IN OUR SPORT, as in nature, spring Is a time for new beginnings. For Gabby Thomas, the opportunity to tie on her spikes and race outdoors again was especially welcome after a ’22 campaign that did not go to plan after a break-out ’21.
The Harvard alum, now a New Balance pro who has been training with Tonja Buford-Bailey’s crew in Austin, was felled by a hamstring injury in the run-up to last year’s USATF meet. Though she made it to the finals of the 200, she ended up struggling to a non-qualifying 8th. Named to the Worlds team as a relay member, she didn’t get a chance to run in what would have been her first World Championships.
Perhaps that’s why showing up at the Texas Relays in early April to win a 100/200 double in 11.09/22.46 felt so good. It marked an important milestone in a season that the 26-year-old hopes will have an entirely different conclusion than last year’s.
She explains, “It was about 10 days before Trials, and I was doing a sprint workout just to stay sharp and feel really good about Trials. And I tore my hamstring, really abruptly. It was a grade 2 hamstring tear and I had 10 days to get it together, which,” she says with a laugh, “anyone in sports knows that’s impossible. But I did what I could and I went out and raced anyway.
“That was a tough time,” she admits. “I mean, I was feeling really good. We were running PBs in practice. My starts were looking really good and cleaned up, which is something that I struggle with a little bit. And then we were doing an over-speed workout, and I guess it was just one too many and that was it.
“We had one more left in that session, and that was our last speed day before Trials. But, I mean, the thing about track & field is you’re just literally pushing your body to its limits — that’s the whole idea of the sport — which is why it’s so exciting and you run so fast and you break records. But unfortunately, we pushed it just a little too far past the limit, and that’s what happened. So it was really tough.”
To that point, Thomas had been considered one of the top contenders for a 200 berth on Team USA. In our last formchart prior to the meet, she had been picked to win. That was no stretch. The previous year, she had blasted a 21.61 to win the Olympic Trials, a mark that made her the No. 2 woman in world history. She followed up with an Olympic bronze medal in 21.87, plus a 4×1 silver.
She felt she was on track in ’22 to have another great year: “I was running well. I wouldn’t say I was PBing during races because that’s not the idea. But if you look at the trajectory of that season, it was going in a really, really positive direction. I was winning my races. I felt good, felt healthy, and everything was great. And then that happened.
“But that’s part of the sport. It was really, really hard. A lot of people saw that it was hard for me to accept it.”
Naturally, Thomas threw herself into the hope of healing the hamstring in record time. “I was doing hyperbaric chamber sessions like 3 hours a day. I looked at peer-reviewed literature on it. It speeds up healing. Basically, it’s this oxygen-concentrated tank; it helps with your red blood cells and healing. You lie down inside it; it’s very claustrophobic. And that’s what I did 3 hours a day, which was boring. I read, I meditated, cried a little bit — just kidding.”
She arrived in Eugene, if not fully healed, at least willing to fake it. “I was feeling good, feeling optimistic… The first round obviously was tough running on one leg, but I made it through and then made it through the semifinal to the final. So I was feeling if I could just do one more, just all out, get it done, then that’s what I was hoping for. But the kicker was having the semifinals and the finals just a couple hours apart. That’s just something, you could be superhuman, but you just can’t do it.”
She had even used a numbing agent on the hamstring, a decision that her inner circle debated: “There was a lot of back-and-forth with my team about it… You’re thinking, what more damage can you do to your leg? I mean, you can’t feel what’s happening. But I also felt that was kind of it. In our sport, everything rides on the World Championships. We have so many other competitions that matter, but for some reason, that’s the one that everyone takes seriously. So I’m thinking, ‘If not now, then when?’ You know, it’s now or never.”
Running numb turned out not to be the magic bullet. Positioned in lane 2, Thomas worked the turn hard, but her usual finishing drive was missing as she crossed in last at 22.47. Immensely disappointed, she returned to continue therapy on her hamstring, making real progress over the next few weeks.
“What really hurt though,” she says, “was I felt like I was ready come World Championships. I went there, they put me on the relay, just to see if I would be healthy enough to run.”
In the end, the relay coaches didn’t use her. “It was probably a good call,” Thomas says. “They won and you had all healthy girls on the relay and I think that was the best decision for the team.”
The late season wasn’t a total loss. She finished up with a 2nd in the Diamond League final, which nudged her up to a No. 7 in the World Rankings.
Since then, she’s been working hard on the track and off. It has been the final year of her studies for a master’s degree in Public Health. She graduates in May, after finishing her capstone project on sleep epidemiology. “I think as a society,” she says, “what’s striking is how little we care about our sleep health and how poor sleep really is an epidemic in our country. It’s not something we talk about… but it’s so important because of the health outcomes that it does lead to like cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, memory loss. It’s really, really scary.”
Along the way, she has shelved Plan A, which was to go to work in her field immediately, saying now she will be concentrating on track though at least the Paris Olympics: “I’m so fired up about track, and we get to have all these opportunities to travel and meet and talk to people and use my platform.”
As for the running itself: “I’m excited to come back and redeem myself this season, that’s for sure… I think I made some really good strides last season with it, so I’d love to see it through and put everything together and actually have something to show for it this year, so I’m feeling really good about that.”
Winning at the Texas Relays was just the first step.