Newly confident Jeneba Tarmoh back on track

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/GettyImages

Finally recovered from an emotionally devastating dead heat during the Olympic trials last year, sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh, center, has emerged from her shell more confident than ever.

When adversity smacked Jeneba Tarmoh in the face last summer at the Olympic trials, it wasn't the first time. As a child, she was faced with hardships in civil-war-torn Sierra Leone.

In the West African nation, the then-5-year-old Tarmoh learned valuable lessons that she continues to live by: Always find a way to turn negatives into positives, keep God first and graciously accept the growing pains that come with life.

"I'm not the kind of person who would look back at something and say it was the worst thing that's ever happened to me," Tarmoh said. "I usually bounce back with positive hopes and positive thinking. Everything that happens to me not only shapes my character but also makes me an appreciative person."

Before the summer of 2012, little was known about the 23-year-old sprinter with blazing speed that commanded respect and attention. But by the end of the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., and the Summer Olympics in London, Tarmoh would make history -- on and off the track.

Trials trouble

After skipping her senior year of eligibility and graduating from Texas A&M in 2011, Tarmoh had been a professional runner for less than a year when she seized the spotlight in Eugene. Her opportunity to leave an impression on the world came in 100-meter final.

I'm not the kind of person who would look back at something and say it was the worst thing that's ever happened to me. I usually bounce back with positive hopes and positive thinking. Everything that happens to me not only shapes my character but also makes me an appreciative person.
Jeneba Tarmoh, on her dead heat with Allyson Felix

Tarmoh beamed as her name appeared as the third-place finisher, which would earn her a spot on the Olympic team. It was only after she took her victory lap and spoke at a news conference that she learned a change had been made. The race for third place had been ruled a dead heat between her and Allyson Felix, a two-time silver medalist in the 200 meters.

At the time, USA Track and Field lacked a protocol in case of a dead heat, so the two athletes had to decide how to break the tie and secure the final spot on the 100-meter team. There were two choices: a coin toss or a runoff. Tarmoh and Felix chose a runoff, which was set for July 2.

But there would be no rematch.

A day before Tarmoh was set to run again, she withdrew from the competition via email, ceding her spot to Felix.

"I had so many emotions, and it was just a really tough time," Tarmoh said. "I just decided that the best thing for me to do was wash my hands dry of the situation and let USATF handle it.

"I prayed about my decision, and I was really happy with my decision. Even when I wrote the email, I felt like something was being lifted off of my chest."

Some labeled Tarmoh as a quitter. Detractors scrutinized the sprinter's competitive nature and questioned her skill and heart.

"There were so many mixed opinions about my decision," Tarmoh said. "Then after a while, people started to get really negative. They were talking about my parents' parenting and how my mother raised me. I had to back off the Internet because I didn't want it to affect anything else I had moving forward."

Though being faced with others' judgment hurt, the adversity Tarmoh faced early on in life helped prepare her for critics.

"I'm the person to always say, 'If it were me, I would do this or that,'" Tarmoh said. "I can't really be mad at those people because I've done that so many times. It's human nature. Still, you don't judge someone if you don't know them. And like every other human being, we all have stuff that you don't see."

Adversity deepens her faith

Though Tarmoh was born in the United States, she was sent on a trip to her parents' hometown in Sierra Leone -- the small country in West Africa that lies between Guinea and Liberia -- to visit family and explore her culture. It was a much different experience than living in America, and Tarmoh spent most of the time helping her family with chores that included pumping and hauling water in order to cook, clean and bathe.

Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Jeneba Tarmoh, left, gave up her spot in the 100 meters to Allyson Felix rather than participate in a runoff.

"When I was out there, I learned more about my culture," she said. "A lot of people can't really say that they know where they are from, everything that happened in their family and what their traditions mean. I can say that."

A trip that was supposed to last only a few weeks turned into months. Tarmoh stayed, waiting to obtain a passport. Trying to leave during a time of civil war within the country made things even more difficult.

After a year, Tarmoh left Sierra Leone, but her hardships weren't over. Transitioning back to the United States proved to be another difficult feat, as her life began with bullying.

"I was the girl from Africa," Tarmoh said. "I had a really deep, thick African accent. I wasn't allowed to speak any African languages in my house in order to learn English better. In school, I was very quiet. Even the teachers thought that something was wrong with me, that I was depressed or something."

It didn't take long for sports to become an outlet for Tarmoh. After graduating from Mount Pleasant High School in San Jose, Calif., she spent a year at Tennessee before transferring to Texas A&M and joining the track team. She developed a passion for the sport and never looked back.

More gained than lost

At the London Olympics, Tarmoh won gold as a part of the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team. She raced in a preliminary heat.

There, she also received a gift she considers more valuable than gold. For the first time, she met her older brother, John Mannah.

"It was one of the greatest feelings I've ever had," Tarmoh said. "I've always wanted to meet him, but it just never happened. So when I finally got to meet him, I wanted to cry. I have a big brother, and I finally got to see him. That surpassed winning a gold medal."

For weeks after the Olympics, Tarmoh still harbored feelings of hurt and confusion from the dead heat. It was a moment she felt shouldn't have been taken from her in the first place. She continuously asked herself: "Why?"

"For the longest time, the devil in me asked God why he was doing this to me. Why me out of all people? But I realized not many people could handle [what I went through]. It takes a really strong person, and I think God chose me because he sees that I can handle things with poise and grace."

Publicist Tiffany Coffman, who began representing Tarmoh shortly after the Olympics, said the incident weighed heavily on the sprinter because it was something she had never experienced before.

"The situation was very overwhelming and a first for everyone around her," Coffman said. "When something like that happens, you need your team. She wasn't really prepared for that."

In October, Tarmoh picked up a copy of Bishop T.D. Jakes' book "Let It Go: Forgive So You Can Be Forgiven." It was an epiphany of sorts, and Tarmoh gained a more positive outlook.

"I told myself, 'Jeneba, you have to let go of this because you are blocking your blessings. You are getting in the way of whatever God has for you by being angry. Whatever God has for you is for you, and nobody can take it away. Move on with your life,'" she said. "And that's exactly what I did."

Still on track

Tarmoh continues to train daily with her sights set on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She also joined the Athletes Advisory Task Force, a USATF committee that is working to establish a tiebreaking policy in the event of future dead heats.

"I don't want anyone to feel what I felt," Tarmoh said. "I'm so excited to be on this committee to make sure people don't feel that pain."

She said there were never any hard feelings toward Felix, her former training partner. The two still talk every day at practice.

Tarmoh has also spent time doing interviews and photo shoots, including one for Be The Link, a campaign that works to fund research and education about HIV and AIDS. The second shoot of the year introduced the "new" Tarmoh that will be displayed this season.

"My other photo shoot was pretty much a makeover to show a brand-new Jeneba this year -- more confident and more in control of her career," she said.

On the track, the sprinter is off to a good start, having placed in the top five in two meets this season.

"After everything that happened during the runoff, she kind of went into her own little shell," Coffman said. "Now she's using her experience as a platform to help others. She's moving forward."

The emotional wounds have healed, and the feelings about the race have subsided. From the heartache and personal growth blossomed a confidence and changes that continue to make Tarmoh a standout in 2013.

"Life has been pretty fast this year," Tarmoh said. "I've continued to train hard. I feel so empowered and confident in whatever comes my way -- kind of like Superwoman."

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