TOKYO — Gabby Thomas had no idea where she’d finished when she crossed the finish line in the Olympic Stadium Tuesday. Third? Fourth? Fifth? Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah had cashed her second sprint double with a smoking 21.53. Christine Mboma, whom nobody outside of Namibia had heard of until recently, grabbed the silver. But where had Thomas ended up in the women’s 200 meters?
“I had no idea,” she said after the scoreboard had flashed third and someone came over with an American flag to drape around her shoulders. “That was a very tough three seconds, not knowing whether I medaled or not.”
Thus did an uncertain year, an exuberant month, and an unnerving day produce a most satisfying bronze medal for the 24-year-old Harvard graduate and Florence, Mass., resident.
“First relief, and then shock and then pure excitement,” Thomas said after she held off Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a two-time champion in the 100, by seven-100ths of a second in 21.87. “Just thrilled.”
It was the fifth consecutive Games in which an American had made the podium in the 200, starting in 2004 with Allyson Felix, who was an inspiring figure for Thomas. Six weeks ago, Thomas was just hoping to make the team.
“Up until trials, my first goal was to be an Olympian,” she said. “To make the team, and whatever happened, happened.”
When Thomas ran a torrid 21.61 at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. — a time bettered only by world record-holder Florence Griffith-Joyner — she began pondering the possibility of gold at the Games. But when Mboma nipped her in Monday’s semifinals, Thomas had to worry about whether her time (22.01) would get her into the final.
“Definitely, getting inched out at the end was a little bit scary,” she said. “And not feeling recovered after that super-quick turnaround, I did have a little bit of concern. So today was about mentally regrouping and feeling that confidence again.”
Thomas knew coming into the final that she’d have to deal with the Jamaicans. It was the Namibians who were the unknowns. Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi are 18-year-old schoolmates who’d planned to run the 400 here but were barred because they had elevated testosterone levels and were classified as athletes with differences in sexual development. Because the ban doesn’t apply to shorter races, they simply dropped down to the 200 and burned up the track in the prelims.
Rapid improvement by unknowns at unfamiliar distances from countries with no history of female contenders in the sport tends to raise eyebrows. Namibia had won only four medals since its 1992 debut in the Games, all silvers by sprinter Frankie Fredericks in Barcelona and Atlanta.
When Mboma and Masilingi suddenly began running world-class times this season, skeptics suggested that doping might be involved.
“I don’t understand why people come up with stuff like that,” said Masilingi. “I just don’t get it. It’s cruel.”
Thomas, who studied neurobiology at Harvard, accepted the start list as it was.
“It’s hard to have an opinion on that when I actually don’t know their biology, I don’t know how decisions are being made,” she said. “So I do my best to stay out of it.
“What I told myself before going into it was that I can only focus on my own lane. What’s done is done. They’ll be competing and they’re talented.”
Thomas knew she had the speed to be in the chase. What she also knew was that she had to keep relaxed and remain focused down the stretch.
“I fought tooth and nail those last 30 meters,” she said. “I gave it my best effort and I’m really, really happy that effort came out with a medal.”
Thomas had said earlier that her trials triumph and that humming 21.61 had changed her life. So did taking the blocks for an Olympic final.
“Just being lined up with the girls of this caliber in itself put me in that mind-set that I’m going for something even greater than I had imagined,” she said. “Now coming here and getting a bronze, just knowing that I belong here. But I also want more for myself and I want to come with a gold at some point.”
For now, there’s her pursuit of a master’s in public health at the University of Texas, with a focus on epidemiology (“I need to start registering for classes ASAP”) and next year’s world championships in Eugene. Thomas always has been about academics and athletics at the same time, going from Harvard’s science labs to its windy outdoor track behind the stadium and excelling at both.
“For me, that is very important, to find balance and let everyone know that you can really do whatever you want to do,” she said. “As long as you’re passionate about it, as long as it’s something you believe in and want to do, go do it. Go take what’s yours and live out your dreams.”