Penn Relays

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.

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

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USA Today Images

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

Siofra Cleirigh Buttner was on the shoulder of Stanford's Elise Cranny, and then she wasn't.

Once again Villanova's middle-distance dynamo had found a gear few possess. Once again she powered to the front of the pack and led the Wildcats to a Penn Relays victory — this one, in Friday's 4-by-1,500 relay, was their second in as many days — and once again she was at a loss to explain it all.

"It seems like I get the same question every time," she said. "For me, I just listen to my legs."

And so she did, anchoring the victorious relay with a blistering 4:11.03 leg. The Wildcats, clocked at 17:25.85, won this race for the second straight year and 11th time in all. They also gave fifth-year senior Angel Piccirillo her eighth career victory, a women's record for the Relays.

The performance by Buttner, a junior, was nothing Wildcats coach Gina Procaccio hadn't seen before. After she ran a strong 800-meter leg to key the 'Cats to a victory in Thursday's distance medley relay (see story), Procaccio talked about her "amazing turnover, to go from zero to 60."

"I've never had an athlete accelerate like she has," she said.

Surely that burst comes in part from her homeland. A native of Dublin, Ireland, she talked about running lush, green hills as a teenager.

"I think that just made me a lot faster," she said.

And it comes in part from the event itself.

"When you come here," Procaccio said, "you just become a different being."

But no small part of it comes because of the push Buttner's teammates give her, and the tireless pursuit — on her part, and everyone else's — of the stars who preceded her at VU.

Be assured she doesn't want to drop that baton, any more than she does a real one.

In Friday's relay, she was preceded by sophomore Bella Burda, Piccirillo and another soph, Nicole Hutchinson, the last of whom saw Stanford's Christina Aragon nudge into the lead shortly before the exchange.

And for over three laps, Buttner was content to ride Cranny's shoulder. Her parents and sister were looking on. So too was Procaccio, who fretted a bit, knowing that Buttner's best event is the 800, while Cranny had run a sub-4:12 mile this year, and a sub-4:10 last spring.

"I was hurting that last 800," Buttner said, "but I knew that she was hurting, too."

She also knew she had enough in reserve — that indeed she always does. And sure enough she blew past Cranny with 200 meters remaining, and that was that. The Wildcats won by nearly two seconds.

"I just have full confidence in myself," she said, "and remember what I'm doing it for and who I'm doing it for."

Folks like Piccirillo, a close friend.

"There's no one more deserving (of the record) than Angel," said Buttner, who has won five wheels herself at the Relays.

She followed what she called "the Irish Pipeline" to Villanova, the one laid by Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan years ago, and during a campus visit got some idea of the import of the Relays when she saw hundreds of wheels lining the walls of one of the school's sports palaces.

"I'd already known a little bit about the Penn Relays," she said, "but once I saw that I really understood the big story behind it."

So she came over. And here's another tribute to her speed — she outran homesickness.

"I don't think when you're a student-athlete, you have time to be homesick," she said.

Buttner reiterated something Procaccio said after Friday's race — that she is following in the footsteps of departed star Steph Schappert, just as Piccirillo and Schappert were following Emily Lipari and Nicky Akande, and Lipari and Akande were tracking Sheila Reid.

The chase is ongoing. And Buttner is forever listening to her legs, forever ready to put it into overdrive.

Villanova races to women's DMR championship in first day of Penn Relays

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Courtesy of Penn Relays

Villanova races to women's DMR championship in first day of Penn Relays

Near the midway point of the women's distance medley relay college championship at the 123rd running of the Penn Relays on Thursday, it probably looked to some like it was anybody's race with five schools bunched together.

What a silly thought.

As is its habit, Villanova took control of the DMR and sped to its 15th all-time championship in one of the marquee events of the famed three-day meet at Franklin Field.

The Wildcats clocked in at 10:53.97 — the eighth-best time in Penn Relays history.

"What can I say? All I have to do is pretty much get them to the starting line," head coach Gina Procaccio said. "These girls know what the tradition is all about with Villanova in the Penn Relays. We definitely wanted this DMR."

After strong opening legs in the 1200 from sophomore Nicole Hutchinson (3:21.39) and the 400 from freshman McKenna Keegan (54.05), junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner broke away from the pack right in front of Villanova's cheering section, handing the baton to anchor Angel Piccirillo with a comfortable lead. 

Buttner ran her 800 leg in 2:05.78 before Piccirillo ran the closing mile in 4:32.76 as Villanova fended off serious challenges from Penn State and Notre Dame, which finished in second and third, respectively.

"She's got amazing turnover to go from 0 to 60," Procaccio said of Cleirigh Buttner. "I've never had an athlete that's able to accelerate the way she does."

The Villanova coach admitted the third leg seemed a little slow at first as Columbia and Indiana joined Villanova, Penn State and Notre Dame in the lead pack. Buttner thought the same thing as she was running — and then decided to do something about it.

"I was trying to wait a little longer," the junior said. "I just thought it was just too slow. And right before 300, my legs just wanted to go."

Although Notre Dame and Penn State never went away, opening up the kind of lead she did for Piccirillo essentially ended the race. One of the most accomplished runners in the program's illustrious history, Piccirillo tied a Penn Relays record with her seventh women's championship, sharing it with fellow Villanovans Michelle Bennett and Kathy Franey.

She could own the record all to herself before her final Penn Relays ends as Villanova will compete for championships in the 4x1500 Friday and the 4x800 on Saturday.

"Down the line, Nicole, McKenna, Siofra were all running so fast, everyone's splits were on," Piccirillo said. "I saw that and it was getting me excited. I was like, 'They're all gonna go and I'm gonna go and we're gonna win it no matter what.' Then to see Siofra open up a gap, I was like, 'Even better, we're gonna make it decisive.'"

Anchoring the winning DMR was particularly gratifying for Piccirillo, who missed last year's meet because she redshirted with plantar fasciitis. That decision wasn't an easy one but Procaccio said she was "glad it paid off" with Piccirillo returning in top form and helping 'Nova avenge a loss to Georgetown in last year's DMR — a race that snapped Villanova's four-year winning streak in the event.

"I've been waiting for this weekend since probably November," said Piccirillo, who attended last year's Penn Relays as a fan and was "screaming my head off" during the Wildcats' win in the 4x1500. "I've been ready to go. It's just a great feeling to be back here for one last win with these girls."

Piccirillo will have a couple more days to enjoy the Penn Relays as the meet concludes with a full slate of events Friday and Saturday. But nothing beats winning the DMR — consistently one of the most exciting events at the country's oldest and largest track meet.

"Everyone knows the tradition," Procaccio said. "The DMR is the most prestigious relay, to be able to get four different disciplines in one relay. And Villanova is kind of synonymous with the DMR."

Penn also had a strong showing in Thursday's DMR, finishing in sixth place with a time of 11:15.76. Earlier in the day, the host Quakers set a school record in a 4x100 relay heat with a time of 45.21 seconds to advance to Friday's final.