Gabby Thomas used the long strides that come with her 5-foot-11-inch frame to speed through the finish line at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials in first place in the 200 meters, screaming with her arms raised high.
Oohs and aahs came shortly after from the crowd at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., when the clock read 21.61. Only Florence Griffith Joyner has run the 200 faster — a 21.34 at the 1988 Olympic Games.
Thomas acknowledged she might have been able to cut a few hundredths off her time if she hadn’t raised her arms, but she couldn’t help but celebrate when it was clear that she would win the race with about 15 meters to go.
“I can’t explain how happy I felt. I was so excited. I just wanted to get across the line as quickly as possible,” said Thomas, who is from Florence, Mass.
Thomas qualified for her first Olympic team. When she saw her time, Thomas was even more surprised and realized she was a “strong contender” for an Olympic medal.
“I was not expecting that, so it was a really crazy moment. I just felt like a different athlete,” Thomas said.
The win also delivered on a promise to her mother, Jennifer Randall, whose 47th birthday was the day of the 200 final. Thomas forgot to get her mother a present because of how preoccupied she was at the trials, she said, but when they spoke that morning, Randall told Thomas that she would forget about it as long as Thomas gifted her with a national championship.
“And she came through. Yeah, her good fortune. Otherwise, she’d be hearing about that gift for a very long time, seriously,” Randall said, laughing.
With her time at the trials, Thomas, 24, is the favorite to win the gold medal at the Olympics, which begin in Tokyo on July 23. She is the only athlete to break 21.70 seconds this season, and only one runner has broken 21.80 seconds. She has a shot at another gold medal as part of the 4 x 100-meter relay team.
Thomas’s journey to becoming an American sprinting star has been an unlikely one. She considered giving the sport up while at Harvard and battled health issues just weeks before the trials.
In May, Thomas was having hamstring pain. She decided to get an X-ray on her lower back to see if any issues there were causing the pain, and it revealed a tumor in her liver. Thomas, who earned a degree in neurobiology and global health from Harvard and is studying health care management as well as epidemiology at Texas, didn’t panic because of her experience in the health field. She knew tumors are often harmless.
For almost a month, she searched to get an MRI but was unsuccessful in finding any openings. She began to worry more about if the tumor was cancerous while still competing in meets and training regularly.
“It was crazy mentally, and having to compete through that made it just too tough to focus sometimes,” she said.
A week before the trials began, she learned that the tumor was benign. For the first time in a month, she focused on just track again, which she credits to how well she ran at the trials.
“I was like, ‘I’m just happy to be here. I’m going to kick ass because I’m healthy,’ ” she said. “Maybe that was part of it. Part of my relief, it showed in how I raced.”
Just a few years ago, Thomas wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue running track. She struggled to balance her rigorous course load at Harvard with track and field. Thomas even told her mom that she didn’t see herself competing for all four years of college.
“For a while, it just wasn’t making me happy,” Thomas said.
Feeling burned out mentally, she ended her sophomore season early and traveled to Senegal for a study abroad trip. When she returned, she felt rejuvenated, and it showed in her performance. Thomas became the first NCAA sprint champion in Ivy League history and set the collegiate indoor record in the 200 meters (22.38). Her dominance caught the attention of shoe companies, and she signed with New Balance and turned pro.
Her coach at Harvard, Kebba Tolbert, said he wasn’t surprised to see how well Thomas ran at the trials. When he recruited her out of the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, he did not expect her to become one of the fastest women ever. Still, after coaching her and seeing her competitiveness daily, he knew her potential was sky high.
Thomas competed at the trials in 2016, but there wasn’t much expectation for her. This year she was a favorite to make the Olympic team. Tolbert said he was most proud of the way she performed under pressure.
“It’s easy when nobody knows who you are,” he said. “People around the world know who she is, and at the trials people are setting records left and right, so to step in that environment and deliver, that’s a different thing. I was really proud of just how she handled herself and the competitiveness she displayed.”
Following the trials, a wave of penalizations and rule changes impacted Black women competing at the Olympics.
The governing body for aquatic sports did not approve using a swimming cap designed to accommodate natural Black hair during the Olympics — the International Swimming Federation announced it was reviewing its decision. Two Namibian sprinters were ruled ineligible to compete in the 400 meters at the Olympics due to naturally high testosterone levels. American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended for a month and left off the Olympic team after testing positive for marijuana. Former Olympic 100-meter champion Brianna McNeal was given a five-year ban after missing a mandatory drug test because of an abortion.
Because of these cases, many Black people have announced through social media that they would not be supporting the Olympics. In a since-deleted tweet, Thomas responded to those who say they won’t support the Games.
“It really hurts to see so many black people choosing not to watch the Olympics this year. There are so many black athletes who have put in YEARS of hard work for this moment — myself included. We want your support,” Thomas wrote. “Additionally, I worry some of the anger and disdain may be misplaced. The ‘Olympics’ and those at the IOC have nothing to do with current events taking place.”
Thomas said she wrote the tweet because she feared many people were forming opinions on misinformation.
“You got your anger, and that’s great, but it has to be placed somewhere. Especially when we’re talking about Black issues, that’s personal for me,” Thomas said. “When we as Black people speak up in America, we have to be very accurate about what we’re speaking out against. Otherwise, it becomes noise. That’s the last thing you want is for it to just become background noise and complaints — heard by nobody.”
It’s been more than 50 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s historic protest at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. At the Olympic trials, Gwen Berry faced criticism for turning away from the national anthem while on the podium.
Protests and demonstrations are allowed at the Olympic Games but banned on playing fields, in the Olympic Village, during medal ceremonies, and during other official ceremonies.
Thomas says she “feels pressure” as a Black athlete to speak up.
“I think it’s important for people to express what they’re feeling and talk about important issues to express issues,” she said. “I respect all the protests that are going on.”
As Thomas prepares for the Olympics, she has been getting more media coverage than ever and has been recognized by celebrities such as Kerry Washington on social media. She says the attention on her and the sport of track and field has been great, but she remains focused on the main goal.
“I’m just enjoying this moment so much, but I’m constantly reminding myself that I’m still not done yet, I’m going to the Olympics, and I’m trying to win a medal,” Thomas said.
Kris Rhim can be reached at email@example.com.