Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
The sky over Austin is a gloomy slate, but Gabby Thomas couldn’t be in a sunnier mood after thundering through an afternoon workout that would’ve had anyone else scraping themselves off the tarmac.
“I’m really working on tackling the 100 [meters],” says Thomas, a 25-year-old Atlanta native who seems completely unbothered by the threat of rain or the pet pug nipping at her heels.
Moments earlier, Thomas had unrigged herself from a contraption called a 1080 Sprint—a specialty winch designed to condition runners for higher speeds by pulling their bodies down the track.
“That’s kinda the whole goal of the sport, right, to push your body to its limit and teach your nervous system to be overstimulated,” Thomas says. “I can set it to a certain speed that we’re targeting, and also do that with the proper mechanics and not get injured. It was actually really, really great today. The fastest I’ve ever done it.”
At 5'10", Thomas has a knack for gaining pace at a nearly alarming rate, much to the distress of her rivals. But up until lately, they only had to worry about her focusing on the 200, where her top-end speed and talent in the bend really shines.
“If you’re in the vicinity of me at the 100-meter mark of a 200-meter race, you will most likely lose,” Thomas says.
Last July, after a COVID-19-imposed delay, Thomas made her debut at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., and blazed through the 200 in 21.61 seconds—the third-fastest time in history. Weeks later at the Tokyo Games, she replaced Sha’Carri Richardson on the anchor leg of Team USA’s 4X100 meter relay team and sealed a silver medal behind a season-best time of 41.45.
At last month’s Golden Games, Thomas showed the strides she’s made in the 100 meters, shaving 14 tenths off her personal best with a third-place time of 10.86. And that was while dominating in the 200 as well, clocking a world-leading time of 22.02. But her swift emergence on the world stage only becomes more impressive when you realize that sprinting is just one part on Thomas’s list of commitments.
In addition to being fast on her feet, Thomas is also a dedicated scholar. After coming out of a private boarding school in Easthampton, Mass., she could have run for her pick of collegiate track powers. Instead, she chose to run at Harvard while studying neurobiology and global health.
“I didn’t plan on running 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 led by my passions, and not following what everybody else was doing. Even at Harvard when everyone was focused on certain career paths, I was not focused on that. I was still loving track and fueled by passion for it. That’s what led me here.”
What followed was a move to Austin, both to train with former Olympic hurdler Tonja Buford-Bailey and to pursue a graduate degree 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 her volunteer work and her track career.
“I was volunteering at a health clinic here, providing health-care services to people who didn’t have insurance, people from underprivileged areas in Texas, who would travel and wait hours to be seen by a doctor,” says Thomas. “We were seeing so many people come in with the flu, or what we thought was the flu. And then obviously a couple weeks later, come to find out that, you know …”
As the track and field season shut down along with the rest of sports, Thomas, who had moved primarily to prepare for the Olympics, wondered how much longer she’d have to train “for absolutely nothing.” When the Olympics finally did happen last year, she traveled to Tokyo without the usual entourage of family and friends to cheer her on, in accordance with Japan’s safety protocols.
As Thomas privately wrestled with the forced isolation, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Simone Manuel and other athletes were opening up about pausing their individual sporting careers for the sake of their mental health.
“It was good to see that, you know, there’s space for that, that you can talk about it, that you’re not alone,” Thomas says. “Competing at such a high level where mistakes are so high, everything we do every single day is for these small moments that define our identity and our entire careers. It’s really heavy.”
In addition to that burden, Thomas also reckons with constant critiques of her body, whether it be from insiders scrutinizing her muscle composition or fans side-eying her makeup. (“Men just don’t have that same type of criticism or coaching,” she says.) But it’s only increased her urgency to advocate for Black girls that may follow in her footsteps. In 2019, Thomas became the first woman sprinter to sign with New Balance, best known for outfitting distance runners.
“When I did receive the first race kit, some of the feedback I gave was, It doesn’t fit my body type, from the way it sits on the hip, to how it’s giving in the back. But they were really amenable and made changes that do accommodate body types of different runners. Now I feel like I can wear any part of the uniform kit I want,” Thomas says.
With the pandemic’s impact on the schedule, the track and field calendar is in a mad scramble to make up for lost time, with the 2022 World Championships, the Paris ’24 Olympics and a second Outdoor World Championships all in the next few years.
“This is about to be five consecutive major world championships, where we would typically have an off year in between—not just to have a break, but if you’re an athlete who wants to do something a little bit different, branch out,” Thomas says. “Maybe you want to plan a family. You don’t really have that opportunity anymore, without missing making a team, which is a big part of our careers. People are gonna have to make some tough decisions, or they’re just gonna have to grind it out through this five-year cycle.”
It’s a big pull on any athlete, but Thomas can’t bear the thought of letting herself down, or the many Black girls who look up to her. So, like always, she’s pushing through.
“These are my prime years, so I need to get the most that I can out of it. And I’m in no rush to do anything else at this time. But it’d definitely be something that I’m gonna have to emotionally and mentally wrap my head around,” Thomas says. “Coming off the Olympics in Tokyo, that was exhausting—and then I’m gearing back up and doing world championships. I don’t know how I’m gonna feel after that. You lose that opportunity to take a breath and reset. We’ll see. It’s definitely going to be an adjustment for all of us.”
Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.