Olympic Sprinter Gabby Thomas Reveals Why Strict Covid Policies Made Her Toyko Experience More Fun

Having won two medals at the 2020 Olympics, track phenom Gabby Thomas is eagerly sprinting her way to Paris 2024. She recounted her Tokyo experience to E! News and why she's excited for round two.

By Natalie Finn, Sarah Grossbart Apr 17, 2024 1:00 PMTags
Watch: 2020 Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony: Must-See Moments

For American sprinter Gabby Thomas, there was no running away from the absurdity that was the 2020 Olympics

For starters, the pandemic-era Tokyo Games actually took place in 2021. "That was confusing, right?" Thomas joked in an exclusive interview with E! News. And then there were the myriad protocols put in to place to ensure each athlete would be able to compete with contracting COVID-19. "The deal was, everyone had to stay in the Village," she explained, "nobody could leave and we were tested multiple times a day."

The result: Thomas was able to toe the starting line with her fellow competitors, racing her way to a bronze medal finish in the 200m and helping the American women earn silver in the 4x100m relay.

As for the experience off the track, "That was kind of fun, right?" admitted the 27-year-old. "Because everyone was hanging out and I always describe it as summer camp when people ask me, because everyone was really just in that village together."

2020 Tokyo Olympics Candid Photos

But as much as she's hoping to recapture that sleepover-like quality at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, it would also be très chic to be able to explore the city a bit

"Now it'll be nice because we'll all be in the village together," noted Thomas, "but people probably won't feel as contained and stressed out from the repercussions of COVID."

And as much as she's excited to catch a glimpse of the Seine and the opening ceremonies, "because we weren't able to do that last time," mostly, she said, "I'm looking forward to being able to share the experience with my friends and family—and my team, everyone who helped me get to that point. In Tokyo my coach was allowed to be there and that was pretty much it. So that's going to be an amazing moment."


Heading up her cheer squad is mom Jennifer Randall "for sure," said Thomas, who also namechecked coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, boyfriend Spencer McManes (a former Yale football standout) and her mentor at the Volunteer Healthcare Clinic in Austin where she makes use of the neurobiology degree she earned from Harvard and the master's in public health she received from the University of Texas last May. 

"Growing up with a single mom and coming from not having anything and now she's just living her dream as a professor at the University of Michigan," marveled Thomas, "watching her work for that has been so influential to me, and she's still someone that I call to talk to all the time about everything."

Among their topics of conversation is when exactly Thomas might return to school to seek out a PhD. Though at the moment, her plate isn't just full, it's overflowing.

Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Because in addition to doggedly pursuing Olympic gold in Paris, she's still focused on her equally ambitious plan A of changing the world. Back when she graduated from Harvard in 2019, the Atlanta native was lured to Texas both by the opportunity to train with Buford-Bailey's track club and to earn another degree. 

"That was my life path," she explained, "to volunteer at this clinic, get my master's in public health, graduate and do a fellowship, and then continue on that journey working in the health care space. And then, you know, COVID happened and I saw even more how socioeconomic disparities were disproportionately affecting people of color, which really validated my desire to continue this journey."

Athletes Who Made History at the Tokyo Olympic Games

So she moved full speed ahead with both goals. 

Though she's been hot on the heels of idols like the now-retired Allyson Felix and the late Florence Griffith Joyner, Thomas never really thought she'd be a professional runner. 

"There's no guarantee that you're going to have success in track and field," she explained. But after she earned her way onto the U.S. team for the 2020 Games, "I definitely saw my track career differently. I knew it was something that I wanted to do for as long as I could, especially as you see these women in the sport, they run well into their 30s now, they're sprinting and doing better than they ever had before. So that's what I saw for myself." 

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

But that doesn't mean she needs to run away from her original love. "I came to a point where you think, 'Do I have to make a choice?'" she admitted. "And I thought, No, because I've never had to choose before. I've always been able to pursue exactly what I wanted to do and I've always been able to do it all, and so I told myself, I'm going to do it all! I'm going to utilize this master's and work on this health equity stuff that I love, and help make an impact on the community while also running on the track."

For Thomas that means leaning into opportunities like the chance to partner with Eli Lilly and Company—the health equity sponsor of Team USA.

Given her areas of expertise, she was particularly drawn to the brand's "work to increase diversity in clinical trials and expanding education and employment opportunities for people in historically marginalized communities," noted Thomas. "It's just been really important to me, I dedicate a lot of my time off the track to this purpose and this is something that I've been passionate about through high school, through college, and even through my master's, so I'm really excited."

Watch: 2020 Tokyo Olympics: By the Numbers

But as eager as she is to hit the ground running with her work in health, she has no plans to hang up her spikes anytime soon. 

"I definitely want to continue running for awhile," said Thomas, indicating Paris won't be her last Olympics appearance. "I'm so inspired seeing what these other women in the sport have been doing and how long they've been able to have their careers—and juggle other parts of their life—so I can do the same thing. Some people get tired of running, some people just don't want to do it, but I do."

Now, as we head into Paris 2024, take a look back at hte most memorable moments in Olympics history...

Jesse Owens, 1936

One of the most legendary athletes of all time, Alabama native Jesse Owens' won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, breaking world records while simultaneously defying the Nazi agenda promoted by Adolf Hitler

Abebe Bikila, 1960

The next time you're not in the mood to exercise, think of Abebe Bikila. The Ethiopian runner became the first African to win a gold medal when he won the men's marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. And, he did barefoot.

Four years later, he won again, marking the first time anyone had won the marathon twice. He wore shoes the second time around—and underwent an appendectomy just over a month before running the race. And yet, he still set a world record. 

Peggy Fleming, 1968

While winning the only gold medal for the United States at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, Peggy Fleming skated into the hearts of Americans watching from home (for the first time live and in color, mind you) and has since been credited with changing figure skating. 

Tommie Smith & John Carlos, 1968

With their black-gloved fists in the air, black socks on their feet and their heads bowed, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos—who won the gold and bronze medals respectively—left their mark on history as they used the podium to protest racism.

Nadia Comaneci, 1976

At just 14 years old, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10.  

The United States Hockey Team, 1980

Deemed the "Miracle on Ice," the United States men's hockey team stunned the world when they defeated the favored Soviet Union team at the 1980 Winter Games, held in Lake Placid, New York amid the Cold War. 

Florence Griffith Joyner, 1988

Famously known as Flo-Jo, the late California native and three-time gold medalist remains the fastest woman of all time after setting the existing Olympic records for the 100 and 200 meter-dashes in 1988. More than three decades later, they still stand. 

Greg Louganis, 1988

Despite hitting his head on the diving board during the preliminary rounds, Greg Louganis went on to win two gold medals at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, bringing his career total to four. 

Derek Redmond, 1992

It was a striking moment between a father and son forever memorialized in Olympics history. British sprinter Derek Redmond unforgettably suffered a torn hamstring mid-race at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, but tearfully made it to the finish line—with an arm around his dad. 

The United States Basketball Team, 1992

The United States basketball team for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona was a lineup of some of the sport's greatest, including Michael Jordan, Scottie PippenMagic Johnson and Karl Malone. They won gold and were later inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. They weren't nicknamed the "Dream Team" for nothing!

Nancy Kerrigan, 1994

While American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan ended up bringing home the silver after competing at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, it was the attack she suffered after a practice a month earlier that will live forever in infamy. 

Kerri Strug, 1996

At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, then-18-year-old gymnast Kerri Strug secured gold for the women's team after landing her second vault with an injury. Strug was so hurt, she crawled away after landing and was eventually carried back in by coach Béla Károlyi to receive her medal. 

Eric Moussambani, 2000

At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Eric Moussambani, a then-22-year-old swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, competed in the first qualifying heat of the men's 100-meter freestyle. If you're wondering why this is a significant moment history, we should mention that he had never even seen a 50-meter pool before that day.

There was also the fact that he did not know he would be competing in the 100 meter until arriving in Australia and had instead been mistakenly told he would be swimming half that.

Despite not having a coach and having trained with limited access to a swimming pool, Moussambani's story took another turn when his fellow competitors were disqualified for making false starts. Alone, he ultimately completed the race. 

Birgit Fischer, 2004

German kayaker and eight-time Olympic gold medalist Birgit Fischer's story is a reminder that you really shouldn't put a time limit on winning a gold medal.

After all, there are more than two decades between her first—which she won as the youngest in the field—and her most recent at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens as the oldest competitor. She was 42 years old at the time. 

Michael Phelps, 2004

The most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps kicked off his winning spree at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens when he took home six gold medals and eight total. 

Usain Bolt, 2008

At his first Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, the Jamaican sprinter left his mark on the sport when he set world and Olympic records as he won the 100 and 200-meter dashes. Before retiring, Bolt won eight gold medals and continues to hold the Olympic records (he even set new ones in 2012) for the 100 meter, 200 meter and 4x100 meters relay. 

Shaun White, 2018

Of his three Olympic gold wins, it's possible his 2018 victory is the sweetest. After all, Shaun White nabbed the gold with the final run of the men's halfpipe competition at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a victorious comeback after placing fourth four years earlier in Sochi. In that moment, White made history as the first snowboarder ever to win three gold medals. 

Simone Biles, 2020

Midway through the Tokyo Games, Simone Biles withdrew from the gymnastics team final to focus on her mental health. Ultimately, the GOAT chose to sit out all subsequent competitions until returning for the balance beam final, in which she took home bronze.

Her candor and decision to put her mental needs first sparked an important conversation not only among athletes but throughout the world. "I know that I helped a lot of people and athletes speak out about mental health and saying no," she said. "Because I knew I couldn't go out there and compete. I knew I was going to get hurt."