Olympic hopeful Gabby Thomas: the world’s fastest epidemiologist?

Gabby Thomas
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American sprinter Gabby Thomas will compete at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials later this month (June 18-27), where she is expected to be a top contender in the women’s 200m.

Ahead of U.S. Olympic Trials, Thomas sat down with Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad – host of the NBCLX podcast “My New Favorite Olympian” – to discuss how she ended up studying pandemics… in the middle of a pandemic. 

You can listen to Thomas’s episode of “My New Favorite Olympian” via this link or by subscribing to the show on your favorite podcast app. 

During Gabby Thomas‘s freshman year at Harvard, she took a class that would change the trajectory of her life.

“I took a very influential class called ‘Sick and tired of being sick and tired,’ and it was about health disparities among African-Americans,” Thomas explained on the latest episode of “My New Favorite Olympian,” an NBCLX podcast hosted by Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of these racial health disparities into the spotlight, they are far from new.

According to the CDC, the life expectancy of Black Americans is about 4-5 years shorter than that of white Americans. In addition, Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes than white women, a crisis that another American track star- nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix – has helped champion.

To be clear: these disparities are the result of racism, not race.

“We can trace it back historically to the ways in which African-American communities were denied health care resources to go to and access to health care,” Evelynn Hammonds, the Harvard professor who taught Thomas, explained.  

The class – and Hammond’s instruction – inspired Thomas to pursue a degree in neurobiology and global health and health policy while at Harvard.

But at the same time as Thomas was studying health inequities, she was also sprinting into Harvard track & field history. She won the 2018 NCAA 200m indoor title in addition to claiming 22 conference titles in six different events.

Thomas graduated from Harvard in 2019 and turned pro, with the goal of competing at the Tokyo Olympics. But when a global pandemic caused the Games to be postponed by a year, Thomas decided it was “as good a time as any to just start graduate school.”

She enrolled in a Master’s program at the University of Texas, where she is she is studying epidemiology and healthcare management. To quote Muhammad, “She’s learning about pandemics… during a pandemic.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Gabby Thomas clocks 21.61 at Olympic Trials, becomes second-fastest woman to ever run 200m (video)

Thomas is still aiming for the Tokyo Olympics, though she had her own health-related scare earlier this spring, which she tweeted about on Monday.

According to Thomas, her hamstring began hurting last month. When the results of her MRI came back, she was told she had a tumor in her liver.

“At first, I was calm…” she wrote. “But the more and more I spoke to people, the more the word “cancer” was used. I was scared.”

On Monday, Thomas says she finally received the news that the tumor is benign and won’t need to be operated on.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC