round heats at 9:30 p.m. Sunday. The semifinals follow later that night in Japan, which is 6:25 a.m. Monday. If she makes it out of them, she’ll contest the final with the fastest women in the world at 8:50 a.m. Tuesday.

“Any time you go into the Olympics No. 1 in the world, you should feel like you’ve got a shot,” said Kebba Tolbert, Thomas’ coach at Harvard. “But you also have to respect the fact that there are people in the world with more experience and people that are hungry. Just being the best in the world at this time doesn’t guarantee anything.”

She’s going to have to outpace some of the sport’s biggest names to cross the finish line first. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce set the second-fastest time in the world (21.79) at Jamaica’s Olympic Trials. She is a six-time Olympic medalist with two golds in the 100-meter dash. Fraser-Pryce claimed the title of “fastest woman alive” when she clocked the second-fastest 100 ever in June.

“Shelly-Ann Fraser might be the greatest female sprinter in history,” Tolbert said.

Thomas will also need to contend with Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson (two medals in the Rio De Janeiro Olympics), the USA’s Jenna Prandini (a 2016 Olympian) and fellow American Anavia Battle (a Big Ten champion).

“I’m not saying she should concede to any of them, but that’s why they run those races with all of those great people,” Tolbert said.

And the race itself isn’t a leisurely stroll. The 200 stretches the all-out sprinting nature of the 100 almost to its limits. It takes not only speed but endurance and strategy to execute.

“The 200 is a stud event. You really have to have a combination of speed, endurance and strength. A little bit of grit as an athlete goes a long way,” said Brandon Palmer, a Smith College track and field coach that used to helm the Northampton running programs. “She’s got the perfect blend. Being able to have a powerful start and top speed and a lot of acceleration is ridiculous.”

In many ways, Thomas was built to run the 200. Her long legs allow her to get out of the blocks quickly and maintain her speed around the turn. She has broad shoulders that help stabilize her core and not lose momentum.

“The endurance is unbelievable. She’s always capable of holding it together, especially late in the race. It’s impressive to watch,” South Hadley track and field coach Nick Davis said. “A lot of people start to tie up in the last 30 or 40 meters, and she’s come up with a strategy (to not). Whatever she’s been doing mentally in the middle of the race is allowing her to hold everything together.”

By all accounts, Thomas is the gold medal favorite. Las Vegas sportsbooks list her as the betting favorite, currently set at plus-150 (bet $100 to win $150). Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith has the second-best odds (+450), followed by Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas and Fraser-Pryce (both at +500).

The world record (21.34 in 1988) isn’t completely out of the question.

“I don’t want to put a limit on myself,” Thomas said after the Olympic Trials. “I’m not going to say it’s unattainable.”

But what if she doesn’t? Silver and bronze medals still shine. They etch your place in sports history.

“Anyone that thinks if she doesn’t get the gold it’s a disappointment is mistaken,” Tolbert said. “If she goes and gets a bronze medal it’s not like she let the country down or let her friends and family down. That’s a really bad narrative.”

Thomas is already an inspiration in Western Massachusetts. Northampton Open Media is hosting a Go Gabby Go! watch party at 8:30 p.m. Sunday to Thomas’ opening race at 33 Hawley Street in Northampton.

“It gives us as coaches for these younger athletes a chance to say ‘they came from right up the street,’” Davis said. “We spend a lot of time looking at these sprinters coming out of Texas or Florida or North Carolina, all these super warm places where they get to run outside all the time. For Gabby to be from Massachusetts, to have gone to Harvard, it allows us to say, ‘this can be you guys, you don’t have to go that far.”

And look how far you can go.

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