Despite the Pressure, Gabby Thomas Just Wants to Have Fun at the Tokyo Olympics
The Harvard grad studying epidemiology caught the world's attention at the Olympic Trials, but 200-meter star Gabby Thomas is tuning out the hype.
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Gabby Thomas crossed the finish line in 21.61, already celebrating her 200-meter win at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In that moment, she became the second-fastest woman ever at the distance, behind a legend simply known as Flo-Jo. Instantly, Thomas caught the world’s attention—not just for her speed, but her story.
Thomas, 24, isn’t just one of the fastest women on the planet. She’s also a graduate of Harvard with a degree in neurobiology who wants to fix the racial disparities Black people face in the U.S. healthcare system. She moved to Austin, Texas, after graduation to join the Buford Bailey Track Club, a group of high-achieving athletes training under three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey—but also to pursue her masters degree in public health (with a focus on epidemiology) at the University of Texas.
RELATED: Gabby Thomas Makes Olympic Team, Becoming Second-Fastest Woman Ever at 200 Meters
Before she changes the world of science and medicine, she’s on the hunt for a gold medal in Tokyo, her first Olympic Games, where her primary goal is to not get too wrapped up in the hype. Will she have to do homework in her room at the Olympic Village? She decided against it at the advice of her mother, Jennifer Randall, who’s an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts.
“I asked my mom in May when my semester ended. I said, ‘I think I might take one or two classes over the summer. What do you think?’ And she said, ‘No, you don’t want to be doing that while you’re in Tokyo,'” Thomas said, during a Zoom interview with Women’s Running on July 21. “She said, ‘Enjoy Tokyo. Do your thing. Start back in the fall.'”
Women’s Running spoke to Thomas just before she departed for Tokyo about not only her expectations for the Games, but how she’s coping with the attention, as well as all buzz of besting Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record of 21.34. The first round of the 200 meters is at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, August 1; the semifinal round is 6:25 a.m. Eastern on Monday, August 2; and the final is 8:50 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, August 3. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Women’s Running: Now that you’ve had space from the Trials, how do you reflect on that experience?
Gabby Thomas: Now that I’ve had time to think about it, what really brought me success is just how I handled the pressure. The U.S. Trials is such a high-stakes meet and it’s so competitive. As everyone knows, it’s really hard to make that team. When you’re there for so long and going through the rounds, it can be very daunting mentally and emotionally, in addition to physically. How I dealt with that between rounds really helped when I was preparing to get on the line, compete, and stay focused. That just makes so much of a difference.
But I could have taken care of myself a little bit better during the competition. I was there for two weeks. And it was difficult for me to eat and sleep. It made the whole thing a little bit more uncomfortable than I wanted. I did learn from that and feel more prepared going into Tokyo to kind of allow myself to have those nerves and feel anxiety, but also eat and take care of myself.
I think overall I did a good job at preparing myself during the two years prior to the Trials and bringing it to the meet at the right time.
WR: So is it nerves that get in the way most of the time of doing those things you need to do?
GT: A lot of time athletes know what to do and we know what we’re capable of, but it’s how you manage the nerves before the race or during the race.
WR: How have you improved the mental game? What strategies do you use?
GT: At Trials, it was maintaining my routine. Like, I’d wake up, meditate, and go get coffee at this coffee shop I like in Eugene, then a little bit more meditation. I tried to completely calm down or have my nervous system slow down before I compete. That was every day. As I look back I think that experience has matured me as an athlete a little bit more, so I feel more comfortable going into Tokyo at that high level of competition. I feel more confident in myself. It’s going to be a high-stakes competition, but to be honest with you, when you survive U.S. Olympic Trials it almost doesn’t get more challenging than that. I’m here, I made the team—all that’s left to do is what I love, which is race.
WR: Going into Tokyo, what are your biggest challenges?
GT: It will be getting acclimated. Because of COVID we’re only allowed to go five days before competition and that travel day is going to be very, very long. When you get to the airport it’s another four hours of processing. It’s going to be disruptive on recovery and our routines. I just need to monitor that and understand that it’s something out of my control. All the athletes are dealing with it, not just me.
Other than that, I’m so excited to be there and showcase what I’ve been in training.
WR: You’ve gotten a lot of attention from your performance at the Trials. How do you cope with that? Do you embrace it?
GT: I’m definitely not used to all the media attention. It was something that at first I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so exciting—everyone wants to talk to me.” And that was great for the first couple days of celebration after my performance. But then I had to realize I was still in training for the Olympics, so I really needed to focus and calm down.
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There was a moment I was overwhelmed because I realized that I can’t do everything that I wanted to do. I can’t respond to everything. I just needed to take some time for myself and reflect on, “OK, am I in a good mental headspace to take on all this right now? Or is it distracting me from my training?” I had that moment with myself and decided to just focus on training. Everything else is secondary and I’ll have fun with it as long as I’m doing what I need to do to prepare for the Olympics. As long as I’m having fun, then I’m OK. That’s what I promised myself.
WR: Pressure. Do you see it as a privilege? What is it to you?
GT: Pressure is an opportunity, I think. Any time you put yourself in a situation where you feel pressure, I think that’s a blessing. That’s why I moved to Austin, Texas, to train after I graduated, to put myself in these kinds of situations. It ended up working out. Putting myself in the training group I decided to put myself in was a huge part of why I found success at the Trials. I’m used to being on the line with these phenomenally talented and accomplished women. My training partners are Olympic medalists, so I feel that pressure every day. I’m appreciative of it.
I think of high school. Our track team had this quote, “Pressure causes some to break and others to break records.” I’m going to be the latter half of that.
WR: Can you elaborate a little bit on the decision to join the group in Austin?
GT: When I graduated from college I was thinking two things: I needed to be in an environment where people were serious about making the Olympic team and I needed to be in a city with a good university for graduate school. Austin checked both those boxes. What I didn’t expect was to have such an empowering group—to have a Black female coach and a bunch of Black female athletes was icing on the cake. I felt so comfortable. Me moving into this space, when I’m so used to being in predominately white spaces, I felt comfortable and excited about that. It’s so empowering—they were already so accomplished and I knew that they were going to teach me so much and push me so much. My coach is so motivating and so inspiring in her own accomplishments. Being a winner is kind of the standard and that’s what I needed. It was a big step and a huge, necessary step for me.
WR: We all know that you’re also accomplished off the track. You pursue really ambitious goals. There’s an impression that you can do it all. Is that true? How do you feel about that impression that’s out there?
GT: I have always done what I want to do and that’s the secret—having fun with it. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you really love what you’re doing, then you can do it all. People make time for what they want to make time for. For me, continuing school was something I really wanted to do. Getting my masters in public health is something I was passionate about in college. Something about it being completely voluntary and something I want to do outside of track just makes it so much more fun.
Being in class makes me appreciate my time on the track. It’s like, “OK, now I’m done with my class and I’m done with my homework, it’s time to go to the track and release it all and go have fun.” And likewise at the track, sometimes it’s a really hard workout and you just want to go home and pick up a book and relax and study. There’s a synergy between the two.
WR: You also worked at a healthcare start-up?
GT: Yes—it’s an alternative to health insurance for people who insurance isn’t a good option, either they can’t afford it or they’re a small business owner who can’t afford it for their employees. It’s basically just disrupting the healthcare industry in a positive way. That was a positive experience, to get some real-world experience under my belt while my real job is track and field, because I understand that isn’t going to be forever.
WR: How has your training evolved as a pro?
GT: It’s nothing too, too different fundamentally from what I did at Harvard, except there’s a good bit more mileage in the fall training. Sometimes we do “gut runs,” which is a mile and for a sprinter that is a very long time to be running. And after the mile we’ll have some repeat 100s—like, 20 x 100 meters. It’s brutal. That’s like a Monday fall training day. On Tuesday, we’ll maybe do a ladder—500, 400, 300, 200-type thing. We just show up to the track and get really tired. It makes me much more fit, so I love it. What makes it work, I think, is the intensity brought to practice each day. The biggest piece is who I’m surrounded by.
If we’re not competing, we get the weekend off, which is amazing. That was a big part of looking at training groups—my coach is very much, “work hard, rest hard.” We work really hard when we’re at the track. There’s no messing around. But we also get a lot of recovery days. My body reacts very well to rest. That’s a huge piece of being a professional sprinter. That’s the difference between college athletics and professional—it’s the recovery time.
WR: Given that you’re studying epidemiology, what are your feelings about holding the Olympics during a pandemic?
GT: Generally I’m very grateful that we’re having an Olympic Games. We easily could not have had it, especially given the state that Tokyo is in and how the residents feel about it. I’m incredible grateful that the U.S. named an Olympic team and to even step foot in Tokyo is really exciting. That being said, the COVID protocols and mitigation measures are very, very extensive. I can appreciate that. It’s a lot but it’s necessary. It’s going to alter the experience. It’s my first Olympics and we’re missing the Opening Ceremony, we can’t really walk around anywhere. It’s a strict pathway from village to stadium, but I study epidemiology and I can appreciate the critical nature of this. Not having fans in the stands or any family at first is disappointing, but the fact we get to go during this time is impressive. I haven’t let those things sink in or think about it because it’s kind of secondary to what’s going on in the pandemic.
WR: By the time you step to the line in Tokyo, you will have heard a lot of Flo-Jo comparisons. How do you feel about that?
GT: I mean, it is really wild. I never pictured I’d be in this situation. The goal was to make the Olympic team. I didn’t realize I’d be the second-fastest woman over 200 meters. It’s really cool.
RELATED: There’s Only One Flo-Jo: Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest Woman of All Time
WR: How do you think you can leave Tokyo feeling satisfied?
GT: That’s a great question. Initially I was thinking I’d feel satisfied with a gold medal, but I know track and field doesn’t work that way. If I execute and run the best that I can do on that day, I’ll be happy with it. That’s how I navigate everything in my life. You just give the best that you can do. I do expect that will result in a gold medal. That’s my expectation. But a lot of things are out of my control, but that would be what I want to come out of it. You can’t focus on times—conditions don’t allow for that. Just giving my best effort on that day and showing people you can do your own journey, do your own thing and get to where you want to go.
The best advice I’ve gotten is to just go and have fun. That’s what I’m doing this for. I’m going to push myself and have a good time. I’m going to do what I do, take it all in—the fact that I’m at the Olympics and I’m competing and it’s supposed to be fun representing my country and doing my thing. I’ve done all the work. It’s been years. Now I’m just going to do it.
WR: OK, one important question before you go. We get asked this all the time: Why athletes like you wear an arm sleeve. Can you explain?
GT: [Laughing] That is so funny. For a lot of people, they’re aesthetic. For me, I feel like it’s a reminder out of the blocks to drive my arm up. I feel it there and I’m like, “OK, drive the arm.” That’s what I wear it for, but I might be the only one who uses it as a cue for that.