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.