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Gabby Thomas, Team USA’s 200m star, is firmly in the Olympic spotlight — and ready for it

EUGENE, Ore. — After the women’s 200-meter final was over, and she secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, McKenzie Long said she heard the craziest thing from Gabby Thomas.

“She said she had a dream about me,” a beaming Long said, holding a bouquet of white and purple flowers, a bronze medal hanging from her neck. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I had a dream that you were going to be an Olympian.’” I was like, ‘You didn’t want to tell me this before we got out here on this line.’”

Thomas said she didn’t want to jinx the dream, so she kept it to herself until after the race. But Long — before perhaps the biggest race of her life, in her best event, with a chance to make Paris — could’ve used the anxiety relief.

That proclamation from Thomas, Long implied, might’ve worked wonders before the race. Because belief from an idol works wonders for confidence.

“I literally tell her all the time, ‘I want to be you.’ She’s inspiring,” Long said. “That’s my goal. I want to be like Gabby Thomas.”

It’s taken some getting used to for Thomas, this new skin she’s in. The one with expectations. The one with experience. The one on the marquee.

Sometimes, she said, she wishes she could slink back into a former normalcy, when it was just about the running and the simple camaraderie of sport. Those days, though, are over.

“Great athletes are under pressure, and I just understand that. And so, if I want to be a great athlete, if I want to be among the names of Sanya (Richards-Ross), Allyson (Felix) … you just have to compete under pressure and accept that’s part of it.”

Thomas, 27, is embracing this escalating pedestal she’s on. Saturday’s 200-meter final was confirmation of her eliteness.

She smoked all comers in 21.81 seconds, including Sha’Carri Richardson. And that’s two-tenths of a second slower than her best time. In one of the most glorified events in sprint, Thomas is America’s premier figure.

Thus, she is poised for stardom. Face-of-franchise material coming into her prime. She already has two Olympic medals — a bronze in the 200 and silver in the 4×100 relay in Tokyo. Last year, she won a silver in the 200 and a relay gold in the world championships. A gold in the 200 in Paris, with the likely chance of winning another in relay, would vault her to another stratosphere of the nation’s consciousness.

Thomas has the total package. She has an aura people love. She’s marketable. She’s has the kind of depth that makes her platform purposeful. She’s got seniority and respect.

Which is why college superstars such as Long are shaping their dreams into her likeness.

“It’s really humbling actually,” Thomas said. “I remember feeling that way about other athletes that I watched. My last Olympic trials, I felt that way about Allyson Felix. I felt that way about Jenna Prandini, who I’m still running against. … So to have a younger athlete look at me and say that just feels so surreal. But it makes me happy. It really feels like it’s giving me purpose.”

Most important, Thomas is excellent.

The 5-foot-9 Atlanta native, by way of Florence, Mass., is a refined elegance on the track. The efficiency of her form and gracefulness of her stride can make it feel like she isn’t running as fast. Speed doesn’t look so laborious when Thomas runs, though no less explosive.

Now, she’s got experience on her side. She can feel the benefits.

“Actually, yeah, I do, and I’m so grateful for that,” Thomas said. “Because there is a lot more pressure when you already have medals, when people know your name. But there’s also comfort in knowing, ‘OK, I have done this before.’ I just feel that maturity. I feel like, ‘OK, I’m going to go out and execute and I’m not going to let the nerves get to me.’ And that’s a feeling that just — you can’t explain, but it is so comforting to know that.”

Long knew what was up. The sensation from Ole Miss, loved her chances once she saw the lane assignments. Not just because Lane 7 is a decent combination of a looser curve and vision of the field. But because Thomas was in Lane 8.

“I wanted to stay on top of Gabby’s hip,” Long said. “I knew once I did that, I would position myself the way that I wanted to.”

Long rode Thomas to a time of 21.91 seconds, finishing third, just behind Brittany Brown’s 21.90. Richardson — America’s 100-meter champion, who’d looked dominant in the 200 leading up to the final — finished fourth at 22.16. While her bid for the 100/200 double ended, Richardson will still be one of the United States’ big attractions when she makes her debut in Paris, along with the ever-popular Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone.

They’ll be joined by Thomas.

But this star wasn’t born, not in the traditional sense of a moment birthing her luminance. This star was forged, cultivated.

A main component of this evolution, which has her on this cusp, is Thomas wanting it.

She didn’t always. Track was about a love of running and personal growth. She loved what the competition brought out of her, the development and improvement. As she got better and became significant in the sport, the attention was but a byproduct to endure.

Greatness at this level is an investment. Where she’s headed, based on this trajectory she’s been on since Harvard, required internal permissions. Because of what it extracts, and what it exposes her to, Thomas needed to adopt this into her purpose.

She has. Now she’s ready. She’s matured to the point she believes she can handle the spotlight of stardom, the pressures and burdens that accompany its glory. All that’s left is to win on the biggest stage. She believes it’s her time.

“I definitely feel like a vet at this point,” she said, “but I also feel like I have not reached my full potential. I feel like I can still. I feel like this is my year.”

GO DEEPER

Gabby Thomas: The U.S. track star with a bigger purpose beyond Olympic medals

(Top photo of Gabby Thomas and McKenzie Long embracing after qualifying for Paris in the 200-meter: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

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