100 Influential Black Women in Sport: Olympic Track and Field Star Gabby Thomas
Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx highlight the diverse journeys of black women in sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, She-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
The sky above Austin is a dark slate, but Gabby Thomas couldn’t be in a sunnier mood after spending an afternoon workout that would have left anyone else scratching the tarmac .
“I’m really working on getting to the 100 [meters]says Thomas, a 25-year-old Atlanta native who seems completely indifferent to the threat of rain or the pug nipping at her heels.
Moments earlier, Thomas had detached herself from a contraption called the 1080 Sprint, a specialized winch designed to condition riders for higher speeds by pulling their bodies down the track.
“That’s kind of the point of sport, isn’t it, to push your body to its limits and teach your nervous system to be overstimulated,” Thomas says. “I can set it to a certain speed that we’re aiming for, and also do it with the right mechanics and not hurt myself. It was actually really, really great today. The fastest I’ve ever done.
At 5’10”, Thomas has a knack for accelerating at an almost alarming rate, much to the dismay of her rivals. But until recently, they only had to worry about her focusing on the 200 , where his top speed and talent in the corner really shines.
“If you’re close to me at the 100-meter mark of a 200-meter race, you’ll most likely lose,” Thomas says.
Last July, after a delay imposed by COVID-19, Thomas made his debut at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, and cleared the 200 in 21.61 seconds, the third fastest time in history. . A few weeks later, at the Tokyo Games, she replaced Sha’Carri Richardson on the anchor leg of Team USA’s 4X100 meters relay team and sealed a silver medal behind a fastest time in the season of 41.45.
At last month’s Golden Games, Thomas showed off the progress she has made in the 100 meters, shaving 14 tenths off her personal best with a time of 10.86 for third place. And that was while also dominating the 200m, with a record time of 22.02. But his rapid emergence on the world stage only becomes more impressive when you realize that sprinting is only part of Thomas’ list of commitments.
Besides being quick on her feet, Thomas is also a dedicated scholar. After graduating from a private boarding school in Easthampton, Mass., she could have stood for her choice of college track credentials. Instead, she chose to run at Harvard while studying neurobiology and global health.
“I hadn’t planned on racing on the professional track,” says Thomas, who went on to set NCAA records while winning 22 Ivy League titles in three years. “Everything I did was just driven by my passions, not by following what everyone else was doing. Even at Harvard, when everyone was focused on certain career paths, I wasn’t focused there- on it. I always loved the track and was passionate about it. That’s what brought me here.
What followed was a move to Austin, both to train with former Olympic hurdler Tonja Buford-Bailey and to pursue graduate studies in epidemiology at the University of Texas. And as COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, Thomas saw the effects of the coronavirus firsthand, both in his volunteer work and his track career.
“I was volunteering at a health clinic here, providing health care services to people who didn’t have insurance, people from disadvantaged areas of Texas, who traveled and waited hours to be seen by a doctor,” says Thomas. “We were seeing so many people coming in with the flu, or what we thought was the flu. And then, obviously, a few weeks later, just found out that, you know…”
As the athletics season came to a halt along with the rest of the sports, Thomas, who had moved mainly to prepare for the Olympics, wondered how much longer she would have to train “for absolutely nothing”. When the Olympics finally took place last year, she traveled to Tokyo without the usual entourage of family and friends to cheer her on, in accordance with Japan’s security protocols.
As Thomas privately struggled with enforced isolation, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Simone Manuel and other athletes opened up about putting their individual athletic careers on hold for the sake of their mental health.
“It was nice to see that, you know, there’s space for it, that you can talk about it, that you’re not alone,” Thomas says. “To compete at such a high level where there are so many mistakes, everything we do every day is for those little moments that define our identity and our entire career. It’s really heavy.”
Adding to that burden, Thomas also relies on constant criticism of his body, whether from insiders scrutinizing his muscle composition or fans gazing sideways at his makeup. (“Men just don’t get the same kind of criticism or coaching,” she says.) But that only increased her urgency to stand up for black girls who might follow in her footsteps. In 2019, Thomas became the first female sprinter to sign with New Balance, best known for outfitting distance runners.
“When I received the first race kit some of the comments I gave were, it doesn’t fit my body type, from the way it sits on the hip, to the way it gives in the back. But they were really responsive and made changes that accommodate different riders’ body types. Now I feel like I can wear any part of the uniform I want,” says Thomas.
With the impact of the pandemic on the calendar, the athletics calendar is in a mad rush to make up for lost time, with the 2022 World Championships, Paris 24 Olympics and a second Outdoor World Championship in the next years.
“It’s about to be five major world championships in a row, where we would usually have a gap year in between, not just to take a break, but if you’re an athlete who wants to do something a little different, diversify,” says Thomas. “Maybe you want to plan a family. You don’t really have that opportunity anymore, without failing to team up, which is a big part of our careers. People are going to have to make tough decisions, or they’re just going to have to make do through this five-year cycle. »
He’s a big draw for any athlete, but Thomas can’t stand the thought of letting himself down, or the many black girls looking up to him. So, as always, she pushes through.
“These are my best years, so I have to make the most of them. And I’m in no rush to do anything else right now. But it would definitely be something that I’m going to have to emotionally and mentally figure out,” Thomas says. “After the Tokyo Olympics it was exhausting, then I prepare and compete in the world championships. I don’t know how I’m going to feel after that. You lose that opportunity to breathe and reset. We’ll see. It will definitely be an adjustment for all of us.
Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Strengthen Onyxa diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sport for black women and girls.