Elliott: Gabrielle Thomas knows 'nothing's going to be given' in her quest for gold in 200

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Gabrielle Thomas, of the United States, competes in a semifinal.
U.S. sprinter Gabrielle Thomas slows down after running a 200-meter semifinal at the Tokyo Olympic Games on Monday. (Petr David Josek / Associated Press)

Gabrielle Thomas was still catching her breath after her third-place finish in her 200-meter sprint semifinal at steamy, hot Olympic Stadium on Monday when she came up with a clear plan for her pursuit of gold on Tuesday.

“In the final I think I’m just going to have to give it 150,000%,” said Thomas, who emerged as a pre-Olympic favorite in the event this year by running the third-fastest time ever recorded in the 200 — and best by anyone not named Florence Griffith Joyner — at the U.S. Olympic trials, a blistering 21.61 seconds.

She laughed, but she wasn’t joking in her assessment of her semifinal performance. "I have to give it my best race if I want to medal,” Thomas added, “and that’s what I take away from that race.”

Thomas’ time was 22.01 seconds, faster than her preliminary time of 22.20 but still behind 100-meter gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica, who matched a personal best with a time of 21.66 seconds, and 18-year-old emerging star Christine Mboma of Namibia, whose time of 21.97 seconds broke the world under-20 record she had set Monday morning. Thomas didn’t stop to speak to reporters after the semifinal, pausing long enough only to record a few words for a USA Track & Field staffer, but her dissatisfaction was clear.

The top two finishers in each of the three semifinals got a capital “Q” for automatic qualifier next to their name on the results display. Thomas got an understated “q” for qualifying with one of the next two fastest times. That small difference bothered her. Sometimes, motivation comes from strange sources.

“Nothing’s going to be given. These spots, they can be taken from you really quickly,” she said. “After coming in with this little ‘q’ for the final I’m just really determined to push myself.”

Americans Jenna Prandini (22.57) and Anavia Battle (23.02) didn’t advance past the semifinals, but Thomas remains very much in the gold medal conversation. A loud chorus of other voices has chimed in, creating the possibility the final will reach record-setting heights on a fast track and in the kind of warm weather sprinters love because it keeps their muscles limber.

Gabrielle Thomas runs ahead of two opponents.
Gabrielle Thomas runs in a 200-meter qualifier at the Tokyo Games on Monday. (Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

Thompson-Herah toppled one of the longest-standing women’s Olympic track records Saturday when she led a Jamaican sweep in the 100 meters with a time of 10.61 seconds, edging ahead of the 10.62 Griffith Joyner recorded at the Seoul Games in 1988. Flo Jo, as the late Griffith Joyner was known, also set the seemingly unbeatable Olympic and world 200-meter records of 21.34 seconds at those Games.

Suddenly, that record doesn’t seem unreachable anymore. Thomas has already come within a whisper of it. And with Thompson-Herah, 100-meter runner-up Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and 2016 Rio de Janeiro 400-meter gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas running well Monday, Thomas shouldn’t have any trouble mustering that 150,000% effort she expects she will need to finish in the top three Tuesday.

Thomas, who grew up in Massachusetts, was a natural athlete. She was steered toward track by her mother, Jennifer, and she found a role model in Allyson Felix, the nine-time Olympic medalist from Los Angeles whose speed and grace spoke to Thomas on many levels. Thomas’ mother talked her out of quitting track during her freshman year at Harvard, where she majored in neurobiology, and she stuck it out to win the NCAA indoor 200-meter title in 2018 under coach Kebba Tolbert.

After graduation Thomas moved to Texas to pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology and healthcare management at the University of Texas at Austin with the aim of fixing racial disparities in the healthcare system. She also found coach Tonja Buford Bailey, a three-time Olympian and 1996 bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, and she flourished.

Before the Olympic trials Thomas endured a health scare when an MRI exam found a tumor on her liver. It was benign, but she made a pact with God, she said in an interview with the “Today” show, vowing to do "everything that I can to live life to the fullest” if she got through that health challenge. That included winning the 200 at the trials, though she was stunned to run a time that remains the swiftest in the world this year. She also finished fifth in the 100 and earned a spot in the Tokyo relay pool.

Her profile truly soared when she ran that 21.61 time at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Her ambitions rose that day too.

“Yeah, I mean my goals shifted after I ran that time. It went from making the Olympic team to being a gold medalist,” Thomas said after the preliminary heat Monday morning. “But obviously I know that nothing is given. I’m going to have to earn that spot and that’s the beauty of track and field, that’s the beauty of the Olympic championships. I’m excited to earn it.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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