HER REPUTATION PRECEDED her, surely, and she had sprinted like the wind before when it counted in a championships. For instance in setting a Collegiate Indoor Record as she won the 200 for Harvard at the ’18 NCAA Indoor.
Gabby Thomas arrived at the Olympic Trials last summer as the 200 favorite. Yet no one foresaw the magnitude of her winning time: 21.61 to move to No. 2 all-time in the half-lap with only a pair of Florence Griffith Joyner times from long ago 1988 ahead of her.
Thomas’s splendid dash was among the pleasantly shocking surprises of a Trials at which stunners were not rare currency. And if the follow up to the first national title of her career was “only” Olympic bronze in Tokyo, be mindful that veteran Elaine Thompson-Herah, with a Rio sprint double already to her name, ran history’s No. 2 time to claim gold. Silver medalist Christine Mboma’s 21.81 earned the Namibian a World Junior Record. (Continued below)
As the 25-year-old Texas-based, Massachusetts-raised Thomas chatted for this interview from a Birmingham hotel the evening before that city’s Diamond League fixture, she had a week before won the 200 in Doha — her first victory in a DL event. She recalls that blustery desert evening as “pretty windy, pretty sandy,” though the air was calm enough during the 200 to keep her 21.98 wind legal.
On the track in Birmingham, Thomas would win the 100’s B race in 11.27 little more than an hour before placing 5th in the A section with 11.31.
“One was decent and the other did not go as well as I expect for myself,” Thomas assessed on Instagram. “But making progress is always a little messy.”
This talk began with a meet-preparation-oriented question.
T&FN: I’m catching you on an evening before a meet and I’m curious what you do to get ready? Do you avoid thinking about the race ahead? Do you follow a routine?
Thomas: [laughs] You caught me as I just ordered like a gallon of water and turned on a Netflix movie. I’m just about to chill out and kind of just relax.
Before I go to bed I’ll probably at some point do some meditation, I do a lot of visualizing of the race. That’s kind of the main thing I do before I compete probably, the day before and the day of. But other than that, I just treat it kind of like it’s a normal day and just try to relax as much as I can.
T&FN: Last season was obviously huge, and huge congratulations are in order. I read that you described a post-Olympic emotional letdown last summer and I’m curious what you did — maybe did in consultation with your coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey — to gear back up for this season?
Thomas: That kind of was like, once you get to Tokyo and make the team, and even when you get there and start competing, you’re just — or at least I was — on such a high. That was pretty much the highlight of my life. And so obviously there are so many emotions, so many hormones and just such a high that I’m feeling. It’s like kind of this peak. And after we left Tokyo, it’s like suddenly it was all over so quickly.
It was almost like, “OK, now what?” I didn’t really have anything that I was immediately working towards anymore. And then to top all of that off, it was kind of this feeling of being overwhelmed too, just because suddenly I have this Olympic medal and suddenly everyone’s talking about Gabby Thomas and I wasn’t prepared for that.
I didn’t understand what all that would entail for me. So now I’m dealing with these emotions of having finished just this [laughs] insane experience in my life that I was working for for years. And having that come to an end and then suddenly I’m kind of like thrown into this new world that I wasn’t really ready or prepared for.
What I ended up doing was, 1, I just started speaking to a therapist who was supplied by the USOPC, and then it got a lot better when I started training again. I found just having that grounding in track just helped a lot. And there was also just trying to keep a perspective. I mean, it just took time, it took time and figuring out how to manage the new setting and new environment that I was in.
T&FN: I can imagine all of those emotions. You also had a serious health scare, the discovery of a liver tumor that eventually was determined turned out to be benign, in the months before — or was it weeks before? — the Trials. Then you ran that incredible time in the final!
Thomas: Yeah, I was so grateful just to be healthy and to be able to run because, you know, it was a health scare. It was only weeks before the Trials and I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be in the head space to compete if I had found any other findings from that tumor.
I just knew that I had promised myself before I went into the race, ‘If I come out of this healthy, I’m just gonna be so grateful to be able to, 1, be alive and, 2, be alive doing what I love. So I’m gonna make every minute of that count.’
And I do think it kind of motivated me a lot going into Trials to find out that I was completely healthy, and I was just so grateful to have found that.
T&FN: Your undergrad degree was in Neurobiology. You are now working on a Masters in Epidemiology. Do you have any commentary on your experience with the healthcare system in your experience in that time, given that you have connections to that world.
Thomas: Well, it’s funny. I got the MRI [by which the tumor was discovered] because I was having hamstring issues. I was kind of running on a bum hamstring at that time and I needed to get the imaging to figure out what was going on. That’s fairly normal in track & field, people run with aches and pains.
But when I got the MRI is when they found that weird mass in my liver, and the first thing I thought was, “We don’t need to pursue it any further. It’s fine. Let’s not waste the healthcare dollars on getting further imaging and scoping this out because adverse findings are very common when you have people who are constantly getting imaging.”
I mean, if you think about the average person, they’re not gonna be getting an MRI randomly in the middle of the week like an athlete is. So that mass just would’ve been there. They would’ve never known, they would’ve lived the rest of their life completely healthy. But obviously they saw it with me and they repeatedly told me that I needed to get it checked out.
And the more the doctors expressed concerns, the more concerned I became. So it went from, “OK, whatever, there’s just something abnormal in my abdomen, and that’s fine,” to “Holy crap, this is cancer, I’m not gonna be OK.”
That happened really quickly. And then after that, even just how long it took to get all of the appointments to get the referrals even just to get in and get the imaging looked at. And then once I had the imaging, just to how long it took to actually physically get a copy of the images so that I could send it to my doctor. All of it was just such a hassle of a process.
I was incredibly stressed during that time, as you can imagine, and so it frustrated me. I’m just imagining, “I’m sitting here with all of the resources that you can imagine at my disposal, someone with a healthcare background, someone who has USA Track & Field and USOPC staff working on my behalf on this and helping me out, and I don’t even have to pay a dime. None of this is coming out of my pocket, and I’m dealing with all of this frustration. I’m trying to get it done in a timely manner and I’m just so grateful to have all these people working for me.”
But it made me really think, “OK, well, what if I didn’t have these resources? What if I had to pay for this out of pocket? What if I didn’t have people helping me telling me which doctor I needed to go to — or if they didn’t have a doctor in mind that they could refer me to, that they trusted, to read the results for me?”
It was eye-opening. It really validated why I went into what I wanted to study, which is epidemiology, and I want to be able to go and work in the healthcare systems. (Continued below)
T&FN: Has your background in neurobiology provided insights that have helped you in developing and refining your sprint technique?
Thomas: Yeah. I think at first I wanted to do neurobiology just because it’s what I wanted to do and I wanted to graduate and do research afterwards. But when I realized that I didn’t want to do research afterwards, I ended up just sticking with the major because I did love it. And I felt like it was applicable to so many different areas of life, including track & field.
I had such a deeper appreciation of how my body was responding to training, and not just training, but how it kind of responded to everything else in life and other stimulus that would affect my training. Like having a really stressful week and what that would do to my hormones and how that would, in effect, affect my training and potentially cause injury if I pushed it too much or just made my training even better.
Just kind of small things like that, or even the muscle memory idea that we have and understanding the actual neuroplasticity behind it. Having that appreciation just really helps [laughs] when you’re training. You don’t think that it might, but when you have an athlete who’s really committed to something that they’re being told to do because they truly understand it from its core is really helpful.
That’s what helped me. And it kind of pushed me and motivated me that much more to the tiniest degree every day in training. I think it just made a big difference when you see those small marginal gains just through that appreciation.
T&FN: As you developed as a sprinter — of course, you were very good from the start, especially considering that western Massachusetts is not a sprint hotbed but then you obviously moved to another level at Harvard— was there a breakthrough moment technically, or was it more an incremental thing as you worked with coach Kebba Tolbert?
Thomas: That was a very, very gradual process. He recruited me as a very lanky, awkward high school girl who just wanted to go to Harvard and study. And I learned so much through him incrementally and he is so passionate about the sport and learning more about the sport. He’s still a student of the sport, which is one of the things that I respected most about him when I chose to run for him at Harvard. And it happened very gradually piece by piece. If you look at every single year, it wasn’t just this straight progression.
Freshman year, I had a great year just coming to the college program and competing and training like that. Then my sophomore year was kind of a down year, and then my junior year I came back.
I had gone through some personal things that I think made me ready to have a really, really strong junior year, which I did. And then my senior year was not so great, the motivation kind of died a little bit there too.
Then that brings us to last year [laughs] so it was kind of this up and down little process.
T&FN: In your junior year, 2018, you set the Collegiate Indoor Record at the NCAA. Then you didn’t win the outdoor 200 title and you didn’t race at the USATF Champs, but you ran six European meets including five Diamond League fixtures later in the summer. You didn’t announce you had turned pro until the fall, as I recall. What was your thought process that summer?
Thomas: I had been running so much, so many races, coming off the NCAA season and how hard I went during that season and then going overseas. To be honest, I was running in these meets in Europe and I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t even know what the Diamond League was. I just was told to run, and so I did, and I was enjoying it.
But then it got to a point where I needed a break [laughs], and I think every athlete kind of gets to that point where sometimes you need a break. I did. And so that just ended up being that.
I ended up signing at the end of that year with New Balance because it was such a good fit.
I wasn’t even sure if I was gonna go pro until kind of just before it happened. I didn’t know what being a professional track athlete looked like or what it entailed. I didn’t know any professional track athletes, and it just wasn’t something that I grew up around or ever aspired to be. But it just kind of happened, and New Balance ended up being such a great partnership because they’re in Massachusetts, a Boston-based brand, and I’d been wearing it my entire collegiate career and I’m from Massachusetts. They’re kind of a family brand. So it was such a great fit and I felt so welcome to join it and I ended up signing with them.
T&FN: You graduated from Harvard the following spring. When and how did you decide to relocate to Austin?
Thomas: I signed right at the end of 2018 and then I graduated in the spring of 2019. At that point I was honestly still not entirely certain of what being a professional track athlete entailed. So I was just kind of running, doing my thing.
And then I graduated and I went overseas, but I went overseas mainly for vacation. I did my senior spring vacation with my friends, and then there were some meets over there. So I hopped over and did them, and my focus just was not where it needed to be [laughs].
I kind of just forewent that entire season, but I knew that if I wanted to continue to be a pro athlete, I was gonna have to set myself up a little bit better. I would need to be around people who were motivated. I would need to be around people who wanted to run track, and be with a coach who coached that level of elite athletes.
So I met coach Bailey overseas in Europe, and she was incredible and I knew she coached a group of elite girls. So I packed my bags and moved to Austin, Texas, pretty quickly after talking to her — about two weeks after. And, it’s been great working with her ever since.
T&FN: Did you begin your epidemiology studies that fall?
Thomas: I applied for that in the fall of 2019. I remember the day I moved to Austin, that weekend I went and took my GRE and then I applied and I got in in January, 2020.
T&FN: I keep asking you about all this non-track stuff. It must have been an interesting experience being focused on epidemiology as a pandemic struck the world.
Thomas: Yeah. It was such a weird timely occurrence, but it was really validating in what I was going to study because nobody could have predicted that would’ve happened. But it did make the study even more interesting, right?
I don’t want to say it was a good thing, but it was very interesting to be studying these types of things in real time, and how studies are being conducted while they are being conducted in kind of a historically unprecedented time for us.
T&FN: With your focus on and understanding of that topic, what’s been the most surprising thing to you, if anything, about the way this pandemic has played out? There has been so much politics, so much misinformation.
Thomas: The most surprising thing for me about it has just been the spread of misinformation. I’m not sure if the world has gone through such a shocking experience collectively while having access to these sources of communication, like Twitter and all these social media sources. It’s insane how quickly misinformation spreads, and it’s really dangerous and shocking.
Everyone just has to be so careful with what they’re reading and how they’re reading it, and also just how they’re putting out information.
T&FN: It’s easy to guess at some of your aspirations for this season, but do you have thoughts on the way you are going to define a successful season that might not be readily apparent?
Thomas: Obviously the goals would be World Championships, make the team, and then go and get a World Championships medal. Both would be firsts for me. But another two things that I have in my mind are 1, being a top contender in the 100. That’s been a goal of mine that I’ve been slowly working towards for a couple of years. The 200 has always come more naturally to me.
But when I made the relay team last year and got to anchor the 4×1 at the Olympics, that was a huge accomplishment for me — just because I know that’s a race that I’ve been really working very hard on and I hadn’t reached sub-11 yet, but I had worked my way and competed my way to that position. That’s something that I was really proud of and I hope to build off of that this year.
And then also just remaining a top contender, because it’s really challenging to be in a position where you have done really well and to continue to do really well. You see a lot of athletes, it becomes too much pressure, and it becomes really difficult to maintain that for an extended period of time. I want be one of those athletes, you know, I want to be like an Allyson Felix or Elaine Thompson-Herah, where they are very consistent in how they’re putting out these amazing performances. (Continued below)
T&FN: Last summer, June 26. You’ll never forget that day, I wager. What crossed your mind as you finished that Trials 200 final?
Thomas: [laughs] I was thinking, “Well, I’m an Olympian now, I’m going to Tokyo.” And then I’m thinking, “That time can’t be right.” I didn’t even understand what I had done with that time. Until I got to the press and everything, but yeah, “All these years of just working, this is the moment where it all has come together.”
T&FN: I can’t decide if the 200 sees more sudden breakthrough races as measured by the clock than the 100 or if that’s a misperception I have just because the 200 is twice as long, thus the numbers can look more stunning when a sprinter drops a gargantuan time. Any thoughts on this? While noting that this season you have already run under 22-flat.
Thomas: Yeah, that is really interesting with the 200, even if you just look at the Trials results. I mean, Sha’Carri [Richardson] ran a blazing 100, but a lot of them were pretty on par with what people run during the season. Especially mine, and I ended up making the relay pool.
But yeah, with the 200, it’s almost like you’re warming up all season and then suddenly it’s like, bam! — people are coming out with crazy 200m times, like when you’re hot, it just happens for you. Part of it, you might be right, is because it is a longer race so when you are feeling on it, all of those little 100ths, 1000ths of a second will add up even more in that race.
But yeah, it’s really exciting and like you said, this season I think I am right where I need to be in the 200.
Last year, a lot of people were telling me that I was running too fast too early. I got that constantly — and that I was running too many races and I was running too fast and that I wasn’t gonna make the team.
And even at Trials, people were whispering about me running too fast in the preliminary round cuz I ran a PB of 21.9. But that’s just not how I operate. And now that I’ve run 21.9 in Doha I’m hoping that just means I’ll run even faster this year at Trials and even faster at the World Championships.
T&FN: This spring you ran 6 outdoor finals before Doha. That’s not a critique. It seems to be working.
Thomas: Everyone does it differently. So it’s interesting to see how different athletes prepare for the major championships. But my coach is a strong believer in racing. I mean, she thinks that is how you get better. Racing is great training and it’s also really good as a sprinter to hear the gun go off as many times as you can. It’s just great, cuz there’s little room for error in the sprint races. So if you can go in and try to eliminate that as much as you can, then why not do it?
And then it’s really great to be over here doing the Diamond League Circuit, just to get that kind of elite competition around me. Because it’s one thing to compete when you’re comfortable or just going to the UT track in Austin, Texas, where I’m very comfortable competing and running fast. That’s one thing, but to do it overseas when you have Shericka Jackson and Dina Asher-Smith beside you, that’s another thing. So it’s really good to get that in too. It works for me.
Competing and running races, I mean, I love doing it. This is my job and it works for me. So [laughs] if it gets me prepared for Trials and the World Championships, then I’m gonna keep doing it. (Continued below)
T&FN: I know from your social media that in addition to being hosted at the White House with others from the Olympic team this spring, you recently appeared on a Women In Sports panel at a Brand Innovators Summit in Boston.
In light of your experience of rocketing straight into the general spotlight after the Trials, appearing on the Today Show, etc., do you have any observations relevant to such off-track changes in your day to day?
Thomas: It’s been really great to just be exposed to all these opportunities. I mean, the first thing you mentioned was the Brand Innovators Summit at The Track At New Balance, which was great. The panel I was on was about women in sports and how brands can help empower that and continue that.
I think it was a really powerful conversation and I’m so glad to be a part of that and to be a part of this movement of empowering women in sports. Especially younger girls. I like that if they turn on the TV or just go on their computer and they can see me and see what I’m doing, it might inspire them or motivate them to continue in sports or to continue in whatever. And this being able to have the platform to use my voice, to speak on whatever I want to speak on is really important.
I do kind of feel like athletes have this obligation to make an impact in a positive way on the world and whoever’s following us. So I’m hoping that I’m able to do that.
T&FN: I trust you are. What’s up next for you between Birmingham and the Worlds Trials?
Thomas: I’m flying home and I am going to stay in the U.S., which will be nice. I have one meet at the New York Grand Prix on June 12, but other than that, I’m just gonna be training, hanging out with my little puppy, my pug.
His name’s Rico and he is the cutest pug. He’s so fit. He loves running, he loves to go on runs with me and come to the track and he’s so fit. It’s unreal how fit of a pug he is, cuz normally they’re fat and lazy. But it’s perfect. And he’s so tall. He’s tall, which is weird cuz I’m tall too. But I’ll just be hanging out.
T&FN: Having had 3 pugs in my life, let me attest they’re not necessarily lazy. When I was a kid my brother and I had a pug who would tow us on our bikes by his leash. I feel guilty now because this was before dog harnesses were common. He was dragging us along by his neck but he loved it!
Thomas: Pugs are crazy. They’re just very high energy [laughs].
T&FN: They also think they’re big dogs. I could tell tales. But enough about that. I’m just glad you’ll be with a pug as you prepare for this summer.
Thank you for this interview. And best of luck to you tomorrow and for the rest of the season.
Thomas: Thank you too. Take care.