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TOKYO — The faces that filled the screen belonged to FGTs, or Friends of Gabby Thomas. Whether they connected to the videoconference from Minnesota, Texas, Seattle, the West Indies, or near her family home in western Massachusetts, they came for the same reason, the same race that made them nervous and made them scream.
The reason was both expected and surreal. That was their friend down on the track in Tokyo, running in the 200-meter final, in the Olympics, only two years removed from the time they shared at Harvard. Her college teammates expected that Thomas would eventually grasp greatness, one way or another, whether as a doctor or an athlete. But her ascension from a lightly-recruited sprinter who almost quit track to an NCAA champion to the third-fastest 200 time in that race’s existence had happened so suddenly that it took a little time to adjust.
As the final minutes before the start dwindled, the number of FGTs on the Zoom call grew. Rather than 12 screens that featured paintings, backyard fences, doorways, blinds, a random family member and so many lamps, there were 20, then 25, then 31 FGTs.
Mostly, the banter quieted, due to the anticipation, most of which stemmed from the time (21.63 seconds) that Thomas ran at the Olympic trials but some of which resulted from the fortitude of the person they all knew. She hadn’t exactly approached the world record, the 21.34-second-mark that Florence Griffith Joyner recorded in South Korea. But she had barreled right into that same exclusive neighborhood, at only 24, raising the possibility that she could conquer the Olympics, too.
With maybe five minutes before the start, from time zones all over the U.S., the FGTs stumbled upon a story from their college days. A harbinger, they hoped. Fellow sprinter Rodney Agyare-May unspooled the tale: this one time at the Ivy League conference meet, when Thomas was running on the 4 x 400-meter relay team and took the baton something like 20 meters behind the nearest competitor. She transformed into a blur, chasing down everyone in front of her, even passing an Olympian. “I’m getting flashbacks,” Agyare-May said, as others chimed in with agreements.
“I’m getting ready for a repeat of the trials,” someone else said.
Most had refrained from reaching out to Thomas in the lead-up, holding back because they didn’t want to distract her. She had always been so calm, so collected, even when everyone else was nervous. They didn’t want to inject anxiety into regular conversations. “We’re low-key scared to say anything,” one person pointed out.
The Zoom cut in and out in Tokyo. But two more FGTs, Karina Joiner and Micah Meekins, could be heard clearly predicting that Thomas would obtain a medal, any medal, without question, perhaps even win gold. Their friend, the sprinter, walked into the stadium at that moment, her entrance showing on various FGT screens in numerous U.S. cities and on two massive video boards at National Stadium in Tokyo. She blew kisses to the crowd, as the chatter among the FGTs increased.
Lane 3, not bad at all … Wow, there she is! … Wooooooo! Another person chimed in with a warning. “If anybody bets against her, I’ll cut you,” he said. “It’s that serious!”
The next person apologized for what came next. He had spied the introduction for Elaine Thompson-Herah, the Jamaican speedster who set the Olympic record while winning gold in the 100-meter dash on Saturday night. “Yeah,” the person on the call had said, “this chick is fast.”
While her friends told stories and tried to make sense of how everyone arrived here, connected by an Olympian and modern-technology, Thomas tried to remember the last instruction given by her coach. She had been mildly concerned with the quick turnaround from Monday, the two heats in a single day she needed to run well enough in order to advance to the final on Tuesday night. After she did that, clocking the third-fastest time in the semifinals, she wanted to mentally regroup. Before the final started, her coach reduced that exercise to its most basic form, telling Thomas she needed simply to relax and run.
The FGTs screamed when the gun sounded, proud and anxious and hopeful all at once. Thompson-Herah shot to an early lead, as if delivered into her lane from a cannon. But no one on the Zoom call panicked. Not with Thomas, their steadiest of friends. For a few seconds, she raised their collective hopes, legs churning, arms pumping, as she shifted into second place. She even gained back a little of the ground opened by Thompson-Herah, like that 4 x 400 at Harvard—but not for long. Thomas would later say she “fought tooth and nail” the last 30 meters to finish in 21.87 seconds.
She was proud of herself, her smile stretching halfway across the ocean, and she had reason to be. At first, she didn’t know where she had placed, other than not first.
The scoreboard soon revealed what had happened at the end, even to Thomas, who watched, sucking wind, hands placed on her back to breathe better. Thompson-Herah, the fastest woman on the planet, had zoomed to a 21.53 finish, her time even quicker than the one Thomas had run at the U.S. trials. The Jamaican had won both the 100- and 200-meter races here, assuming the stop-everything-and-watch mantle vacated for these Games by Usain Bolt. It felt like a handoff, from one really speedy islander to the next.
Worse yet but not in a way that dampened Thomas’s spirits, Christine Mboma of Namibia had just passed her at the finish, snagging the silver by 0.06 seconds. Thomas had finished in third place. Her medal would be bronze. Key phrase there: her medal.
There was no shame in that, not even a little. A few months back, Thomas hoped to simply make the Olympic team and run in Tokyo. Her performance at the trials changed her paradigm but not her, which the FGTs never expected would happen anyway, despite the congratulatory DM from Ashton Kutcher and the text message exchange with Gabrielle Union.
Comments laced with pride came in rapid-fire succession: Wow, what a race … That smile! … Let’s goooooooooooooo! … Oh, my God; oh, my God; oh, my God. They were proud of their friend, proud of her medal and proud of her sudden star turn. They were also proud of what seemed possible, the future widened by the past few months and paved with promise. "She is just scratching the surface on her Olympic career," said Ngozi Musa on the Zoom.
They were, though, upset when the broadcast quickly cut away. Had it shown more, they might have seen Thomas in the mixed zone, where she stood before a microphone and held up a finger to ask for a quick reprieve. An American flag hung over her shoulders, and she pinched the front, so that it looked like a makeshift stars-and-stripes coat. She had needed those few seconds to slug half a bottle of water, her energy consumed by the final 30 meters of her race. Even in the immediate aftermath, she felt the same way that the FGTs did: this marked her first Olympic experience, where she collected her first medal, and rather than a culmination it seemed more like a start.
Thomas made sure to thank the superstar who followed her into a hallway beneath the stadium, a fellow American competitor from New Jersey named Athing Mu. In many ways, Mu and Thomas shared important trait—both charismatic, both young, both fast as all hell.
By the time Thomas’s race started, Mu had made her 800-meter triumph appear easy, running so fast, so gracefully she might as well have been out on a leisurely stroll with friends. She won, she celebrated and she had enough energy to sprint to the stands and leap up to hug her coaches. Then she remained on the track, yelling so loud for her countrywoman that Thomas actually heard Mu scream.
The 800-meter artist followed the woman she had roared for off the infield, the future of U.S. track and field strolling into the future, together in one frame. Mu wore a barrette that spelled out confidence in pink jewels. Her nails were painted gold. But whereas Thomas’s ascension supercharged more recently, Mu, only 19, has long appeared to be more than an elite talent; rather, she looks like a generational one.
Asked what she would tell the wide swaths of America that met her for the first time through their televisions on Tuesday night, her beaming face and stunning speed on display in high definition, she started with “I’m very fun” and “quite jolly”—and then segued into the obvious part, that she’s also very fast, that she plans to return to the Olympics, win more medals, break the world record. Not maybe break. “Definitely break it—at some point.”
The questions in Tokyo petered out, as the FGTs remained on the videoconference, comparing notes. They had watched their friend win an Olympic medal that might have seemed impossible three months ago. They had also witnessed Mu dominate so thoroughly that on this night, Aug. 3, 2021, it seemed like a new era of American sprinting was, if not born, then fortified and bolstered.
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