It isn’t very often that a Western Massachusetts athlete is among the favorites to win an Olympic gold medal. It’s even less often when we can play Six Degrees of Berkshire County with one.
Gabby Thomas, who grew up in Florence — a village that is part of the city of Northampton — will be running for gold in the women’s 200 meters. Thomas went to prep school at Williston Northampton, meaning she never raced against Berkshire County track and field athletes in MIAA-sanctioned competition.
Wahconah girls basketball coach Liz Kay knows her because in addition to coaching, Kay is a teacher at Williston.
“Her track coach said, when I first got [to school], she said [Thomas] is going to be in the Olympics some day,” Kay said. “I was like, ‘yeah. She’s a prep school track athlete and that’s fine.’ [Michelle Lawson] said ‘No, she’s going to be in the Olympics.’ This is when the kid was a junior and the head track coach was probably 25 years old. Then to see where Gabby is now is so cool, because she’s just a quality human being.”
Kay teaches upper level biology and forensics at Williston, and then makes the trek to Dalton to coach the Wahconah girls in the winter. Thomas did what just about every prep school athlete does during the school year, and that is not to just do one sport.
“She was a three-sport kid,” Kay told me. “The coolest thing, she played soccer for a couple of years. She wasn’t a great soccer player, but she played on the front line. They would kick the ball forward, and she would beat everybody by a quarter of the field. It was crazy to watch her play soccer, because she was so fast. She just glides in every way.”
If you watched the Olympic Track and Field Trials last weekend to see Lenox’s Shannon Meisberger compete in the 400-meter hurdles, you might have seen Thomas run her way to Tokyo.
On what was a really hot weekend weather-wise in Eugene, Ore., Thomas ran a time of 21.61 seconds for the second-fastest time in the history of the event. The only time faster was Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 21.34 time in Seoul, South Korea back in 1988.
“That’s hard to wrap my head around,” Thomas told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “Being stuck between Flo Jo and Marion Jones, I didn’t think that was something I was even driving toward.”
Kay said she never got to coach Thomas in anything, and did not have her in class. At a small private school like Williston Northampton, the students and the teachers get to know each other, even if said student does not step into your classroom..
“It never changed who she was,” said Kay. “It never has. I feel like what you see in her interviews, in her reactions, this is the same person she was at 15 or 16 years old. Not to mention, she’s absolutely brilliant. She obviously went to Harvard, but she was always trying to take the highest academic-level courses she could.”
Thomas majored in neurobiology and global health at Harvard, and while hitting the books also won 22 different Ivy League titles in six different events over three years. The Hampshire County resident also holds Harvard and Ivy League records in the 100 and 200 meters and in the indoor 60 meters.
Like many of us in Berkshire County, Massachusetts and across the country, Kay and her husband Jeremy Stachowicz were riveted to their television watching Meisberger run the 400 hurdles and watching Thomas run the 200.
“Just how badly we wanted her to win, honestly,” Kay said, when I asked her what she was thinking as Thomas stepped up to the start of the 200. “It’s one thing to root for your favorite player, your favorite team, your favorite whatever. It’s another to sit there and again see this phenomenal person you have to root for everything she represents. For a human being like that to represent the United States in the Olympics is exactly what we should want every single athlete to represent.
“I’m so excited to see her run. I love her reactions, I love her smile and she will be the first one to come visit her teachers, her coaches and kids from here on out.”