English Gardner, by finishing second in the 100m at the recent USATF Outdoor Championships, marked yet another resurgent victory in a young career full of them.
“The most distinguished quality of a person that becomes great in this sport is that they never quit,” the 27-year-old said after qualifying for the world championships as one of the top three finishers in Des Moines on July 26. “I joke around with my dad and all my friends, I’m like Freddy and Jason in this sport. You can’t kill me.”
While Gardner was a high school freshman, her mom, Monica, was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. While she underwent treatment, Gardner’s father, Anthony, suffered a stroke. Both lived. Then Gardner, in her junior year, tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus in a powder puff football game. She came back and earned a scholarship to the University of Oregon.
Come 2016, Gardner entered the Rio Olympics as the world’s second-fastest woman for the year. She had won the U.S. Olympic Trials 100m in 10.74 seconds, making her the fourth-fastest American in history. She revealed that she overcame depression and anxiety to get there.
Gardner did not say it then, but she also ran that summer, and finished seventh in Rio, on a torn meniscus suffered while doing stadiums (Gardner said it happened in February; her father said closer to trials). Gardner did not get it diagnosed, but she knew immediately what the buckle meant, remembering that high school injury.
Anthony, her coach since age 8 (some full-time, some advisory), said Gardner moved out of the Olympic Village during the Games and stayed with her parents. The injury kept her from walking out for meals.
After the 100m final, Anthony remembered his daughter’s tears. And her punching a wall.
“She had no push out of the blocks,” he said. “It was by the grace of God that we didn’t do more damage [to the knee].” Gardner underwent surgery after the Games.
The most devastating setback of Gardner’s career would not come until July 21, 2017, father and daughter agreed.
She tore her ACL again — all of these injuries have been to the same right knee. It happened on a live stream and on slow-motion replay, that knee bending awkwardly as she passed a relay baton in Monaco. A third knee surgery followed.
Behind schedule in her recovery, Gardner considered the end of her track career.
“It was a small moment where I just knew that it could be a possibility that I just never do what I love again,” she said. “Quickly, the monster in me snapped back. I had to have a lot of conversations with myself. This was all mental.”
Anthony, a former hurdler and triple jumper, had made annual trips to Los Angeles to stay with Gardner, injury after injury to start her pro career. “She kept getting hurt, causing mental distress,” he said.
After Monaco, Gardner decided to move from California back home with her parents, a pastor and bishop at Life Giving Word Ministries in Mount Laurel, N.J. She joined the song and praise team on Sundays and helped in the youth department.
“She wanted to go back to her roots,” Anthony said. “I enjoy being her parent [rather than full-time coach], but she was persistent, insisted she go back home.”
Gardner raced twice late in the 2018 season — the sport’s fallow year of the four-year Olympic cycle, the only one with no Olympics or outdoor world championships. She trained to make a full-fledged return this season.
But in the winter she tore her right hamstring decelerating in practice. It benched her for a month. She returned on no training for Diamond League meets in Rome and Stanford, Calif., clocking 11.42 and 11.24 seconds. She ranked 57th in the world for 2019 and 24th among Americans at the end of June.
“I had to call my agents and tell them not to give up on me,” Gardner said, “because I just felt like I wasn’t performing the way I was supposed to perform.”
Then came USATF Outdoors, the key meet of the summer. Make the top three in the 100m, and your season continues through later-than-usual worlds in late September and early October in Doha. Miss the team, and it’s time to start thinking about 2020.
“My legs are there. I’ve just got to trust it,” she told Flotrack after finishing second in her first-round heat in 11.28 into a significant headwind.
The next day, Gardner won her semifinal in 11.16 into an even greater headwind, her most impressive time since the Olympics when factoring in wind.
In the two hours between the semis and final, Gardner saw the start list and noticed that she was the oldest of the eight-woman field. Back in 2013, Gardner became the youngest U.S. women’s 100m champion since 1980. She remains the fastest woman in history without an Olympic or world 100m medal.
The veteran ran an even final, staying with the leaders as younger women faded in the last strides. She took second to Teahna Daniels, 11.20 to 11.25 into a headwind, to qualify for worlds. Gardner, wearing a necklace with the words “No Matter What,” found her father.
“She said, ‘You’re a great coach,'” Anthony said. “I said, ‘You’re a great athlete.'”
Gardner looks forward to being able to train, hopefully uninhibited, for two months straight before flying to Qatar.
“I’m a little scared at what’s going to happen,” Gardner said, believing that amount of time to prepare can lead her to lower her personal best of 10.74 (the world’s fastest women this year, Jamaicans Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, have run 10.73). “My mom always says, you can eat a whole elephant, but you’ve got to eat it one bite at a time.”
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