At last month’s U.S. Olympic trials in Oregon, Thomas was a revelation. Hoping to run 200 meters faster than 22 seconds for the first time, she sprinted halfway around the Hayward Field oval in 21.61 seconds, which made her the second-fastest woman ever at the distance. Thomas crossed the line with her hands above her head, unable to process what she had done. Only Florence Griffith Joyner had ever run faster, and she did so just twice.
And: As she became an elite sprinter, Thomas earned a Harvard degree in neurobiology. In her studies, she gained a deep understanding of the health-care disparities Black people confront in the United States. Her passion led her to enroll in a master’s program in public health with a focus on epidemiology at the University of Texas.
And: Thomas attends Texas not only for its academic offerings but also its proximity to the training group she joined with clear intent. The Buford Bailey Track Club is a group of Black women helmed by three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey. The skill of her coach and the shared experience of her partners empower her. “It’s given me a greater degree of comfort I haven’t had before,” Thomas said.
And: Thomas still finds time to remain an effervescent 24-year-old. On social media recently, she asked the Jonas Brothers to call her if they needed a fourth relay team member. At a track meet once in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thomas and her coach ferried to a restaurant across Lake Geneva because who gets to say they went to France for lunch? When asked whether her starburst at the trials had led to any interactions with big names in the medical community, she giggled. “I don’t want to say any names, but actually, yeah,” Thomas said, laughing. “It’s been pretty cool.”
Even amid the sporting spectacle of the Olympics, Thomas cannot be defined by one thing. Her education really began at home. She was nurtured by her mother about the societal obstacles in her path and how to both surmount and challenge them. Jennifer Randall is now an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, where she researches the ways standardized assessments perpetuate racial injustice in education.
Charismatic, photogenic and fast as hell, Thomas appears bound for stardom. She will wear USA across her chest on the track, and then she will tell America what she learned, what she believes it needs to hear.
“The status and the platform she has now allows her to do that in a way that other people aren’t allowed to do or don’t have the capacity to do,” Randall said. “She sees this platform as an opportunity to speak out about these injustices. Quite frankly, she can do it because she has been successful in White spaces. So she can’t be dismissed. People can’t say she’s just another Black person complaining about the ways in which they’ve been treated unfairly. She has done very well in that space, and she is still saying, ‘This space is not okay.’ ”
By the time she reached fifth grade, Thomas had exhausted her mother to the point of torment. Randall raised twins as a single mother and taught social studies at public school, taxing enough without shuttling her daughter to friends’ houses, soccer practice and tuba lessons. Then came a breaking point: Thomas asked whether she could play softball, too.
“What are you doing to me?” Randall remembers thinking. But she knew her daughter thrived on perpetual motion. The more things Thomas did, the better she was at all of them. When Randall assented, she watched her daughter excel at yet another activity.
“This is not a human that was meant to sit still for very long,” Randall said.
After finishing her Ph.D. at Emory University and joining the U-Mass. faculty, Randall moved her family from Georgia to western Massachusetts when Thomas was 10. She enrolled Thomas as a day student at the Williston Northampton School, a bucolic preparatory boarding school with an art studio, two quads and a ski team.
Thomas received a remarkable education at Williston and not only in the classroom. Williston was, by any definition, a White space. Thomas would eat three meals a day on campus and sometimes stay late to study at a teacher’s home, like the boarding students. Williston felt like home to her, and she still adores it. Still, even as she dominated in sports and earned excellent grades, she sometimes felt stifled.
“She also saw how she was treated in those spaces and how White students were treated in those spaces,” Randall said. “The level of comfort she could experience could never compare to the level of comfort they experienced. You’re walking on a campus, and people are trying to touch your hair and asking if you’re from Africa and really ignorant questions. That doesn’t go lost on a teenager.”
Thomas dabbled in every sport, and her speed separated her. In seventh grade, she qualified for the New England championship in Williston’s division, which included high-schoolers. She won it as an eighth-grader and every year of high school. At one meet, a track official failed initially to credit Thomas with a victory in the 100 meters. She finished so far ahead of the pack, he assumed she had been warming up alone for another race. An iPhone recording had to sort it out.
“She and I could talk about goals or what she was capable of or what she needed to do,” said Martha McCullagh, Thomas’s track coach and math teacher at Williston. “But that was going to be a private conversation she would not want to have in front of teammates because that would in some way make them think she was special. Although they obviously knew that she was. They saw her run.”
Thomas’s times matched up with some of the country’s best, but because she also played soccer and basketball, her absence from major national meets caused track powers to overlook her. She hadn’t considered sprinting in college until McCullagh suggested it would make her applications more attractive.
“I knew I wanted to study neurobiology before I wanted to run track in college,” Thomas said.
A Williston guidance counselor phoned Kebba Tolbert, a track and field coach at Harvard, and insisted he recruit Thomas. To Tolbert, Thomas was physically raw. But her times and competitiveness — the way she dominated every race and never coasted across the line — converted him.
Tolbert became convinced Thomas could handle Harvard’s rigor on a recruiting visit. As they walked through a campus bookstore, Tolbert saw intellectual seriousness. Later, he sent her a copy of “The Alchemist,” her favorite book at the time, inscribed with a note saying he hoped they would work together.
“It’s hard to succeed at a place like Harvard,” Tolbert said. “It’s going to challenge you to think outside the box. It’s going to challenge you to push yourself. I could tell that she had that capacity.”
In her first semester, Thomas settled into Freshman Seminar 41D: “Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Health Disparities and African Americans.”
Evelynn Hammonds, the professor, borrowed the name of the class from civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who gave a speech of the same name about the violence she faced trying to register to vote Mississippi. The material transfixed Thomas.
“She was an outstanding student,” Hammonds said. “She was always well prepared. She asked really insightful questions. Even if she had not taken an independent study with me, I would not have forgotten her.”
Hammonds devoted an early class to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which federal health agencies, beginning in 1932, studied the course of syphilis in poor, Black sharecroppers over decades, watching as scores died rather than providing treatment, all while dishonestly claiming they were receiving free health care.
Thomas called the class her “introduction to the reality of what’s going on in the country.” She had never seen the lessons in her high school textbooks. One day after a class, Thomas called her mother.
“Taking this class is making me angry,” Thomas told her.
“Good,” Randall replied. “You should be angry.”
Thomas wrote her final paper on African Americans and Type 2 diabetes. She took an independent study with Hammonds during her senior year, examining public response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the opioid crisis of the 2000s. Thomas compared the way addicts in mostly Black communities tended to be cast in news reports as criminals with the way media treated addicts in White, rural areas as victims.
Though she had arrived at Harvard intent on studying neurobiology, she felt pulled away from the lab and toward policy. She determined studying public health and aiming for managerial ranks would be her tools for achieving justice.
“So you can have people that look like me and people who look like other people that aren’t just White bringing a perspective and bringing a different lens into the research,” Thomas said. “You have to know and understand what factors are affecting certain demographics or populations before you can help it.”
The issues Thomas studied were not abstract. Randall grew up in Mobile, Ala., in a home packed with siblings and insufficient resources. Her family lacked access to healthy food and good doctors. When Thomas learned about the long-term effects of those detrimental factors and how they trickled down to her, it both fascinated and scared her.
“It can last for generations,” Thomas said. “It probably didn’t even start with her. It probably started with my grandma and her mom, too. It’s how it’s passed through the gene pool. Your genes can actually be altered.”
Many elite sprinters start year-round training in high school. Thomas did it for the first time at Harvard, and her improvement was exponential. Tolbert thought he had recruited a project. It turned out he had a star. At the end of her freshman season, Thomas finished third at the NCAA championships in the 200 meters and sixth at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Despite her success, she felt drained. “To be completely honest, I didn’t want to see another track again,” Thomas said. Though she finished third again at NCAAs as a sophomore, her times stagnated. She lost weight, sapped by training and a distaste for Harvard’s food.
At a crossroads, Thomas made an impulsive decision that changed her life. She moved, with Tolbert’s blessing, to Dakar, Senegal, studying the nation’s religion and culture on a summer study abroad. She immediately felt lighter. The people in Senegal were so connected, so present, so eager to help. They had less money and fewer possessions than the Americans she knew and were still happier. One day, at a hairdresser, a stranger insisted Thomas sit on the floor with everyone in the room and share stew.
“All the little things didn’t matter in Dakar, Senegal,” Thomas said. “I didn’t bring any of those petty problems or stressors or issues to Senegal. Why would I bring them back to the United States? That trip made the difference.”
When she rejoined Harvard’s track team, Thomas had not set foot on a track for four months. The time away rekindled her love for the sport. At the indoor national championships, Thomas set an NCAA record at 22.38 seconds.
“It was a transformative experience for her,” Randall said. “She just came back brand new.”
Thomas had not conceived of professional track and field as a way to make a living. After she set the record, shoe companies beckoned. She gave up her final year of eligibility and signed with New Balance but stayed to finish at Harvard. Her degree secured, it would have been reasonable for Thomas to focus on training and save graduate school for after her career.
“But Gabby needs to be doing a lot of things at the same time,” Randall said. “She does so much better when she has 1,000 things on her plate to do. She just operates better that way.”
Earlier this year, Williston’s administration asked Thomas to join its Anti-Racism Committee. She was proud of her school for creating the task force. The 12 members met twice per month over Zoom. Meetings scheduled for two hours turned would run an hour or more long, the members pouring out their experiences. They finished Williston’s first Diversity Strategic Plan. Thomas received her copy this month, less than two weeks before she left for Tokyo.
“It was something that was important to me,” Thomas said. “I definitely saw a lot of room for improvement. I appreciated the commitment to it, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Thomas again had squeezed important work around her training schedule. McCullagh, her Williston coach and teacher, surmised that maybe she receives two days for every one the rest of us get. McCullagh traveled to Oregon for the Olympic trials and served as a volunteer. She cherished the chance to watch Thomas run — and to hug her after a victory lap.
“Oh, my goodness,” McCullagh thought. “Look at her go.”
Thomas has more races to run. They might make her a gold medalist, but they will be only the start. She plans someday to manage her own hospital and start her own nonprofit. The world will watch Thomas at the Olympics. Years later, it may still be thinking the same words: Look at her go.