First In Her Class: Female Athlete of the Year
Courtesy of the Ivy League — Crimson Photographer
Eighth place in the race meant she was the eighth fastest collegiate sprinter in the nation at that distance. But as has become typical for Thomas, doing what no other sprinter in the history of the division had done before still didn’t satisfy her.
“Last year I came in dead last in this final with a really bad race,” said Thomas in a 2018 interview. “So I spent all [this] year mentally preparing and focusing on the discipline.”
That preparation and focus returned Thomas to Texas A&M;’s Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium for the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships in 2018 and again she made the finals in the 200-meter dash. The race was divided into two four-person sections, with Thomas running in the second section.
In section one, San Diego State’s Ashley Henderson ran the race in 22.41 seconds, one-hundredth of a second faster than the 2017 champion and slower than collegiate record by the same metric. The collegiate record, set by Bianca Knight of the University of Texas, had stood for a decade. Knight later went on to win gold at the 2012 London Olympic Games as a member of the US 4x100-meter relay team.
"I was thinking 'I'm going to have to break a collegiate record if I want to win this race,'" junior co-captain Gabby Thomas said.
“I was thinking ‘I'm going to have to break a collegiate record if I want to win this race,’” Thomas said. “At that point all I could was take a risk and focus on my own race plan.”
So that’s what she did.
In a race that featured personal bests from two other competitors, Thomas placed first with a collegiate record, meet record, facility record, and personal best 22.38-second finish, ending Knight’s decade-long reign atop the collegiate record boards.
With the gold, Thomas became the fourth Harvard woman to stand atop the national podium and the first female sprinter to accomplish the feat. In addition, as a result of her national title, Thomas became the first in program and Ancient Eight history to earn USTFCCCA First Team All-America honors two years in a row.
At the national meet, Thomas competed in more than just the 200-meter dash. After breaking both the Harvard and Ancient Eight record in the event at the Indoor Ivy League Heptagonal Championships two weeks prior to the meet, Thomas placed 12th in the race at the national stage. Finishing .01 seconds from her best, she earned USTFCCCA Second Team All-America honors.
Thomas has since been named to The Bowerman Post-Indoor Watchlist. A list of 10 student-athletes, The Bowerman is awarded annually to the top male and female athletes in nation. In the group of 10, Thomas was one of four athletes from non-SEC schools. Her appearance on the watch list represented the first time a Harvard student has ever been recognized by the organization. Since being named to the Post-Indoor Watchlist, Thomas has not left the top 10, being named also to the Mid-Outdoor, Pre-Conference Championships and Post-Conference Championship Watchlists.
Thomas’ consistency among the top rankings comes as the junior repeated a dominant performance at the Outdoor Ivy League Heptagonal Championships.
Traveling to Penn’s Historic Franklin Field, Thomas went a perfect five-for-five, claiming golds in every event she competed in, a feat she achieved at last year’s conference meet as well. This season, the gold rained in long jump, the 100-meter, 200-meter, 4x100-meter relay, and 4x400-meter relay. In the 200-meter, Thomas set a meet record.
The most astounding part of the meet wasn’t so much the Florence, Mass., native’s domination in the track events as it was her domination in a single event, the 4x400-meter relay. In a finish that garnered national attention, Thomas was handed the baton with a 2.8-second deficit to make up. Starting in fourth place, the indoor national champion immediately jumped into second place.
Thomas still had about 30 meters to make up between her and Columbia’ Akua Obeng-Akrofi, a 2016 Olympian for Ghana and the nation’s representative at the IAAF World Outdoor Championships and the Commonwealth Games.
“Down 2.8 seconds—all I was thinking about was catching her,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know how many meters away she was, especially seeing as Penn’s track is configured differently than most, so it was just strategy of catching her and securing the win in the 4x4. That’s all I could think about when I was running.”
And Thomas caught her. Making up the distance on the final stretch, Thomas leaned forward at the finish line and crossed just .04 seconds before her Columbia competition.
It wasn’t even that Obeng-Akrofi had run a particularly slow lap. Rather, Thomas’s 400-meter dash was extraordinarily fast. With a 49.44-second split, Thomas’s time was over two seconds faster than the meet record in the solo 400-meter dash, a race Thomas didn’t even compete in. Brown, the third place finisher in the relay, didn’t finish until nearly four seconds later.
Thomas ultimately earned Most Outstanding Track Performer of the Meet for the second consecutive season. She also shared the Most Outstanding Field Performer of the Meet award with teammate sophomore Simi Fajemisin and Penn’s Ashley Anumba.
As a result of Thomas’s performance at the meet, the sprinter was named a USTFCCCA National Athlete of the Week, the first time the honor has been earned by a Harvard athlete since Courtney Smith did the same in 2016.
In this season alone, Thomas has broken several records. In the indoor 300-meter dash, Thomas set the school record and the BU facility record. In the indoor 60-meter, Thomas set the Ivy record, tied the New England record, broked how own personal record and the conference record again. Then at Ivy Heps, Thomas set the school, division, and meet records times again. The indoor 200-meter dash told a similar story. Thomas first set a facility and meet record at the Texas Tech Shootout before setting the collegiate record at NCAAs, breaking personal, division, and school records en route. That was just indoor.
Not even done with the outdoor season, Thomas has set personal and Ivy records in the 200-meter dash while securing the fastest collegiate time in the nation for the season up to that point with her finish at the Hurricane Alumni Invite. She then proceeded to set a meet record at Heps in the same event, not to mention a program record in long jump.
This barely begins to take into consideration the records Thomas had already set. Without 2018 accounted for, Thomas’s name is beside the program’s top finish ever in nine events, and among the top seven in five more.
With outdoor season yet to conclude, Thomas still has time to win another national championship. The last two season’s Thomas has placed third in the national championship race. Last season she did it with a time of 22.61 seconds.
But Thomas is more than just the fastest collegiate sprinter in the nation; the neurobiology concentrator serves as a leader on the team. A co-captain in the 2018 season, Thomas was just this month named co-captain for the 2019 season as well.
“Gabby is an inspirational teammate because she always gives it her all and pushes herself and all of us to do more than we thought we could,” teammate Zoe Hughes said. “Seeing her do so well at the finals was great, and we’re all really proud of her.”
—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @THC_CadePalmer.