Author’s Note: On Saturday, American sprinter Gabby Thomas won the 300m at the 2021 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in a personal best time (35.73). It marked her second straight personal best in the event after she clocked 35.92 in January. After the race, I caught up with Thomas to discuss her unique training group, goals in track & field, and how she came to pursue a Masters in epidemiology amidst a global pandemic.
While Harvard is known for many things, producing Olympic medalists in track & field is not one of them. According to the university’s own records, no Harvard students or alums have won Olympic gold in track & field since 1896. (As the very “on brand” story goes, James Connolly dropped out of Harvard to compete at the 1896 Athens Games and went on to win gold in the triple jump, the first event contested at the modern Olympic Games.)
Gabby Thomas, who grew up in Florence, Massachusetts, was recruited to Harvard to compete in the 100m, 200m, long jump, and triple jump. In her three years before turning pro, she made the most of her collegiate track & field career, winning the 2018 NCAA 200m indoor title in addition to claiming 22 conference titles in six different events.
Thomas graduated in 2019 with a degree in neurobiology and global health and health policy. Like many new college grads, she had a goal, but her next step wasn’t obvious. “I knew that if I wanted to train for the Olympics, I needed to be in an environment that was conducive to that serious type of training that I needed,” she recalled on Saturday.
A conversation with 2016 Olympic gold medalist Morolake Akinosun convinced Thomas to consider joining the Austin-based Buford-Bailey Track Club, which was founded by coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400m hurdles. “I went down [to Austin] for a visit – just to check out the training group, the dynamics, the coach – and I loved it,” Thomas explained.
Soon after, Thomas bought her first car and officially joined the “Bailey Bunch.”
While Black women are at the core of U.S. track & field teams and podiums, a training group of Black women led by a Black female coach is not the norm – and certainly not something Thomas herself could have envisioned earlier in her life.
“A training group of all Black women who are all so inspirational and driven and motivated and succeeding… it’s very empowering,” she explained. “We all have experienced similar struggles… it’s just really nice to have that support system.”
Thomas says much of her newfound confidence on the track is thanks to her six current training partners. “At each practice, I am getting that competitive energy and pushing myself and challenging myself. When I go to meets, my confidence now is just so much greater than it used to be.”
Moving to Austin also allowed Thomas to pursue her Masters at the University of Texas, where she is studying epidemiology and healthcare management. While the 24-year-old says it’s just a “weird coincidence” that she’s studying epidemiology during a global pandemic, she eventually wants to pursue a career that allows her to “transform the healthcare system in a way that increases access to health care and eliminates some of the [racial] healthcare discrepancies that we see.”
In the near-term, though, Thomas says she is “laser focused on track & field” while she pursues a different goal: making the 2021 U.S. Olympic team. Her best chance will be in the 200m, but she’s also hoping to be a threat in the 100m. (She also hasn’t ruled out the 400m.)
“The last few months of training have really been focused on getting that fitness up, and I think these 300 meter performances are really showcasing that,” she explained.
NBC Sports’ Amelia Acosta contributed to this report.Follow @AlexAzziNBC