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South Jersey sprinter English Gardner fought depression and injuries on her way to a second U.S. Olympic track team berth

The Eastern High School graduate, winner of 2016 gold in the 4x100 relay, tested positive for COVID-19 two months before the Olympic trials but showed enough to be selected again for the relay.

English Gardner has overcome many obstacles to remain an Olympic-caliber sprinter.
English Gardner has overcome many obstacles to remain an Olympic-caliber sprinter.Read moreAkira Suwa / For The Inquirer

English Gardner is a fighter, and she’s still fighting.

As a child, her family went through two stretches of homelessness in South Jersey. Right after she entered Eastern High School, her mother fought Stage 3 breast cancer, and her father struggled with dangerously high blood pressure.

In her junior year at Eastern, she missed the entire track season with two torn ligaments in her right knee and saw most Division I coaches withdraw the scholarships they had offered.

She turned pro after the 2012-13 track season at Oregon and developed into one of the nation’s preeminent sprinters. But she battled depression around the time of the 2016 Olympic trials and while recovering from a torn meniscus. Still, she won the 100 meters final in 10.74 seconds and went on to capture gold in the 4x100 relay.

Fast forward to 2021. Gardner’s bid to make another Olympic team was almost thwarted by a positive COVID-19 test in April, two months before the trials. The symptoms came at her in waves: scratchy throat, head congestion, headaches, fatigue, a swollen tongue, a full body rash, respiratory issues, and migraines.

It was a miserable time for her, yet she recovered enough to run all three heats in the 100 at last month’s Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., including 10.96 in the semifinals, her fastest time in five years. Although she finished sixth in the final and did not make the team in the individual 100, she was selected in the women’s 4x100 relay pool by USA Track and Field and will run next week.

“For lack of better words, I’ve been through a lot of [crap],” Gardner, 29, who now lives in Cherry Hill, said recently in a telephone interview. “I’ve survived homelessness. Both of my parents have had severe illnesses that almost took them out of here. I’ve been in poverty. I’ve struggled with identity issues and struggled with depression, and there have been so many other struggles.

“I’ve dropped batons. I’ve not made teams. I’ve missed medals by tenths of a second. So there’s a lot of things that have been happening in any year of my career that really has prepared me to, I guess, have the mental fortitude to get through these things.

“Each time that I’m affected in my life, whether it be track-related or not, I don’t take those things politely. I just really know that everything that I’ve gone through has added more muscles and added more girth and grit to my life, and I feel like I’m definitely prepared for everything.”

Gardner, who began her track career at 12 at Carl Lewis’ track club, won six New Jersey Meet of Champions titles in high school. She was an eight-time All-American at Oregon, winning five NCAA championships and six Pac-12 titles and setting school records in the 100 (10.96) and 200 (22.62). She also anchored the Ducks to a 2013 Penn Relays championship in the 4x400.

After finishing seventh in the 100 final in Rio, Gardner ran the third leg on the gold medal-winning 4x100 relay. The time of 41.01 was the second-fastest in the world, and came after the Americans had to rerun their preliminary heat by themselves in an empty stadium when officials ruled interference caused a dropped baton.

Since the 2016 Games, the attention on Gardner has lessened, and she’s had to adapt.

“Track and field doesn’t define me,” she said. “That was something that I never really looked at before. I defined my success in life on how well I ran in races, or how well my sponsor felt about me, or how much my agents called me, or how many newspapers I was in, or the TV shows and the talk shows that I appeared on. I prided myself in those things.

“Now I pride myself more in being a strong, resilient woman. I pride myself in being somebody who never quits, and the things that I have endured and are going through. I can’t name anyone else that I feel like they would be able to endure a lot of the things that I’ve been through and still survive and still keep going.”

Gardner called depression “an ongoing battle for me.”

“I’m a firm believer that depression never goes away,” she said. “It’s more of a managing thing. You learn how to manage it better. You learn how to manage your thoughts. You learn how to manage your emotions. I think that I have managed my emotions and my thoughts very well in these past two years.”

Gardner’s battle with COVID-19 this year is another example of her fighting adversity with everything she has. Rooming together with her father and coach, Anthony, at a meet in Miramar, Fla., she tested positive for COVID-19 a few days after he did. The virus affected her body in many ways, especially her running skills.

“A lot of the things that I needed for track and field definitely got affected,” she said. “I basically had to reteach my body how to be an elite runner again, and how to run. I’m still in the process of doing that. Recently I had such a frustrating practice because I couldn’t remember how to do all of the stuff, and I was so foggy in my brain.

“Your everyday things, things you can do in your sleep, I can no longer do it in my sleep anymore. It’s a task to remember how to do them. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry a lot because I’m crying a lot. I’ve been praying a lot, trying to figure out what to do to make sure that no matter what happens in this process, that I don’t lose my head because that’s the only thing that’s been keeping me coming to practice every day.”

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Gardner feared for her father’s life in his COVID-19 battle after his oxygen level dropped to dangerous levels. She would text him with pep talks as he did with her on the track, and his strength gradually returned. His survival made her more positive about her recovery, she said.

Now she feels she is close to 90% as she continues to prepare for the relay. The fact that she’ll be on the move when she takes the baton is an advantage for her because “my upright running has been beautiful, so I’m excited about that,” she said.

“It still felt good that I do have an opportunity to represent the United States and defend my gold medal. But as a competitor, I always wanted to go out there and compete at a better standing.”

And as she fights to continue to get better in terms of health and performance, she also learns about handling challenges.

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“Honestly, I would definitely say that the things that happen in your life are merely moments,” she said. “A lot of times, people get so caught up on the moments because everyone is living for now and the future. But nobody ever looks back and sees how many times you’ve defeated things or how many times you’ve conquered things, or how many times life actually was good for you.

“I realize that this life is full of ebbs and flows. It’s full of a million and one moments, and every season has a purpose, and seasons change all the time, and there’s always going to be a complaint or a problem or a situation. But it’s what you do and how you react to these problems and situations.”