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Olympic star and Harvard grad Gabby Thomas chases history on the track, a healthier world off of it

Gabby Thomas returned home from Tokyo with a bronze medal in the 200 meters.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Gabby Thomas is used to life coming her way fast. Speed is the job description when you’re a world-class sprinter.

But even she couldn’t have predicted how much 21.61 seconds would change her life.

When she got into the blocks for the 200-meter dash in the US Olympic Trials last June, she was just focused on making the Olympic team. Well, that, and trying not to be overwhelmed by the blistering Oregon heat or the prospect of outrunning the legendary Allyson Felix, whom Thomas grew up watching this very event, as Felix made one last run for glory at the Olympics.

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“Having her in the lane right outside of me was insane,” Thomas said. “I remember thinking, ‘I just have to beat her to the 20-meter mark,’ and it was crazy that I was saying that about Allyson Felix.’”

And 21.61 seconds after the gun sounded, the track and field world watched in awe as Thomas stormed past Felix and two-time national champion Jenny Prandini to punch her ticket to the Toyko Olympics. That time would make Thomas the second-fastest woman in 200-meter history at the moment, trailing just the iconic Florence Griffith-Joyner.

“That day went from, ‘I really hope I can make an Olympic team’ to ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just ran that fast,” Thomas said. “And then, ‘I really want to medal in the Olympics.’”

A few weeks later, she did just that, earning a bronze medal in the Olympic 200m final in Tokyo.

Elaine Thompson-Herah won the event and beat Thomas’s trials time, but Thomas’s radiant post-race smile stole the show.

She also won a silver medal as the anchor for the women’s 4×100 meter relay team.

Just like that, the 25-year-old Florence, Mass., native had solidified her place as one of track and field’s premier young stars — a turn that has altered the trajectory of her career.

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You see, Thomas thought she’d be more of a scientist at this point, not a sprinter.

She starred for Harvard on the track and field team as an undergraduate, but her original focus was academics, not athletics.

She says her family’s history of developing neuroatypical conditions led her to major in neurobiology, and she graduated with her degree in 2019 after turning pro as a runner and signing a sponsorship deal with New Balance the previous year.

Thomas learned about about troubling healthcare disparities experienced by minorities, especially Black Americans, which motivated her to minor in global health at Harvard and pursue a master’s degree in public health at the University of Texas in Austin, where she trains.

“I started right as the pandemic started, which was interesting and very validating of how important the work that I wanted to do was, especially when we saw the disparities in race and how different demographics were impacted by the pandemic,” she said. “And it was just validated that what I wanted to learn about, what I wanted to change in the world was really worth pursuing.

“I think it’s important for people who look like me and who think like me to get in that workforce.”

Gabby Thomas signed on as a New Balance athlete before she had finished her undergraduate degree at Harvard.Jim McIsaac/Getty

Thomas says that was her original plan after last Olympic season: graduate with her MPH from Texas and start looking for jobs in public health.

But while she says she’s on track to conclude her studies next semester, those 21.61 seconds in the Olympic trials and the Olympic medals that followed prompted a turn in her career path — for now.

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“I plan on running full-time for a very long time, for the next two Olympics,” she said. “I definitely do want to pursue public health afterward and maybe simultaneously. But for now, I’m pretty focused on making these world teams and medaling. But we’ll see where it goes.”

Thomas seems set to take the reins from the likes of runners she grew up idolizing, like Felix and Sonya Richards-Ross. She’s part of a wave of young sprinting stars, including 400-meter hurdle record-holder and fellow New Balance ambassador Sydney McLaughlin.

She says her race at the trials last year, as well as Thompson-Herah’s time in Toyko, suggests someone — maybe even her — could finally run down Griffith-Joyner’s borderline impossible 200m record of 21.34 seconds.

“If you’d asked me even a year ago today, I would have said ‘no way’ is Flo-Jo’s record attainable,” she said. “And now I’m thinking, with how fast everybody is running and how much we’re pushing each other at each meet ...

“I always say I don’t focus on times and records because that’s not really how you run fast. It’s always going to be working on myself and improving my own race plan and my own times. And once you just go out and compete and have fun, the time’s come. But as of now, I do think the record is attainable … and I’m excited to see what I can do and how close I can get to that.”

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Thomas acknowledges she’s also taking center stage in another way: By helping to redefine what’s possible for young female athletes everywhere as women’s sports continue to gain prominence.

“I’m seeing a lot of really strong women who are vocal about things that they believe in,” she said. “We all look certain ways. We have different interests and we’re kind of owning who we are as people on and off the track, on and off the court, on and off the field and that’s really special.

“One thing that I just really hope the next generation takes from my career and who I am is that you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. Just own it and have confidence in it and you’ll find success in that.”