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

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.