Where the tracks meet: Gabby Thomas's world of health studies and becoming a U.S. track star
"I wanted to know how I could go into that space, how I could help, and I felt like my background being just a Black woman who is very interested in her own health, (meant) it would be a good area for me to go into and see how I can make a difference." - Gabby Thomas
Gabby Thomas is a two-time Olympic medalist, a Harvard graduate, and a former Leidos intern. She is now pursuing her master’s in public health at the University of Texas. While her life has taken her on multiple different paths, they all intersect with her love for health.
Along the way in her journey to reach her own peak health, she discovered a passion for healthcare equity. Today she joins to share how her experience on the track has impacted her healthcare career and interests and how she balances it all.
On today's podcast:
- Gabby's path to athletics and healthcare studies
- Gabby's experience as a Healthcare Innovation Analyst at Leidos
- How she manages her busy life and her advice to others
Gabby Thomas: The difference between an Olympic gold medal and not medaling at all can be one 10th of a second. So, you need to be in the best, you know, physical position, best health possible.
Shaunté Newby: Gabby Thomas's two passions were made for each other. As a two-time Olympic medalist, being in health is everything. Gabby's drive for athleticism and health sciences took her to the Olympic podium, Harvard University, and an internship at Leidos as a healthcare innovation analyst. Along the way, Thomas formed a passion for health equity.
Gabby Thomas: I wanted to know how I could go into that space, how I could help, and I felt like my background being just a black woman who is very interested in her own health, would, it would be a good area for me to go into study and see how I can make a difference.
Shaunté Newby: In today's special episode of Mindset, we welcome Gabby to talk about how health sciences and athletics have intersected in her life, how the two influence each other, and how she manages to balance an athletic career with her post-graduate studies. My name is Shaunté Newby. This is Mindset, a podcast by Leidos. In this series, our goal is to have you walk away from every episode with the new understanding of the complex and fascinating technological advancement going on at Leidos from space IT to trusted AI to threat-informed cyber security. We've got a lot going on and we're excited to share it with you. Let's start by talking about your athletic background. Can you tell us about how you found track?
Gabby Thomas: I actually got into track through doing a variety of different sports growing up. My main sport was soccer, and I was faster than pretty much everyone on every team, even the little boys. And I remember in third grade, I think it was, and I had to be like eight, nine years old, and I was so fast that I had a race with the fastest boy in our grade, and I think it ended up being a tie. But from that point forward, I just, I was aware of how fast I was and then I ended up getting into track when I was about 13 at my school, The Williston Northampton School in East Hampton, Massachusetts. And my experience running was just great. I mean, I made so many friends there, I had so much support and I had so many mentors at that time. The teachers were our coaches and it ended up being a really good environment for me where I felt like I could thrive, and I could grow. And I had set goals for myself. And then the rest is history. I just kept on running.
Shaunté Newby: So, I'm curious to know, though, so of course, you know, beating that, that young man, that little boy and that race was the first confirmation, but when did you realize it was something that you were really, really good at?
Gabby Thomas: I think I realized that I was really, really good at track when I was a junior in college, actually. I was enjoying it and I kept running, you know, just good enough to move forward with track and move forward with life. So, in high school, you know, just good enough to win my races, and win our New England Regional Championship and then get, you know, recruited to Harvard and running college at a D1, NCAA school. So that was a great opportunity, but when I realized that I was really great at track is junior year at Harvard when I won my first NCAA championship title and broke the collegiate record. And so, for those who don't know what that is, a collegiate record is when you run a race faster than anyone has ever run it, you know, in college, in college history. And that's when I realized, okay, this is something that I am very good at and can, could continue to do later in life.
Shaunté Newby: In 2021, Gabby made her Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games after an extremely impressive trial, she became a favorite for a medal in the women's 200 meters and didn't disappoint coming home with the Bronze for America. But even more than that, she also participated in the team 100-meter relay where she took home a silver medal. Winning, not one, but two Olympic medals is an incredible feat. I asked her how it felt to be on that podium.
Gabby Thomas: That, I mean, to this day is the best day of my life. I imagine it probably will be for a very long time, but it was, it's amazing. I mean, it's just a testament to how hard I was working. And so, for everyone to show the world, you know, what I do on a daily basis and to have all of, you know, my dreams literally come true. It's an amazing feeling. People don't realize this, but in track and field, you... We train every day, all year for years. So that, you know, those medals, those moments were so many years of hard work and so many small moments and just so many seconds of preparation just for that, just to stand, you know, on the metal stand in front of everybody, so it just, a lot went into it and yeah, I was really proud and happy.
Shaunté Newby: And I know it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point. I'm curious though, because you mentioned, you know, you realized you were really good at this in junior college. How early was the Olympics even in your sight? Or was it even there? It's just...
Gabby Thomas: I never thought of myself as being an Olympian. So that's something that I didn't realize that I was capable of doing. The way I go through life is I do what makes me happy and I do what kind of nourishes my soul and I feel like feeds into, how I can just be a better version of myself. And so, I continued to do track and I'd let it take me wherever it would take me. When I realized that I could make the Olympic team was at that same point when I was a junior in college and I had won the NCAA championship. So, I realized, okay, this is something that I can do, I can become a professional track athlete. And my goals actually at the time were to graduate from Harvard, run professional track for a year because it was supposed to be the 2020 Olympics and I graduated in 2019 and then, you know, retire and do my career in public health epidemiology, you know, everything that I was passionate about prior to track, but then, you know, the Olympics got pushed because of COVID.
Gabby Thomas: So, we ended up running, you know, until 2021. And I ended up having such a successful Olympics that now here I am, you know, just still running. And I intend on running even longer for many years to come. And so, track is this funny thing where I just, it never ends. I'm thinking, you know, I'll run through high school, that'll be it, you know, and then I'm like, I'll run through college and that'll be it. And then I'm thinking, you know, I'll run through the Olympics and that'll be it, but no, here I am, I'm still going. So, it just kind of snuck up on me. But like I said before, everything's kind of an outcome of very just hard work. And so that's what got me to the Olympics and that's what I'm assuming it will just carry me to the rest of my track career and hopefully two more Olympics.
Shaunté Newby: Wow. I think it's pretty cool what you said though, as far as you do what you love. I know that's... A lot of people don't come to that realization until a lot later in their career and age. So, and you hit that earlier, so it's very good wisdom early on.
Gabby Thomas: Well, it's working out pretty well for me so far, so.
Shaunté Newby: Good. So, when you were young and figuring out what you wanted to do, did your interest in physical health via sports impact your interest in studying health sciences? I mean, the two go together so well.
Gabby Thomas: Yeah, I do believe that it did. I've always loved sports. I've always loved, you know, just taking care of myself and my own health. When I was in college, we had such a focus on our health and well-being and the little things. So, in track and field, it's essentially a measurement of your physical well-being. You're trying to be at your peak physically, because the way we measure our success and track is just very specific. You know, the difference between an Olympic gold medal and not medaling at all can be one 10th of a second. So, you need to be in the best, you know, physical position, best health possible. And that comes from just taking care of yourself and having that knowledge. So, when we were in college, we focused on all of those really small things that just helped get you a little bit better.
Gabby Thomas: And if you could get 1% better every day, you were great. You were in a great situation; you were in a great position to do well. And so, I had this really deep appreciation for my health and actually really deep appreciation for the neurobiology as well, which is what I ended up studying in college. So, understanding how every... Everything that I did impacted my brain and how my brain impacted my athletic performance. So how much sleep I was getting, for example, on a day-to-day basis, if I were to sleep for five hours one night in college versus my typical eight hours because that's what I need. I felt that difference. And I remember reading a book or study actually from the sleep doctor saying that if you try to function on a day where you did not get any sleep the night before, the night prior, you're basically trying to function drunk.
Gabby Thomas: It's the equivalent of functioning drunk. And I remember that was so profound for me to hear because I was thinking, wow, if I'm not gonna get enough sleep and try to come to track practice and run well, I'm going to feel like I'm drunk and I might actually get injured. So, I navigated my life thinking, okay, I need to make sure that I'm taking care of these very small little things that most people don't think about. You know, if you're not an athlete, you can get away with not thinking about eating right. You know, getting enough protein, getting enough vegetables. You can get away with not sleeping. You can get away with not drinking a gallon of water a day. You know, you can get away with these things and not realize what effect it's having on your health. But for me, I was very hyper-aware of it.
Shaunté Newby: Yeah. You sound like you were doing your own study on yourself analyzing five hours of sleep versus three versus eight.
Gabby Thomas: Oh, I still do. I'm still checking up and seeing what things I do during the day affect me. And I've tried to be very in tune with it. Even meditation is something that I fell in love with through sport. Just being aware of how that actually changes my brain chemistry. And I can tell the difference of when I've gone a week without doing my meditation or gone a week without doing my journaling. You can feel the difference in your body.
Shaunté Newby: As Gabby mentioned in her undergraduate at Harvard, she studied neurobiology and global health, but during her studies, she took some other courses that had a strong impact on her health sciences interests. It was a class on health disparities in the medical field that opened her eyes to the realities of inequality and sparked her passion to make a difference.
Gabby Thomas: It was shocking to me because it's not something that we actually do learn about. Social justice was never something that was talked about in class. You know, health equity was never something that was talked about in class. And so, coming to that realization, and it was one course called Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired by Professor Hammonds, it just changed my life essentially. And so, I became really interested in pursuing my studies around public health and health equity. And for those who don't know what health equity is, it is essentially measuring and evaluating how certain health disparities are caused based on avoidable health differences that adversely affect socially disadvantaged groups. So socially disadvantaged groups could be determined by race, income, ability, age, whatever have you. But it's just how those, those issues in health can be avoided and how those bad health, those health outcomes can happen. I wanted to know how I could go into that space, how I could help. And I felt like my background being just a black woman who is very interested in her own health would, it would be a good area for me to go into study and see how I can make a difference.
Shaunté Newby: I find it interesting. I mean, these are such big important topics, and you smile as you talk about them. Like the, I can just hear the passion and interest in this area for you in your voice.
Gabby Thomas: Yes.
Shaunté Newby: In 2021 Gabby studies letter to an internship at Leidos with the Health Growth Solutions team, she took on the role of a healthcare innovation analyst. The six-month internship helped Gabby grow her passion for health equity as she focused on an area that Leidos is very passionate about, healthcare for military and veterans.
Gabby Thomas: So, I ended up doing research for Leidos and working on a pitch around the role of cultural competency and disparities in chronic pain and mental health conditions among rural veterans. So, trying to kind of bridge this gap and address the needs of veterans, specifically demographics that we're facing health disparities in respect to cultural competence and just making rural veterans care needs a priority and trying to find how can providers practice competency to treat rural veterans that are facing health disparities. And the focus was on those who are vulnerable to suffering from chronic pain and depression. This is a demographic and a population of people that it's very easy for them to kind of fall through the cracks. It's very easy for people to not think about them and not understand what they need. And a lot of them are... They're living in pain or they're having mental health issues.
Gabby Thomas: And so, this was another example where I felt like I could take my interest and see what Leidos can do because Leidos has just so many resources and how could they take their resources and take what they can do and help this group of people. And so that's what I was kind of studying. And there are a lot of parallels between, rural veterans and other socially disadvantaged groups. You know, when it comes to cultural competence and health literacy and for those who don't know what that is, cultural competence is the ability of a healthcare provider to actually and generally understand, interact with people from different cultures and those who have different values. Because there oftentimes there can be kind of a communication gap with your provider and patient. And health literacy is similar, which is basically the ability of an individual to understand health information so that they can make health decisions for themselves.
Gabby Thomas: These are just things that, you know, people don't think about very often if you don't have to. But language barriers can be an issue. Just the way you communicate and perceive things can be an issue. Understanding that even if you do get the information about something, how can I actually move forward and apply that to my life? You know, if your healthcare provider's telling you to do something, if they're telling you that you need to get eight hours of sleep, we'll go back to that analogy. If they're telling you that you need to do that, but you don't live in an area where you can sleep, or let's say you're a rural veteran and you have sleep issues, like you can't fall asleep, maybe you have something going on with your mental health that prevents you from getting that sleep. How can your provider work with you to address that?
Gabby Thomas: How can they understand you better to address that? So Leidos was helping with that and trying to figure out how their analytics can help. What next steps can we take with their care management? What next steps can we take with health information provider training, provider assessment, what can we do to move forward and help the rural of veterans who are not getting the care that they need due to these gaps? It was nice. It was actually nice working with the team that was committed to the same types of things that I was.
Shaunté Newby: Yeah. So, it sounds like it was a great opportunity to learn and you're giving back, I mean, you're dealing with the veterans and so forth. So, I'm curious though, because I imagine you were approached by many and you know, you, I believe your answer is probably entangled in what you just shared, but what made you say yes to Leidos and probably no to anyone else?
Gabby Thomas: Yeah, you're right. So, after the Olympics, yeah, there were a lot of opportunities to give back and help. There were a lot of people were reaching out and they wanted to hear my thoughts. I did choose Leidos because I believe that they were genuinely committed to making this difference. There are a lot of organizations out there and people who they do mean well, but there isn't a genuine commitment to it, it's almost just saying that you want to do something, but I felt that Leidos really did have that commitment to it, and I appreciated it.
Shaunté Newby: All right, thank you. So how did your experience at Leidos shape your interest in health sciences?
Gabby Thomas: My experience at Leidos helped shape my interest in health sciences because I got to actually see what went into it on the day-to-day basis, you know, what steps that it took. I learned a lot from my team, and it was really motivating because at times this type of career path can seem very daunting. There's a lot of burnout. But that experience was actually really motivating for me because I was able to be a part of the process where I saw a real change happen. The team that I was on, they find a problem, they make a pitch, and they come up with a solution and then that's what they do. They move forward with it and they push it through. And so, it's like kinda this really fun think tank where you can bring your creativity. There really are no wrong answers. And it was exciting. It was a very exciting place to be, to see like a real change happening in real-time. So, I think it really just helped my interest. And when I retire, I definitely wanna go back into it.
Shaunté Newby: Being a part of solving big problems. Right?
Gabby Thomas: Exactly. And no problem was too big. And that was the crazy thing about it. It was really a cool experience.
Shaunté Newby: Gabby's two lives merged seamlessly. Health and sports go hand in hand. As someone who was passionate about being at her own physical peak, it's no surprise that health sciences would call to her so strongly. But as we've learned, the more Gabby studied health sciences, the more she was drawn to the healthcare equity aspect of the field. While this may seem like a shift away from her personal interest in health and athletics, the influence of her running career still has a strong presence. Her experiences on the track and the people she has interacted with have only reinforced this call to action to help bridge the gap in healthcare. I asked her about those experiences and the influences they've had on her.
Gabby Thomas: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. So, a lot of my life experiences have brought me to, you know, my interest in public health. But track, especially just because a lot of people aren't very aware of this, but a lot of people who do go into track and field and go into the profession of track and field come from, socioeconomic backgrounds that kind of forced them into the sport. So, a lot of people don't come from really advantaged situations. And so being around that and seeing all of the little things that, you know, we were talking about even before, how much money you make can affect the healthcare that you're getting. How much sleep you can get due to your surroundings, or your environment can affect you. How your education can affect your health, quality of education that you're getting.
Gabby Thomas: So, all these little things that many people just might not be aware of, but they add up and in track and field, we also, you don't get health insurance unless you are top 10 in your event in the U.S. And so that's another thing that, you know, you might not grow up thinking about. However, that is something that is very real that people do have to think about, right? How am I gonna go get to my next doctor checkup? Or if I'm feeling something that's wrong with me, how am I gonna get the care that I need? And so many little things that is just right in front of me every day now in regards to people's healthcare. So, it definitely did shape it. It it made me think, okay, we do need to do something about this because it's not fair. It's not right.
Shaunté Newby: So, what about your own personal experiences off the track as far as how it's influenced your decision to shift to public health?
Gabby Thomas: It shaped my decision just because I think my identity. So, as I got older, I started to become more aware of how I exist just in the world and how my multiple identities, my intersectionality affects my life experiences. So, some things that we think about, you know, in public health and healthcare is your gender, your skin color, your class, your age, you know, your ability, your sexuality, your religion, all of these, you know, little social determinants that makeup who you are and how does that affect your life. And I see it in myself, I see it in my family, how they navigate the world and how they're navigating their healthcare. How the fact that because I am black, that I am genetically like just predisposed to certain health outcomes that others aren't, you know, for example, type two diabetes is a common one amongst black women.
Gabby Thomas: So, thinking about that and think, okay, that, that's very interesting. Or how trauma can be passed down through generations and how your life experience can actually be passed down to your children in regards to their health outcomes and their genetics. And so, it really made me, I had questions. I had questions and I wanted to see how I could do better for, you know, the following generations who might look like me. And so, I just started, yeah, I started asking the questions, getting answers, and I haven't stopped and it made me want to study public health. So I enrolled at UT so I'm getting my masters in public health. I'm loving it, I'm loving understanding it and seeing how I can and make a difference.
Shaunté Newby: Gabby's career is beyond admirable. She's a two-time Olympic medalist. She's a Harvard graduate. She's now pursuing her master's in epidemiology at the University of Texas. And all along the way she's been setting records and advocating for what she believes in. Well impressive. It's hard work. It takes a lot of mental and physical strength, and the load is enough to take a toll on anybody. So, what's her secret? How does she do it all without intense burnout? I asked her.
Gabby Thomas: Everything is fueled by my passion for it. That's the way I was brought up. My mom has always encouraged it. So, growing up, I was never forced to do things that I didn't want to do. And that's how I choose to navigate my life. So, with track and field, I've always, I always told myself that if I don't wanna do it, I won't do it anymore. And I just have been running and I haven't stopped and I'm still doing it and I'm having a great time and I'm loving it. Same with my health career that I hope to pursue. I'm just interested, and I study what I like, I study what fuels me. And I think that's what allows me to, juggle so much at one time because I enjoy what I'm doing. I would encourage anyone who's listening to kind of abide by that same mindset. Obviously, you have to do things that you don't want to do at times. You know, like I have a midterm coming up, I don't, I don't want to do it, but that's generally just, it motivates me. It gets me out of bed in the morning and it makes me want to do things. And you find time for things that you wanna do.
Shaunté Newby: Right. So, what would you say are some words of wisdoms for, well you mentioned one, but what are some other words of wisdoms for others who want to get involved in science? Specifically, the little girls that grew up like you and I?
Gabby Thomas: Yeah, you know, it can be very intimidating. Getting into science is, it's an intimidating field. Everyone who's in it is usually very, very intelligent. The people are very smart. And now there are a lot more of women coming up in science. But when I was younger, I know it was constantly just boys, you know, who wanted to do science and at Harvard, in the classroom, it's just a lot of boys. But I'd say just do it. If you love it and do it wholeheartedly, just put your all into it. You know, it can be intimidating, but that's fine. Right, it's so good to be challenged and it's such a privilege to be able to challenge yourself and grow. And so, I would say if you choose to pursue something, just pursue it fully and holy. And then if you decide that it's not for you, then that's okay. But I've always lived like that where, you know, try everything and try it your best. Give your all into it and it's okay to change your mind, but just make sure that you put your all into it.
Shaunté Newby: So, here's something that I hear. You didn't say the F word, but it sounds like you're okay with failure, right? I mean, you're a winner already, but you're okay if something doesn't work out. You're like, okay, that didn't work. Let's regroup. Try something else.
Gabby Thomas: That's a great point. That's a great point. I am absolutely not afraid of failure, and you know, that's honestly not something that I have thought about much up to this point. But hearing you say that is making me realize that absolutely. I've failed so many times in my life, like I, you know, I mentioned, the moment where I realized that I was good at track, it was by NCAA championship, but the year prior to that I went to NCAA championships, and I got last place. And that was an awful feeling. I ran awful. I was scared then I just finished last and, but that I needed that moment, right? If I had not failed that year and got last place, I wouldn't have my two Olympic medals now because I wouldn't have been motivated to come back and win. I wouldn't have been motivated to win that, you know, get the collegiate record. And that changed the whole trajectory of my track career. So the failure, yes, the failure is important and how you react to the failure is even more important.
Shaunté Newby: And thank you for sharing that because a lot of people don't, you know, they don't think that way. That failure part is like, no, we cannot fail. So, for you, like you said, the failure fueled you. So that's wonderful to share. So, we talked about all your accomplishments and it's so impressive and I imagine there's a lot of pressure sitting on your shoulders like that midterm you just mentioned. So, you've studied at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but you've also got all of America rooting for you in your athletic life. Does that wait and pressure effort get to you?
Gabby Thomas: At first, it's a great feeling when you have your country rooting for you, after trials last year, that was amazing. The support I've had from everyone, it was really motivating, and it meant a lot to me. That being said, yes, there is a lot of pressure. I know a lot of people nicknamed me Wonder Woman when I was at the Olympics, and I was constantly just seeing that everywhere people were calling me that, there were photos of, memes of me as Wonder Woman, which was really cute and I loved it, but there was a lot of pressure that came along with it. A lot of people, you know, assuming that because I've done this or done that, that I can do everything that I can take on so much. But that's really not the case. Like we were talking about before, everything comes from a lot of little things, a lot of hard work behind the scenes when people don't realize that those medals truly came from, you know, two years basically of training every single day, and you know, taking two steps forward and then three steps back and all of that.
Gabby Thomas: So, there is some pressure with it, but I try not to think about it too much because, you know, like, we were also talking about before, I live my life by what makes me happy and what I want to do. So, trying not to let other people's expectations. It's a trained skill. I'm still working on it. But yeah, the pressure, it can be a lot, but it's all part of it.
Shaunté Newby: It is. And what you shared, I have this thing I always tell people about, people always see the cake after it's baked. So, like that's the medals, right? But like you said, they don't see the tears or if you're in pain or you know, anything that's going on to get you to that point or the point that you reach, you're like, maybe I shouldn't do this. And you know, so they don't see, see all of that.
Gabby Thomas: And it's good for people to see that even, you know, if you have someone that you look up to and just knowing that it didn't just come, they're not a perfect human. A lot went into it. A lot of hard work and luck.
Shaunté Newby: Again, that was U.S. track star, Gabby Thomas. We really appreciate her finding the time to join us. Thanks again for joining this special episode of Mindset, a podcast by Leidos. Make sure to check out our previous episodes, new episodes will be live every two weeks. Also, feel free to rate and review. We're always excited to hear your thoughts on the show. My name is Shaunté Newby, I'll talk to you next time.