Gabby Thomas: The U.S. track star with a bigger purpose beyond Olympic medals


AUSTIN, Texas — There was a moment on a recent random Wednesday, as the world champion sprinter and Olympic medalist Gabrielle Thomas juggled emails about a meeting she had to run at a volunteer health clinic and readied for a voiceover for a commercial with a blue-chip sponsor and figured out the logistics of an upcoming weight-training session, when she had something of an epiphany.

“I really did not perceive my life being the way it is now,” she said, looking up from her phone as she sipped a coffee at a cafe.

She’s not kidding.

Pretty much everything Thomas has accomplished in track, the two Olympic medals in Tokyo in 2021, the silver medal in the 200 meters and the gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay at the world championships last year in Budapest, is a little bit of a blur.

She has an undergraduate degree in neurobiology from Harvard, where she also studied global health and policy, plus a master’s degree in public health and epidemiology from the University of Texas. The running stuff was supposed to be long over by now. Halfway through college, she didn’t even know professional running was a thing. She thought her heroes, women like Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, sort of disappeared for three years between Olympic Games.

Plus, she always had the voice of her mother, Jennifer Randall, running through her head. Randall is an endowed professor of education at the University of Michigan who specializes in racial bias in assessments. Athletics isn’t exactly the most important thing for her. Thomas’ call to her mother after she won those medals at the Tokyo Olympics went something like this.

Mom, I won two medals.

That’s great, honey, when do classes start?

A few months later, Thomas had to have what qualifies as a difficult conversation with her mom, telling her that she didn’t think she would pursue a Ph.D.

“I haven’t let that go,” Randall said during a recent conversation. “I am going to be quiet about it now because she has stuff to do, and I see the value of working before you get a Ph.D., so in my head, she is just getting work experience. She has time to come to her senses.”

Welcome to Gabby Thomas’ world.

Gabby Thomas celebrates her bronze medal in the 200 meters at the Tokyo Olympics, one of two medals she won there. She also took silver as part of the U.S. 4X100-meter relay team. (Philip Fong / AFP via Getty Images)

These are the months when so many once and likely future Olympians adopt a singular focus on the task at hand, which is making the Olympic team and landing on the podium this summer in Paris. Anything else can feel like a distraction or a diversion from the primary objective that in so many cases has been the main focus of their lives since they were small children.

And then there is the contrarian existence that Thomas has lived for much of her 27 years. Sure, she kicked off her 2024 season winning the 100 and 200 meter races at the Texas Relays last weekend, running a wind-aided personal best in the 100. But in her world, track and field and the rest of the sports she played were (and in some ways still are) the distraction. She nearly quit running altogether after her sophomore season at Harvard.

Running, she felt, was cutting into her research on autism at Boston Children’s Hospital. She wanted to pursue membership in one of Harvard’s finals clubs, and she was getting more involved in Harvard’s undergraduate women-in-business organization. Plus she was heading off on a summer term abroad in Senegal.

All that seemed more important than another series of intervals or weight sessions.

Her coach, Kebba Tolbert, and her mother heard her out. Tolbert told her she was just going through “normal Harvard stuff.” A lot of students struggle with grades at some point, especially those with a voracious appetite for college life like hers. She just needed to sleep a little more.

Her mother told her she was fine with whatever her daughter decided. She also knew that Thomas had always been one of the most competitive people on the planet. She and her twin brother, Andrew, were born by Caesarean section, and Andrew, now a graphic designer in Idaho, got taken out first. Randall can still hear her daughter’s screams.

“She fought him tooth and nail to be Twin A and wound up with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck,” Randall said. “She has had no interest in being anything but first place since then. She competed with him at everything.”

Randall knew how this was going to go. There was no way her daughter was going to quit. She just needed a break to recharge and find her way back to what she loved and felt was important.

That she did. And how.

Gabby Thomas

Gabby Thomas stretches at a recent training session in Austin, Texas, where she also works up to 10 hours a week at a local health clinic. (Matthew Futterman / The Athletic)

On the youth soccer fields of Georgia and Massachusetts, where she grew up, Thomas got the first hint that she was faster than just about everyone else. Her teams played classic kick-and-run soccer — boot the ball over the defense and let your center forward blaze past everyone to catch up to it and score. Thomas, whose father, Desmond, played football at Duke, scored a lot of goals.

In seventh grade, as a day student at the Williston Northampton School, a private prep school in central Massachusetts, she started to compete in track and field, while also playing on the soccer and basketball teams. She specialized in the long jump and the triple jump, which require speed to gain momentum for big leaps. She didn’t think of herself as a top sprinter, even as she won so many high school races and became a prep champion in New England.

Once at Harvard, though, she quickly started rewriting the school and Ivy League record books and qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials as a freshman. Coaches at track factories like Oregon came up to Tolbert and said if they’d known she was that good, they would have paid a little more attention to her.

What happened? Tolbert freely admits that Harvard isn’t exactly known for churning out world-class sprinters, but college had given Thomas the chance to train with fast women every day.

“You drop a talented, competitive person into a national-class group, and that allows her to take off,” he said. “The group pushed her to become so good so fast.”

At the Olympic trials in 2016, she lined up on the same track as her heroes, including Felix, and finished sixth in the 200 meters. She remembers Torie Bowie, who won the race, finishing 0.5 seconds ahead of her, making up the staggered-start lead Thomas had on her within the first few strides.

“I got smoked,” Thomas said.

Then came the sophomore stagnation. She’d been third at nationals in the 200 meters as a freshman and finished third once more as a sophomore. The academic challenges were piling up, she was overwhelmed, and she wanted to just be a college student. She had run for two years, and been to the Olympic trials. She was done.

Gabrielle Thomas

Gabby Thomas celebrates winning the 200-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June 2021. Thomas nearly gave up track after the previous Olympic cycle. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Then she went to Senegal and spent six weeks studying health care and culture and traveling throughout the West African nation, meeting people struggling to gather the bare necessities for survival. She looked at the ocean from the “Doorway of No Return” on Gorée Island, which is believed to have been a key stop for thousands of enslaved people on their journey to the Americas. She decided she could manage her life, busy as it was, and whatever happened with her grades or her results on the track didn’t matter all that much.

That’s when she got really fast. In March of her junior year, she became the first female sprinter from the Ivy League to win an indoor national title, setting a new collegiate record in the 200 meters. And that’s when Tolbert sat her down and explained to her that being a professional runner was an actual job, that she could get a shoe sponsor, win prize money, and spend the first part of her adult life traveling the world and racing.

Interesting, Thomas thought. Who knew?

She spent the summer racing in Europe and signed with New Balance her senior year, giving up her final year of collegiate eligibility, since this was before college athletes were allowed to earn money from sponsorship deals. While other pros were preparing for the 2019 world championships, she was every bit the college student, especially around graduation time. She took a post-graduation trip to Barcelona with her friends, then she joined her track buddies on the quadrennial Harvard-Yale-Oxford-Cambridge track team trip to Ireland, and then to the Oxford and Cambridge campuses.

“Didn’t want to miss that,” she said.

She knew she was supposed to race at the national championships that summer, but she had no idea there was something called the world championships that followed if she made the team. She squeaked into the 200 final at the national meet, then tore her hamstring.

Tonja Buford-Bailey, a leading sprint coach whose team Thomas would soon join, approached her after the race and told her she needed to rehab that leg and then learn how to run the turn. Thomas added it to her to-do list.

Randall had one requirement for her daughter as she considered what training team to join to start her professional career. It had to be near a university with a top public health program so she could begin her graduate work. Thomas didn’t want it any other way, which is a main reason she landed on Bailey’s squad in Texas.

In addition to turning herself into a world-class sprinter and Olympic medalist, she spent the last three years getting a graduate degree in epidemiology. She wrote her master’s thesis on the racial disparities in sleep health and how it contributes to further health challenges.

She assumed people of color were more likely to have lower-paying jobs, with non-traditional hours that don’t conform to circadian rhythms, which can cause sleep issues that lead to cardiovascular disease, she said. In doing her research, she controlled for income levels, and the disparities between people of color and White people persisted. She has been speaking with specialists who have been searching for a biological or evolutionary explanation, but there is nothing conclusive yet, she explained over a lunch of sunny-side-up eggs and sourdough toast.

She also started work at a local health clinic, where she now spends up to 10 hours a week, overseeing a team of volunteers managing the health of about 70 patients suffering from hypertension. On a recent evening, she ran a training meeting with several volunteers, and also with Melissa DeHaan, a registered nurse and the case manager at the clinic, and Dr. Mark Ambler, a family practitioner and longtime clinic volunteer. She had convinced New Balance, a sponsor, to donate running shoes to all of the clinic’s patients. She told the volunteers to collect information on shoe sizes and send it to her.

Gabby Thomas

Gabby Thomas at a meeting at the Austin, Texas, health clinic where she works. “I really did not perceive my life being the way it is now,” she says. (Matthew Futterman / The Athletic)

This stuff that she was doing that evening, this is why she is still running, she said. The more she runs, and wins, the bigger her platform will be, the more she can advocate for improving access to health care and closing the racial disparity gap.

“Hopefully, after the Paris Olympics, I’ll be in a position to probably just give back even more and make a bigger, a bigger splash, like have a foundation dedicated to it,” she said.

That is the sort of talk Randall loves to hear.

She was the first person to tell Thomas how fast she was, that she could be an Olympian one day. Thomas was about 11 years old at the time. She rolled her eyes in a yeah right, mom kind of way, Randall said. But Randall always saw running as a means to ends, to education, which brings opportunity, and “to give back to the community that loved her before anybody that knew she was fast.”

First Thomas has some races to run. Randall, never much of a track mom, is even thinking of changing her usual habit of watching from her living room and attending in person, especially if her daughter makes it to Paris.

After that, maybe they can have another conversation about that Ph.D.

(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

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