If there was any lingering doubt after winning an NCAA Indoor 200 title that Gabby Thomas was a superstar in the making, her heroic performances at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships proved she is no fluke. The Harvard junior capped an exhausting two-day showcase in Philadelphia with a sizzling 49.44 split to anchor the Crimson to the 4×4 title.
That head-turning effort followed Thomas’ third straight conference titles in the 100 (11.27) and 200 (22.76) as well as her second consecutive win in the long jump, where she also came from behind to uncork a big (albeit barely wind-aided) 21-8¼ (6.61) on her final leap to secure 1st. She also ran the second leg on Harvard’s winning 4×1, giving her a hand in 50 of the runner-up team’s 114 points.
In the climactic long relay, Thomas got the stick 2.8 seconds behind Columbia’s Akua Obeng-Akrofi. “I knew that if I did go out and win it was going to be very painful,” Thomas admits. “I wasn’t quite sure how far ahead she was. I was thinking that we have to win this 4×4 because my coach said, ‘Let’s go out with a bang.’ We knew we couldn’t win the meet, because we just don’t have enough people. And so we always win the 4×4.”
Harvard (3:36.35) came out on top by just 0.04. “If you put someone in front of me I can run a lot faster than if nobody’s around,” Thomas says. “My competitiveness really drove that last 100, and I think that’s where I found that extra second.”
A day earlier she’d pulled off a similar clutch effort to win the long jump. Trailing by 3cm going into the final round, Thomas knew she had to rely on her speed, given her minimal jumping preparation. “In high school I was really good in long jump and triple jump, but I’ve been focusing on the sprints lately and I’ll just jump for points at our conference,” the Florence, Mass., native says. “I really wanted the points. I stopped playing it safe. So I used my speed and jumped as hard as I could. I was very shocked. Everybody was shocked, even the officials. They had to remeasure.” Thomas, whose PR is 20-7 (6.27), had a legal best of 20-½ (6.11).
Video of the 4×4 quickly circulated throughout the track world, putting a rare spotlight on a conference better known for books than batons. “We are not the best in the country and that’s fair,” Thomas concedes. “But we do have a lot of fast people and a lot of hard-working girls. So if you see an Ivy League girl on the line next to you, don’t assume she’s going to be slow; she might win.”
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 7, 2018
Thomas has been making that point for the past three seasons. As an unheralded frosh she placed 3rd in the NCAA 200 and unexpectedly took 6th at the Olympic Trials. She was a disappointing 8th at the NCAA Indoor in ’17, but came through with another 3rd outdoors.
Then she really turned heads with this year’s victory in March, taking the NCAA 200 title in 22.38 to snip 0.02 off Bianca Knight’s 10-year-old Collegiate Record. Not bad considering Thomas wasn’t prioritizing indoors.
Harvard associate head coach Kebba Tolbert explains, “Going into this year it was, ‘Let’s get better indoors and be prepared to compete for a title outdoors.’ The competition was going to be good, so our mindset was, ‘You could go and break the Collegiate Record and lose.’ ”
The recognition she has subsequently received has been amplified by Harvard’s reputation for academics rather than athletics. “She’s a big fish in a relatively small pond,” Tolbert continues. “This type of attention is not normal for a Harvard sprinter. But Gabby’s been pretty humble and appreciative of the opportunities and attention that winning nationals has afforded her.”
Her outdoor season has so far featured a series of wind-aided races, including a breezy 11.04/22.13 double at the Texas Relays. But she also lowered her legal 200 PR to 22.32 and her fastest 100 (11.26) is just 0.02 off the career best she set last year.
The focus now shifts to the NCAA, where Thomas hopes to add another trophy in the 200, and believes she’s prepared to run sub-22 to make it happen. She’ll also run the 100, where she hopes to make the final, but the long jump is off the table for the rest of the year.
Says Tolbert, “We long jump a couple of times a year indoors and outdoors, enough to be ready for conference. She’s not a very good long jumper technically, and because that beats her up, we limit how much training and competition she does.”
It’s possible she may also take a stab at the 400—a race she has never run out of the blocks—next year. “No one really wants to be a 400 runner. It’s a painful lifestyle,” she says with a laugh. “But I would like to see where I could go with that.” Meredith Rainey’s indoor (52.96) and outdoor (51.56) school and Ivy records have stood since ’90, and Tolbert would like to take a shot at those.
A pro career is something Thomas admits she hadn’t thought about before winning the NCAA title. “At the very least I am thinking another year of training for Tokyo in 2020,” she says of her post-graduate plans. And it’s possible that she could turn pro early.
Says Tolbert, “If offers come around I know it’s something the family will consider, but it’s not like she would automatically do it. But no matter what happens she would finish her degree. That’s the most important thing. Nothing is worth more than a Harvard degree.”
Indeed. Thomas, a neurobiology major, is eyeing a career in health policy. “Helping people is something I’ve always been pretty passionate about,” she says. “Health is something I’ve very passionate about, especially with [regards to] class and race.”
For now she’s enjoying the spotlight and the chance to change perceptions about her conference. “Don’t count out the Ivy League women,” she tweeted triumphantly on the final day of the Heps. She knows it’s a hard sell. “It’s a little frustrating because you have to work so much harder just to get your name out there as a fast person instead of just a smart person,” she says. “But I think in a way that’s something unique, so I like that. I don’t just go to Harvard, I go to Harvard and I run, so that’s special.”
HEPS WOMEN’S RESULTS
Philadelphia, May 05-06—
(5/5—10K, PV, LJ, HT, JT)
Teams: 1. Penn 177; 2. Harvard 114; 3. Princeton 90; 4. Cornell 87½; 5. Columbia 83; 6. Dartmouth 62½; 7. Brown 54; 8. Yale 14.
100(-0.1): 1. *Gabby Thomas (Harv) 11.27. Heats: I(0.0)–1. Thomas 11.26.
200(-1.1): 1. Thomas 22.76. Heats: III(0.9)–1. Thomas 22.82.
400: 1. ***Uchechi Nwogwugwu (Penn) 52.41.
800: 1. **Nia Akins (Penn) 2:05.89.
1500: 1. Sarah Hardie (Col) 4:21.94.
St: 1. Nell Crosby (Col) 10:04.43; 2. *Briar Brumley (Corn) 10:09.96; 3. ***Gabrielle Orie (Corn) 10:13.84; 4. **Lauren Sapone (Dart) 10:16.50.
5000: 1. Abby Hong (Penn) 16:17.30.
10,000: 1. Hong 34:53.81.
100H(1.6): 1. **Cha’Mia Rothwell (Dart) 13.24.
400H: 1. ***Addison Coy (Yale) 58.77; 2. **Karina Joiner (Harv) 58.86.
4 x 100: 1. Harvard 45.16 (Musa, Thomas, Joiner, Okoli).
4 x 400: 1. Harvard 3:36.35 (Miklos, Okoli, Joiner, Thomas 49.44); 2. Columbia 3:36.39.
4 x 800: 1. Penn 8:40.93 (Alm, Schneider, Stremme, Akins 2:06.22); 2. Columbia 8:43.06; 3. Cornell 8:43.83; 4. Princeton 8:44.23; 5. Dartmouth 8:48.72.
PV: 1. *Nicole Macco (Penn) 13-1¾ (4.01).
LJ: 1. Thomas 21-8¼w (6.61) (20-½ /6.11); 2. **Cha’Mia Rothwell (Dart) 20-4¼ (6.20).
TJ: 1. **Simi Fajemisin’ (Harv) 42-8 (13.00); 2. **Zion Lewis (Brown) 42-4¾ (12.92); 3. **Maryam Hassan (Col) 42-½ (12.81).
SP: 1. Michaela Smith (Corn) 50-4½ (15.35).
DT: 1. ***Ashley Anumba (Penn) 180-5 (55.00); 2. ***Obi Amaechi (Prin) 179-1 (54.58).
HT: 1. *Rachel Wilson (Penn) 188-5 (57.43).
JT: 1. ***Brooke Cope (Penn) 154-9 (47.16).
Hept: 1. *Carly Paul (Brown) 5333. □