Dashing down the final steps of the 200-meter race in first place, Gabby Thomas raised her arms. She knew she had just become an Olympian on Team USA.
“It has been a dream of mine for a very long time now,” the 24-year-old said in an interview with CBS News this week. “It’s such a long journey, and so many days and hours of mental and physical preparation. And it just all came together in that one moment.”
Thomas recorded a blazing time of 21.61 seconds, the second fastest time ever for the women’s 200-meter dash in the world. She said she was “mind-blown to see” her time only trailed sprinting legend Florence Griffith-Joyner by less than .3 of a second and was actually faster than that of Marion Jones, another track icon.
“I never thought that, me, like, I would be an athlete sandwiched between Flo-Jo and Marion Jones,” she said. “I just didn’t think it was something that was physically possible.”
“It raised my standards for myself,” she added, pointing out that she doesn’t chase times, but medals instead.
The Massachusetts-raised runner is all about creating opportunities for herself. Even as she begins her chase for medal glory, the Harvard graduate knows running isn’t the only thing she wants to accomplish: She wants to help fix the racial disparities in the health care system.
After initially going into the Ivy League school to pursue research, Thomas said a “life-changing” seminar covering health disparities in America, specifically among African Americans, prompted her to pivot to the public health field.
“You could just see the need for racial and ethnic diversity in public health because these disadvantaged populations had been just neglected for so long,” she said. “I felt like in epidemiology, that field could really use a lot more people who look like me.”
Thomas graduated with a degree in neurobiology and secondary degree in global health and health policy. She’s now pursing her masters at the University of Texas in public health, studying epidemiology/health care management. Last year, her first year there, was heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Inequalities in health were spotlighted throughout the pandemic – and it served as even more motivation for Thomas. According to the COVID Tracking Project, Black people have died at 1.4 times the rate of White people during the pandemic.
“What we’re seeing with COVID, and what we saw with COVID, was nothing that I was surprised by, it just really solidified that I wanted to do what I was doing,” she said.
“It’s time to make a change and I think everybody’s on board,” she added. “So, I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Five days before leaving to compete at the U.S. Olympic trials last month, Thomas was dealing with her own health scare. She went to doctors for a hamstring issue in May, and they suggested an MRI on her lower back after finding a tumor in her liver. She said doctors initially thought it might be cancerous, but she found out just last Tuesday that it wasn’t a malignant tumor.
“It was weighing on me and I didn’t want to carry that stress into trials,” she said. “But thankfully, it was benign.”
Now, her focus turns to the Tokyo Olympics, where her she’ll join her childhood idol, nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix. After Thomas’ historic race last weekend, Felix hugged and congratulated her. To her, it felt like a full circle moment – this would be Felix’s last Olympic trials and Thomas will go to the Games for the first time.
It’s also more than a decade since her mother told Thomas, a soccer player then, to watch Felix compete in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“It made me so happy because it just really felt like she genuinely was happy for me and like passing the torch on,” she said, adding it is “crazy” to be on the same stage as her.
The Tokyo Olympics begin on July 23 and the budding superstar is soaking it all in.
“To have actually made the team after all this time,” she said. “It means everything.”