From Harvard to Texas to Tokyo: Gabby Thomas qualifies for Olympics

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Gabby Thomas is headed to Tokyo. At U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday night, she won the women’s 200m in 21.61 seconds (video embedded above).

The result makes Thomas, 24, the second-fastest woman of all time (behind only Florence Griffith-Joyner).

Thomas also set personal bests in all three rounds of the women’s 200m at U.S. Olympic Trials.

After her win, Thomas reflected on her journey, sharing her first memory of seeing a track race on TV.

“I remember sitting in my granny’s house, and my mom told me to turn on Olympic Trials because she saw someone who reminded her of me.”

That someone? Allyson Felix.

“Her humility and grace, and how good she is at what she does… To be on the team with her, it makes me want to cry,” Thomas said of Felix.

Thomas also used her post-race moment in the spotlight to send a message to the next generation.

“I remember when I was a little girl watching [Olympic Trials], it just felt so far out for me,” she said. “Do what you want. Dream big and take what is yours… If I can do it, you can do it.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Simone Biles is already the greatest of all time, but she isn’t done yet

From Harvard to Texas to Tokyo

While Thomas is fast, her ascent in track & field has been far from typical.

To start, she went to Harvard. While that might be a resume-builder in any other career, Harvard is not exactly known for producing Olympic medalists in track & field. The last time a Harvard student or alum won Olympic gold in track & field? 1896, according to the university’s own records. It was actually a Harvard dropout – James Connolly – who won gold in the triple jump, the first event contested at the modern Olympic Games.

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 collegiate seasons before turning pro, she claimed 22 conference titles in six different events.

But Thomas was just as ambitious off of the track. During her freshman year, she took a class that would change the trajectory of her life: “Sick and tired of being sick and tired,” taught by Harvard professor Evelynn Hammonds.

“It was about health disparities among African-Americans,” Thomas explained on “My New Favorite Olympian,” an NBCLX podcast co-hosted by Olympic fencing medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad.

The class prompted Thomas to study neurobiology and global health & health policy.

While Thomas wanted to pursue a career in those fields, when she graduated from Harvard in 2019, she was also certain that she wasn’t done running.

“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 told On Her Turf in February.

Her next step? Buying her first car and moving to Austin, Texas.

She joined the Austin-based Buford-Bailey Track Club, which was founded by coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist in the 400m hurdles. The “Bailey Bunch” is one of the only – if not the only –  training group of Black women, led by a Black woman coach, in the U.S.

“A training group of all Black women who are all so inspirational and driven and motivated and succeeding… it’s very empowering,” Thomas explained. “We all have experienced similar struggles… it’s just really nice to have that support system.”

After winning the 200m at Olympic Trials, Thomas cited her “Bailey Bunch” training partners and coach with helping her earn a spot on her first Olympic team.

“Being with them, day after day… It’s the reason why I ran as fast as I did,” Thomas said. “I would not be here without joining that group.”

Pursuing a Master’s degree in epidemiology – during a pandemic

Thomas hasn’t just been training while in Texas.

Last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic caused the Olympics to be delayed by a year, Thomas decided it was “as good a time as any to just start graduate school,” she explained on “My New Favorite Olympian.”

She enrolled in a Master’s program at the University of Texas, where she is studying epidemiology and healthcare management.

That’s right. She’s studying pandemics… in the middle of a pandemic.

LISTEN TO GABBY THOMAS DISCUSS HER DECISION TO GET HER MASTER’S IN EPIDEMEOLOGY ON THE NBC SPORTS PODCAST “MY NEW FAVORITE OLYMPIAN

This spring, Thomas went through a health scare of her own when doctors found a tumor on her liver.

“It scared me so much… just knowing I could possibly have cancer.” she said on Saturday night. “Fortunately, they found out it was benign just a few days before I left [for Trials].

“I remember telling God, ‘If I am healthy, I am going to go out and win Trials. If this is not cancer, I will make this team.’ And that’s exactly what I did. I’m really grateful.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: DeAnna Price breaks multiple records in women’s hammer throw final at Olympic Trials

All-time fastest performances in the women’s 200m

  1. Florence Griffith-Joyner (USA) – 21.34 seconds (September 29, 1988)
  2. Florence Griffith-Joyner (USA)- 21.56 seconds (September 29, 1988)
  3. Gabby Thomas (USA) – 21.61 seconds (June 26, 2021)
  4. Marion Jones (USA) – 21.62 seconds (September 11, 1998)
  5. Dafne Schippers (NED) – 21.63 seconds (August 28, 2015)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC