English Gardner

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

The brick wall separating the stands from the track within Franklin Field is, perhaps, six feet tall.

The first time English Gardner attended the Penn Relays, as a 12-year-old, she rushed to that barrier and looked down upon the competitors milling about before an event. She was a budding sprinter then, and admittedly "kind of a crazy kid, and very confident in my abilities."

Spotting Lauryn Williams, the great American sprinter, Gardner delivered a simple message.

"I'm gonna take your job one day," she screamed.

Who knew then that far more imposing barriers would lie ahead? That making the leap from the stands to the track would be the least of her worries?

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Gardner, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, was back at the Relays this weekend, running 100-meter legs in the victorious women's sprint medley relay and the second-place 4x100 relay, as part of Saturday's USA vs. the World competition.

It was maybe the sixth or seventh time she has competed at the event over the years, she said one day earlier. This time, she returned as an Olympic champion, having been part of the 4x100 relay team that won gold last summer in Rio.

As the 25-year-old Gardner sat in a news conference Friday, she seemed every bit as bubbly and self-assured as she had been all those years ago. She was wide-eyed. She laughed easily. She talked about personal records and putting on a show this weekend.

Long gone were the vestiges of depression, with which she had struggled late in 2015 and in the early months of last year. Her first public discussion of her battle with that disease had been with SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on the eve of the Rio Games, and she talked about it again when she was pulled aside following Friday's presser.

It had been "a slow descent," Gardner said, and it left her in a deep, dark place. She recovered only with the help of professionals, as well as her family. And now she appears to be all the way back.

"I believe to be able to rebuild, stuff has to be destroyed, and that was my moment," she said. "I needed to be broken down. I needed to destroy it and now I'm back and I'm better, I'm stronger, I'm more confident and I'm just a totally different person. I'm having fun with track again, and that's what it's all about."

Her openness about her affliction was born of a desire to help others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults struggle with depression. That's 6.7 percent of the United States' population, aged 18 and older.

"The thoughts that I had — suicide and stuff like that — those thoughts are real," she said. "I thought that sharing my story last year would give someone hope — let them know there's other options than that option."

According to Schnell's story, Gardner's mom, Monica, believed her daughter — the second-oldest of four children born to her and her husband, Anthony — was destined for great things from birth, and as a result gave her a distinctive first name "that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker."

That proved to be the case. She starred at Eastern, then won two NCAA 100-meter outdoor championships, as well as a 60-meter indoor title, during her three years at Oregon.

After turning pro in 2013, she sought not only to harness her considerable physical abilities but also her emotions. She was too skittish, her coach told her, too ridden by anxiety.

As a result, she said, "I basically created an alter ego where I can contain her and gear her only toward getting my goals, and that's getting a gold medal."

She took to calling this thing "Baby Beast."

"I just needed to contain her," she said, "because she was running wild, all over the place."

She finished second in the 100 at the USATF outdoor meet in the spring of 2015, but by that fall her fortunes had turned. A torn hamstring was limiting her on the track. She and her coach were not on the same page. 

"All these things kind of weighed down on me," she said. "My love life was crappy. Spiritually I had kind of gotten away [from] my meditation and praying, things like that. As it went on longer, the worse it got."

Next stop, rock bottom. And she stayed there for about six months, by her recollection.

"I've never experienced anything like that — anxiety, depression, just not wanting to get up out of bed, not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to eat, lights off all the time — just stuff like that," she said.

Her mom flew to Los Angeles, where English was living at the time, to help out. As Monica told Schnell, "We loved her back to life." Her daughter had, in fact, done much the same for her a decade earlier, when Monica survived breast cancer.

English also sought professional help, from not only a psychologist but a sports psychologist and a spiritual counselor.

"I tripled up on myself," she said with a laugh. "I'm a big personality, so I figured to control that big personality, I needed more than one person."

She won the 100 at last year's Olympic Trials, and while she slipped to seventh in that event in Rio, she did earn gold in the relay.

She was back. Back on the side of the wall, she had been trying to reach for so very long.

And there she remains.

South Jersey sprinter English Gardner qualifies for Olympics with near-record 100-meter dash

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South Jersey sprinter English Gardner qualifies for Olympics with near-record 100-meter dash

English Gardner, a South Jersey native who was told she may never run again after she tore up her right knee playing Powderpuff Football the day before Thanksgiving in 2008, is headed for the Olympics.

Gardner, a graduate of Eastern High School in Voorhees, won the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon on Sunday, securing a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Gardner not only won, she ran 10.74, becoming the fourth-fastest American in history and the seventh-fastest sprinter in world history.

Only one woman in U.S. Olympic Trials history – Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988 – has run faster than Gardner did Sunday evening.

Four years ago, Gardner placed seventh in the 100-meter dash finals on the same track.

“I remember in 2012, I sat in the car, and I cried,” Gardner said. “I cried my eyes out and came to the realization that I never wanted to feel that feeling again, and so when I crossed the line and saw the results, I didn’t really care if I came in first, second or third, I was just excited that I made the team.”

Gardner, a former NCAA champion at Oregon, easily advanced through the qualifying rounds Saturday with a 10.90 and the semifinals earlier Sunday with a wind-aided 10.74.

In the final, she out-ran Tianna Bartoletta and Tori Bowie, who both ran 10.78. Bartoletta and Bowie both moved into a tie as the 13th-fastest performers on the all-time world list.

It was the first time in track history that three women have run sub-10.80 with legal wind in the same race.

“With the help of these ladies, we were able to give the show that we promised from the beginning,” Gardner said.

Gardner became the fastest American since Carmelita Jeter ran 10.70 on the same track at Hayward Field in June of 2011.

Only Griffith-Joyner, whose performances have been questioned for years, Jeter and disgraced drug cheat Marion Jones have run faster than Gardner in U.S. track history.

Gardner’s time is fast enough that it would have won every Olympic Games ever held other than 1988, when Griffith-Joyner ran 10.62.

Gardner raced in lane five and took command in the final 20 meters.

“At the start, we were all pretty much even,” she said. “Usually, I’m used to coming out the blocks in front and getting caught, but this time I had to be patient.

“These two ladies are the two most fierce ladies we have in the United States because they don’t back down. They’re not scared of anybody, and that’s why I love competing with them because they always give the best race they possibly can.

“I knew it was gonna be a wire-to-wire race, so if I just kept my composure, we would just see what I came out with in the end.”

After Gardner’s severe knee injury in the fall of 2008 - she tore her right ACL, MCL and lateral meniscus - every college recruiting her other than Oregon withdrew its scholarship offer.

She missed nearly two full years of high school competition but returned in the spring of 2010 to win the New Jersey Meet of Champions with a time of 11.56, then left for Eugene, and quickly established herself as a top collegiate sprinter.

She ran 11.03 as an Oregon freshman, then broke 11 for the first time in 2013 and turned pro after her junior year.

Gardner ran her previous personal record of 10.79 in Eugene in 2015. Her best time this year before the Trials was a 10.81, again in Eugene.

Four years ago, Gardner reached the final in the Olympic Trials but finished seventh in 11.28 and wasn’t even invited into the U.S. relay pool.

This time, she’ll have two chances to medal – in the 400-meter relay and the open 100.

With Gardner, Bartoletta, Bowie and either Morolake Akinosun (fourth in 10.95) or Jenna Prandini (fifth in 10.96), the U.S. will be a huge favorite in the 400-mjeter relay, and the world record of 40.82 set by the U.S. in London in 2012 could be in jeopardy.

“It’s going to be nasty,” Gardner said. “I promise you that.”

The track portion of the Rio Games is scheduled to begin on Aug. 12.

Through Sunday, Gardner is second-fastest in the world this year. On Saturday, Elaine Thompson ran 10.70 in Kingston to win the Jamaican Olympic Trials.

Until this year, only three women from South Jersey had ever made the U.S. Olympic track team – long jumper Carol Lewis of Willingboro in 1980, 1984 and 1988; long jumper Shana Williams of Bridgeton in 1996 and 2000; and Erin Donohue of Haddonfield in the 1,500 in 2008.

Now two have earned tickets to the Olympics in two days. Haddonfield native Marielle Hall, an All-America at Texas, placed third in the 10,000 on Saturday in 31:54.77.