Thomas seeks to follow in Felix's footsteps in Olympic 200m tilt
TOKYO, July 27, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - Gabby Thomas is out to emulate childhood hero and now team-mate Allyson Felix as she targets gold for the United States at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 24-year-old Harvard-educated sprinter starts as favourite for the 200 metres title after a dazzling season in which she has become the second fastest woman in history over the distance.
Only the late Florence Griffith Joyner -- whose world record of 21.34sec from the drug-tarnished 1988 Olympics remains intact -- has ever run a faster time in the event.
Thomas, who stormed to victory in a world-leading 21.61sec at the US Olympic Trials in Oregon last month, is now poised to follow in the footsteps of Felix, the most decorated female Olympian in track and field history.
Thomas describes Felix, the 2012 200m champion, who is competing in her fifth and final Olympics in Tokyo, as her "inspiration."
"She's the first person I remember," Thomas says. "I remember sitting at my granny's house and my mom told me to turn on the TV because she saw someone who reminded her of me -- Allyson Felix.
"That's the person that's been at the back of my mind for so many years. Her humility, her grace, and how good she is at what she does. She's really the one that has been inspiring."
Thomas's power and speed over the 200m has left some wondering whether Griffith Joyner's long-standing record may be within her grasp.
With her victory at the US trials last month, Thomas raised her arms in celebration well before the finish line, suggesting she is capable of edging closer to Flo-Jo's 33-year-old mark.
Thomas is cautious about whether she thinks a world record is achievable.
"I don't want to say 'no'," she said. "But I don't want to put a limit on myself. So I'm not going to say it's unattainable."
- Juggling college and track -
Thomas failed to make the US team for the 2016 Olympics, when as a 19-year-old she admits she was still learning her craft while juggling the rigours of a degree in neurobiology and global health policy.
She is now pursuing a Masters in epidemiology at the University of Texas in Austin, where she trains under Tonja Buford-Bailey, the 1996 Olympics 400m hurdles bronze medallist.
Buford-Bailey's so-called "Bailey Bunch" is one of the few training groups in the United States run by a Black woman.
"A training group of all Black women who are all so inspirational and driven and motivated and succeeding, it's very empowering," Thomas said.
"We all have experienced similar struggles. It's just really nice to have that support system."
Thomas says athletics has been a crucial outlet during her academic career.
"Being in school really makes me appreciate what I'm doing on the track," she said.
"Being able to compartmentalise two different things that I love doing really makes you appreciate the time when you're doing it.
"When I finish my schoolwork and finish class and go to the track, it's my time to be free and let loose and love what I'm doing. I think (studying) helped and motivated me with track."
Thomas also spends time working as a volunteer at a free healthcare clinic in Austin that aims to provide medical services for the city's uninsured and working poor, an extension of her passion for epidemiology.
A desire to improve healthcare for disadvantaged communities drove Thomas towards her chosen academic path.
"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 in a recent interview.
"I felt like in epidemiology, that field could really use a lot more people who look like me."