How Gabby Thomas Handles the Pressure Of Being the Next Big Thing In Track

Getty / Mike Coppola / Staff

At the age of 27, New Balance athlete Gabby Thomas has racked up a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments. She’s a Harvard University graduate, a two-time Olympic medalist (in the 200 meter and the 4 x 100 meter relay), a World Champion (in the same track and field events), and an NCAA Champion.

Any one of these feats would be considered impressive; taken together, they’re almost unbelievable. To go the extra mile: as an undergrad at Harvard, Thomas studied neurobiology and global health. During those same years, she set the school and Ivy League records in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the indoor 60 meters. Thomas won 22 conference titles in six different events during just three years of college track and field, before she ultimately forwent her last year of college eligibility to go pro with New Balance.

Not to mention, she went on to get a master’s degree in epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (Austin).

To say that Thomas’s schedule must have been busy during her college years would be an understatement. But the truth is, in 2014, after her sophomore collegiate track season, Thomas found herself on the cusp of burnout and struggling with the idea of powering through her junior year track season.

“I had gotten to a place in my college career where I felt like I had given so much to track. I was feeling a little bit less whole in other areas of my life,” Thomas tells PS, acknowledging that being a college athletecan be very intense . . . It requires so much from you in terms of discipline, energy, and mindset,” she says.

This was all happening in the mid-2010s, when high-profile athletes weren’t having the types of conversations about mental health that they are today. It was still years away from Naomi Osaka skipping a press conference to protect her mental health; Simone Biles withdrawing from the Tokyo Olympics while battling “the twisties;” Michael Phelps opening up about his experience with depression.

Without the examples of other athletes to follow, Thomas ended up following her own instincts. And they were telling her to make a bold choice: to say yes to studying abroad in Dakar, Senegal for a semester, even though that meant missing summer regionals, NCAA national championships, and the USA Championships – the track and field competitions that had, until that point, defined her college experience.

While many student athletes may hesitate to study abroad for an entire semester – and risk missing out on competitions and events and falling behind on training – Thomas says Harvard was uniquely encouraging.

“Thankfully I was at Harvard, which is a place that kind of encourages self-discovery in other avenues, and so I didn’t have to worry about losing and sacrificing scholarship money, or my coach holding a grudge forever, or people wondering what I was doing,” she tells PS. “That said, my coach was not excited about it! But he accepted it and he understood where I was coming from.”

Thomas still felt apprehensive about the choice she was making. She took an entire summer off training, one of her longest breaks ever. What if she lost her fitness? Would she come back and lag way behind her training partners? Or more pressingly: What if she lost her emotional edge? What if she loved not being a track athlete so much that she couldn’t recommit when it was time to come home?

But she knew “if I was going to have longevity in the sport, I needed that breathing room. I needed to be able to let things go,” she tells PS. “We sacrificed a lot for track – whatever you love, you sacrificed a lot for it. And so I needed that [time] for me.”

Ultimately, she credits the time abroad as providing the mental reset she needed to continue dominating in track and field, eventually setting the table for her entry into professional track and field.

“I think that trip really helped me with my track career at the end of the day, because I came back from it feeling very refreshed. By the time I came back, I was really happy with my life and what I was doing, so I was really excited to get back to Harvard, go to school, and go back to the track and get to training. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that literally that next season I ended up winning NCAAs and breaking the collegiate record,” Thomas says.

“I just think I needed that time to really reflect on what I wanted in my life and what I wanted to do. And that’s why I feel like having that balance is so important. You need to really be enjoying the entirety of your life and really have the sense of purpose to have success in what you’re doing. And I really found that just by taking that break and going abroad,” she adds.

Years later and with even more accolades and degrees under her belt, Thomas is able to look back at the choice that felt so monumental and potentially disastrous at the time with fondness. She can also see she’s continued to choose “balance” over and over again, throughout her career.

She talks about living between two worlds that she tries to integrate as much as possible. “I have my track world, and those are my teammates, my coaches, and people who are in that elite sports world and understand what it takes. Those are people you can confide in, hang out with, and do things that are appropriate for your lifestyle. And it’s really helpful to have that sense of community,” she says.

The other world includes everyone else. And while her non-athlete friends may not understand her lifestyle as well, they’re just as crucial for her mental health. “You need those types of people that remind you to not take life too seriously, and are a refreshing reset from that world. So having both and being able to split my time with them is just really helpful,” she says.

Make no mistake, Thomas’s schedule as a Team USA track and field athlete during an Olympics year is about as jam-packed as you can imagine. Her training is intense, and the mental pressure is on. But she remains committed to truly listening to herself on what balance looks like for her. “You need to really be enjoying the entirety of your life and really have the sense of purpose to have success in what you’re doing,” Thomas says. “As long as you are happy and loving what you’re doing and passionate about it, then you will find success.”

Sierra Chanell Patrick is a former dual-sport Division I collegiate athlete turned writer, producer, and digital strategist. You may also recognize Sierra from hosting a variety of content for POPSUGAR, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hearst Media, and more.

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