In Their Own Words: Gabby Thomas ’15 Commencement Speech


Good morning, graduates! I can’t tell you how honored I am to be standing in front of you today as the class of 2022’s Commencement Speaker.

I think I can pretty well relate to how surreal this moment feels for you: Sitting here, under this massive tent, finally experiencing the day you felt would never come, realizing, gradually, that “high school” is now in your past. And everything else is in your future.

As with any occasion that makes you recognize precisely where you are in the universe, cliches can help guide the way. Here’s one cliche that kept coming to mind as I worked out this speech: Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.

What do I mean by that? Well, at my graduation, just seven years ago, it felt like Mr. Hill would never get to the letter “T” in the alphabet. Beyond that, it certainly felt like I’d never be at college in the fall, never continue my athletic career, never get my undergraduate degree, never start a career, never build a life for myself.

All of that felt impossible, especially when we could hardly get to the letter “T.”

And then, in a blur, all of it happened: I went off to Harvard, got my degree in neurobiology, set a few collegiate records in track and field, won a few Olympic medals, and ended up right back where I was seven years ago: Under this massive tent, listening to a commencement speech, looking around at people I care about and who care about me.

Oh, but there’s one big difference: This time I’m the one giving the speech.

As I said before: Surreal.

On my own graduation day, sitting right where you’re sitting now, I felt suddenly small as I looked around and realized that I would be leaving so many of the people who made me feel whole.

But then when I got out into the world, when I launched, what I took from my time at Williston made me feel so much larger: The relationships, the successes, the failures, the lessons, the good times and the bad.

So let me start there: By encouraging you to look around, take it all in, revel in what you’ve accomplished, and cherish those people who helped you get here.

And now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

Yes, seriously…

*Eyes close*

“Runners take your mark”… “Set…” “Bang!”

For a moment, I want you all to imagine you’re somewhere most of us have been at some point of our lives: A track. Just a regular, oval, 400-meter track. No biggie.

Well, “regular,” but with one big caveat: This isn’t just any track. And this isn’t just any day. ‘Cause today, out here in Eugene, Oregon. You might just qualify for the Olympics. And there are still sixty seconds until the starter’s pistol goes off …

I call these the Sixty Seconds of Eternity – this period of time that takes on its own form, its own pace, its own universe.

Time has come to a halt. You are thinking about your every breath, your every movement.

You have walked onto the track, shaken out your muscles, pressed your heel into the starting blocks.

The world seems so, so slow. Those sixty seconds are consuming your entire life. You fear you may never leave them.

For a brief moment, you are suspended in time and there are a thousand thoughts flying through your mind.

Your heartbeat, that thud-thud in your chest, is the one constant through it all. It’s like it’s trying to break free, take you out of this moment, make sure the world is still happening around you. It sounds like an over-caffeinated metronome, desperately trying to keep you in rhythm as the rest of your body freezes.

But you are still. It is just your heart and your mind that wage ahead.

This is the Sixty Seconds of Eternity.

You have run this race before, countless times in your head. You have been visualizing this race for months, for years, even. You have imagined, in intricate detail, how you took off from the starting blocks, glided past the competition, thrust your arms in the air, emerged victorious.

But you are not in the race now. You are in those Sixty Seconds of Eternity – that place of doubt that lies just before the moment you’ve always dreamed of. And you have become scared for the race to start. In fact, you’re no longer sure if your legs will move at all. It seems imminently possible that the race will start, your competitors will take off, and you will just stay stuck in the starting blocks, paralyzed with fear, humiliated.

These Sixty Seconds of Eternity feel like purgatory. But you will overcome them. You always have before. And yet with the outcome just seconds away, you have been stilled by uncertainty. In this climactic moment, staring down everything you’ve ever worked for, you start questioning everything:

Am I good enough? Will I win? Can I win?

“You just need to make Top 3.” You keep reminding yourself of that.

“Top 3, that’s all I need”

“You don’t even have to win”

“Just be in the mix”

Just be in the mix, and you’ll be an Olympian.

That isn’t too much to ask? Right?

So why are you so nervous?

Damn it!! Why are you so nervous!

And then you snap back into your zone. That special, grounded place that you’ve spent years outfitting. You’re back. You belong. This is your place. This is your time…

And then you look around.

On your right?  Allyson Felix. No, I’m not exaggerating. Literally Allyson Felix. The star of track and field Allyson Felix. Appearances on Oprah Allyson Felix. The most decorated female athlete of all time Allyson Felix. Your childhood hero, the woman you’ve idolized your entire life, Allyson Felix.

So you look to your left. Surely that can’t be as nerve-racking. Just look to your left.

Oh, it’s Jenna Prandini. The woman who’s been your rival all season long, competing feverishly for the top time in the world, already qualified for the Olympic Team.

Your brain starts to spin again. The thud-thud in your chest starts to grow again – out of control, the metronome growing angrier and angrier.

You see Anavia Battle, Tamara Clark, Dezerea Bryant, Lynna Ibry, Morolake Akinosun. All world-class competitors, all there with one goal: To beat you, to beat everyone, to win.

Oh yeah, that’s why you’re nervous.

And then off in the distance, the words you never thought you’d get to:

“Runners take your mark” …”set”…

Your last thought before the starter’s pistol goes off: “Just beat Allsyon to 20 meters.”

And then before you know it, you are 30 meters away from the finish line. And then just a few seconds later you are an Olympian. And you’re not just an Olympian, you’re the Olympic Trials’ champion. And you’re not just the Olympic Trials champion, you now hold the all-time meet record.

And just moments after that, you realize that you just ran the second fastest 200-meter time in history, just behind Florence Griffith Joyner. You almost caught Flo-Jo. Oh my god, you almost caught Flo-Jo.

And even though you feel much the same as the girl who left the start line just moments ago, you know that something changed in those 21.61 seconds. You no longer feel the thud-thud in your chest. You no longer fear that your legs will never work again. In just 200 meters, your life changed forever. And you will never be the same. Nothing will ever be the same. The Sixty Seconds of Eternity are gone. Something very new is in its place.

Okay, open your eyes! And congratulations to those of you who were able to keep them closed the whole time. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

Twelve years ago, when I arrived on this campus as an awkward young Black girl from Georgia, I felt many of the same things I still feel in those Sixty Seconds of Eternity: Fear, uncertainty, self-doubt. I was one of maybe five black students in my class wondering if I belonged. Worse than that, I was in a Jonas Brothers Fan Club, Tik Tok was nothing more than my favorite Kesha Song, and Robert Pattinson hadn’t yet made the transition from world’s most famous vampire to Batman.

Standing outside the door to my first class, on the starting blocks of my time at Williston, the thud-thud in my chest was loud enough to prompt a loud “SHUSH” from Mr. Teller. And the questions crept in:

What if they don’t like me? What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t belong here?

And then…

“Runners take your mark…” “Set…” “Bang!”

I crossed the doorway into class, and I took the plunge into the next 5 years of my life and. While I was shy at first, I eventually began to open up. I found a lifelong friend in my Algebra teacher and coach, Mrs. McCullagh, I found guidance in the long talks I had with my advisor, Mrs. Whipple

I grew accustomed to hanging out at the Stu-Bop with other day students during free period, took frequent walks to Dunkin Donuts between classes, and before I knew it, Williston had become my second home.

Literally- I was here so much that people often would mistake me for a boarding student. And then I blinked, and the girl that was sitting in those seats, was leaving this once-intimidating place, hoping I could hold onto the precious memories I made here forever.

Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.

As days – and especially graduations – tend to be, today is a day of multitudes. It is and should be a chance to celebrate your tremendous accomplishment –  the culmination of years and years of hard work, hours in the library, on the track, in the band room, in rehearsal, in community. But it’s also an opportunity to look ahead.

If the Class of 2022 is anything like the Class of 2015, today feels like a day composed almost entirely of those Sixty Seconds of Eternity. You’re looking around the track, full of uncertainty. Perhaps doubt takes the place of excitement, or fear takes the place of celebration.

So, as you sit here, waiting for your future to start, I figured I could give you some tips from what I’ve learned from my own experiences dealing with the Sixty Seconds of Eternity.

And though I just told you about the one race that I’m best known for, I think my message is best communicated by telling you about a race I ran that – hopefully – none of you have heard of.

It was March 2017, my sophomore year at Harvard, and I was in College Station, Texas lining up for my first NCAA Indoor Championships. I wasn’t the favorite. Not even close. To be honest, as a runner from Harvard, I was barely supposed to be there. These meets, these championships, were reserved for the best track athletes in the NCAA – the types of girls who run at schools like Georgia, LSU, or Oregon. Not the nerds at Harvard studying neurobiology and calculating the exact number of days until it’s socially acceptable for them to get a pet pug.

As I approached lane three and got set up in my starting blocks, my mind flooded with negative thoughts: Don’t fall off of the bank, don’t have a bad reaction time, make sure your legs actually move. Gabby, please, just make sure your legs actually move.

I took a deep breath and extended into my stance.

“Runners take your mark… Set… BANG!”

The starter’s pistol went off and I exploded from the starting blocks, striding down the curve, feeling the hot Texas air in my face. From my position in lane three, I could see my competition out ahead of me. I just needed to chase them down. I dug deep, drove my legs into the rubberized track, and with each step…fell farther behind. As we neared the finish line, it hit me that I had no real shot of winning the race. And it was much worse than that: After crossing the finish line, I found out that I didn’t just lose my heat, I came in last place among all finalists. It was my worst finish ever. Tears swelled in my eyes.

But it is in that moment – the tears pooling at the base of my eyes as I stared down loss, disappointment, and disbelief – that I feel, in hindsight, I can see the ultimate beauty of track and field and of life more broadly. Looking back on it, I feel a sense of pride about the entire experience. Here’s another cliche for you: We are not defined by our successes, but by how we respond to our failures. Or as the philosophers Friedrich Nietszche and Kelly Clarkson put it: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

So when I crossed into the Sixty Seconds of Eternity in Tokyo, I thought back to College Station. And then I thought: At the end of the day, all I can do is run my race. Keep moving. Get off the blocks, and take the next stride.

You will never know the outcome until you hear

“Runners take your mark… Set… BANG!”

And you start running.

And sometimes you’ll get through those Sixty Seconds of Eternity, and your worst dreams will come true. You will fail, you won’t measure up. The race will start and you’ll falter. Your anxieties will burst ahead of you, and you will not be able to chase them down.

It will hurt. It has to. And when it hurts, you’ll cry, you’ll be embarrassed, you’ll feel all the feelings that it is so human to feel.

But then other times, if you can weather those failures, you’ll step to the start line, sit in your Sixty Seconds of Eternity, and burst from them. Sometimes, when you break through those hard times, break through those sixty seconds, you’ll take off, still the Harvard girl that doesn’t quite fit in, still not the favorite. And you’ll fly.

And you’ll realize, once you’re there, that it wasn’t what happened after the race started that defines you. It’s all that you did, all that you overcame, before you ever walked onto the track. That’s what shows whether or not you belong. You being here, on this very special day, shows that you belong. Because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.

You all did the work to be here, today, under this massive freaking tent. You did all the work too be on this line with everyone around you – your friends, mentors, loved ones, and maybe even a couple of your enemies.

The races that are out in front of you now are races you belong in. So get out there and run your race: Build life-changing relationships, march for a cause you believe in, do research in Africa, embrace your sexual identity and empower others to do the same, start your own business. The beauty of it all is that there are so many races to be run. So many challenges to be tackled. So many people that need help. So many ways to get involved.

But know, too, that with each race comes that Sixty Seconds of Eternity, of uncertainty. The time where you can question everything. Where you can be scared. And it is only from that moment that you can become who you truly are.

You’ll never know that you need to work harder until you lose. And you’ll never know the heights you can reach until you take on the very things, people, challenges, and failures that you’re afraid of and beat them to the finish line.

So trust in all the training, the experiences, and the people around you who brought you to this moment. And have faith in your ability to succeed. If you do that, then you can throw yourself back into the present – back into that zone in which great things are possible. You can be in your race, just focusing on beating Allyson to 20 meters.

I can’t guarantee you’ll be happy with the result of every race. Some races will bring you to tears. Sometimes they’ll be tears of joy. But perhaps more often, they will be tears of pain. And despite your best efforts, most times, you’ll be scared stiff at the start line.

But please don’t let that fear of failure rule you. Don’t let that fear stop you from running. The fear of failure, the fear of truth, the fear of what you’re capable of – don’t let that stop you from finding out if you might fly; from finding out if something between the start and the finish line might change you.

If you can get through that fear, you might find that you’re someone completely different when you cross that finish line – the one you thought you might never get to. There are so many races to be run. So many challenges to be tackled. Find yours. Because another adventure lies just beyond the sound of the gun. All you have to do is run.

So, Class of 2022, I challenge you all to get up each day and run your race. To embrace these Sixty Seconds of Eternity. Because while no one here knows how this next race will end for you. There is one thing we do all know:

That there’s only one way to find out…

“Runners take your mark” …“set”…