Gabby Thomas: The Harvard alumna with eyes on the 200m prize at Tokyo 2020

EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 26: Gabby Thomas crosses the finish line to win the Women's 200 Meters Final on day nine of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 26: Gabby Thomas crosses the finish line to win the Women's 200 Meters Final on day nine of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 26, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Thomas lit up the track at the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this year, now the world waits to see if the second-fastest woman in the 200m can deliver again in Tokyo.

Gabby Thomas came like a revelation to the United States athletics team.

When the 24-year-old crossed the 200m line in 21.61 seconds at the U.S Olympic Trials back in June, not only was the time a third personal best in three days of competition, but it also heralded her as the second-fastest woman ever in the distance.

The only person to have ever run under Thomas’ time? The legendary Florence Griffith-Joyner who ran 21.56 in the 200m semi-finals at Seoul 1988, and then her world record time of 21.34 in the final.

Where had this sprinter, set assuredly for stardom, been?

First, Thomas was studying at Harvard University. Then she was upping sticks to Texas, navigating sprint training and graduate school.

Now the young beacon of promise, who has developed at the historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, comes to Tokyo carrying all the expectations of a nation looking for a slice of Olympic sprinting glory.

Will Thomas be able repeat what she has already once delivered so emphatically? That is the question.

Gabby Thomas: From Harvard to Tokyo via Texas

Thomas knew she wanted to study neurobiology at college well before she knew she wanted to run track.

It was in part why the young sprint sensation was overlooked by college recruiters when it came to further education. The discipline had never been something she was entirely devoted to; she never went to national meets where her times would have even then set her apart.

Only after Thomas was quietly prompted by those around her to mention her running on her application, she did begin to catch the eyes of talent-hungry track and field coaches.

When the offer came from Harvard University’s track and field team, Thomas didn’t hesitate to accept, even though the college has a less-than favourable student-to-Olympian conversion rate. The last Harvard alum to make the Games was a drop-out back in 1896.

Thomas quickly found her feet at the academically rigorous institution, relishing the challenges coming towards her from every direction.

During her freshman year, a class on health disparities among African Americans inspired the wide-eyed student to pursue global health and health policy alongside her longstanding desire to study neurobiology.

It was a class that profoundly impacted the aspiring athlete, and the subject area grew as a passion alongside her sprinting.

Studying, sprinting and setting records

After a successful collegiate running career that saw Thomas win the 2018 NCAA 200m title, when Thomas graduated from Harvard in 2019, she wasn’t entirely sure what was next on the agenda.

All the sprinter was certain of, was that she wasn’t done with track just yet.

Thomas made the call to relocate from Massachusetts to Texas to further her chances of success on track.

Once there, the sprinter joined the Austin-based Buford-Bailey Track Club, founded by 1996 Olympic bronze medallist Tonja Buford-Bailey.

The so-called “Bailey Bunch” is one of the only training groups of Black women, led by a Black woman coach in the U.S. and it was an environment in which the young runner thrived.

Speaking to NBC, the Olympic debutant shared: “a training group of all Black women who are all so inspirational and driven and motivated and succeeding... it’s very empowering.”

“We all have experienced similar struggles… it’s just really nice to have that support system.”

Not content on just running, in 2020, Thomas enrolled in graduate school at the University of Texas. Influenced by her work at Harvard, the sprinter is studying for a masters in epidemiology and healthcare management. The sprinter one day hopes to manage her own hospital and start a non-profit.

First though, there is a much more immediate goal at stake: the women's 200m crown.

With all that she has achieved so far, will Gabby Thomas add an Olympic medal to her list? Time will soon tell.