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U.S. sprinter English Gardner wants 'to become the fastest woman alive'

Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

There is a story that typifies American sprinter English Gardner, and it happened her freshman year of high school. A teacher gave Gardner's class a writing assignment to imagine a realistic goal they saw themselves achieving in 10 years. The other kids detailed the kind of car or house or job they intended to have someday. Gardner handed in a sheet of paper with no words written on it -- just a drawing of the Olympic rings. The teacher reminded her, "I said something attainable in 10 years." Gardner, then only 14, shot back, "Yeah, I may do it in four."

A lot has changed for Gardner since then. But not in any of the respects just mentioned. She is 24 now, and there are far more decorated 100-meter sprinters in the world. But Gardner believes she will prevail in the event at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials (June 30-July 10) in Eugene, Oregon, and then get to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August and win the gold medal there. She is undaunted that she has never qualified for the Olympics, never owned a world record, and never won an individual medal at the world championships.

Gardner has always had the gift of speed. But she is, above all else, a person of unbreakable will. And it's been that astonishing will of hers, even more than her legs, that has enabled her to outrun disappointments and outflank the despair or other challenges that have threatened to get in the way of that singular, unchanging goal of hers. "I want to become the fastest woman alive," she said at the Prefontaine Classic in late May after running a winning time of 10.81 and beating potential Rio rivals such as Carmelita Jeter and two-time Olympic 100 champ Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, who had been fighting a toe injury. Gardner's time was the second best in the world to that point, trailing only fellow American Tori Bowie's 10.79.

Either Gardner will get what she wants in Rio, or she may nearly break herself trying. And she has always been this way.

"That's just how I am," she says. "I want to be a greatest of all time. To be a GOAT, you've gotta think like a GOAT."

Gardner is the daughter of two pastors who, she says, "always taught me you have to speak things into existence. That if I put it out in the world, if I make it plain, it's mine." Her passage to adulthood has been a crucible at times, but she has emerged as a straight-talking woman with a formidable intellect and drive, a sneaky sense of humor and a showman's gift for storytelling.

English's mother, Monica, says she chose such an unusual first name for her second child because "I had a feeling she was going to do something spectacular someday and" -- here Monica laughs a little -- "I wanted her to have a name that would sound good over an intercom."

English's father, Anthony, was a 110-meter hurdler at Delaware State and later at Pitt. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials at a last-chance meet in Philadelphia in 1988. But he was so overcome by the moment and the sight of Olympic champ Roger Kingdom in a lane next to him that he was left in the blocks when the starter's gun went off and the rest of the field shot away.

"I was like, 'You froze?' and he said, 'I froze,'" English says. "I've never been starstruck like that. The first time I raced against Allyson Felix, I thought, 'That's Allyson Felix. But she's not gonna beat me.' My dad is everything to me -- my coach, my spiritual advisor, my friend, my punching bag. I always joke with him that he went through hell so I wouldn't have to. Here he is, this big strong man, and yet he has so much humility. He always tells me, 'English, you want it more than I ever did.'"

Gardner's parents run a nondenominational Christian ministry in southern New Jersey, the same part of the world that American sprinting great Carl Lewis comes from.

English was 8 when they took her to the Willingboro, New Jersey, club that Lewis' mother, Evelyn, started. (Even by then, English was headstrong enough to pull stunts like telling friends she was throwing a birthday party for herself at the Discovery Zone -- unbeknownst to her parents, who didn't find out until the folks of some of the 10 or 15 kids called Monica and chirped, "We're on our way!")

English was only 14 when her mother was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and was told she should get her affairs in order because she had only about a 30 percent chance to live. "It was rough," English says. "I remember the look on her face the first time she combed her hair and a clump came out. I remember right when she got diagnosed. I came home and my room was completely different and decorated. She'd placed every single plaque, every single trophy, every single medal and photograph of mine from wall to wall, all around my bed, a complete 360 -- and she came in my room and she looked at me and she said, 'I love you so much. I may not be here to remind you of how great and special you are. But you will remember every time you walk into this room when I'm not here how great you are and why you do this. You were born to do this.' In that moment, I realized I couldn't throw this sport away. But I wouldn't have had that epiphany if, as she was having that moment, she hadn't come to me and still said, 'You can do this.'"

Gardner set a state record in the 100 that year. She won an East regional 100-meter title, too. When she ran an 11.4-second 100 the next year as a high school sophomore, her father sat her down for a serious talk. "I said, 'English, this is a time that's unheard of at your age. You have a chance to do something unprecedented in this sport. This can be your career.'"

But against his better judgment, Anthony let his daughter talk him into allowing her to compete in a school powder puff football game her junior year to raise breast cancer awareness. To this day, English believes one of the reasons her mother successfully fought through chemo and radiation was that "she wanted to be here to see me run in the Olympics."

Anthony was sitting in the stands when English came racing down the field with the football and had one defender to beat. She decided to try a spin move and collapsed in a heap. She remembers the doctor who ran onto the field "gave me a funny look" after he saw her leg. Once in the training room, she saw her father pacing with his hands on his head and tears in his eyes.

Gardner was only 17, but she had torn her ACL, PCL and meniscus, a devastating injury. "But," she says, "I looked at my dad right there in that room and just said, 'Listen. Whatever it is, we're going to be OK.'" Then she kept her word by attacking her post-surgery rehab so hard she was told to cut back. She didn't listen. She'd go to her bedroom at night and prop a chair against the doorknob so no one could stop her from doing extra rehab. And still, many of the colleges who'd been aggressively recruiting her stopped completely.

Which only saddened her stricken father more.

"I think he went into his man cave in the basement for two straight months," English says.

Anthony was still brooding there one day when he heard a thump, thump, thump. It was English, her leg still immobilized, hopping down the stairs to tell him, "Look, it's time for us to get it together. I did it. It's torn. But we're going to make a comeback. Get yourself together. Come out of the basement. And let's get to work."

"I was like, 'Uh, did the roles just switch up here?'" Anthony says. "I felt like I was the kid and she was the parent."

English was encouraged when track power LSU, her dream school, flew her to Baton Rouge for a recruiting visit -- only to get there and learn in a meeting with coach Dennis Shaver that LSU wasn't going to offer her a full scholarship, either. "Let's go," English said to her parents, rising to leave and thanking Shaver for his time.

Once again, she was devastated. But broken? Not at all.

When Gardner's father entered her in at a low-key comeback race at Seton Hall a few weeks later under an assumed name -- "I didn't know what to expect," he admits -- English ran so fast word got out it was her. And LSU's Shaver called back.

"I told that coach, 'You missed the opportunity of a lifetime.' I didn't even sign on the line with Oregon by then, but I told him anyway, 'I already signed with Oregon.'" English says. "So then, after that phone call, I hung up and called Oregon and said, 'Coach Johnson. You sitting down?' He said yeah. I said, 'I'm coming to Oregon!'

"I felt so empowered in that moment!"

Gardner went on to star for the Ducks -- but not before LSU's Shaver called her dad and, referring to how English had reamed him out, said, "I've never had a girl talk to me like that!"

Pause.

"It made me want to recruit her even more!"

English rewarded Oregon's loyalty by becoming a three-time All-American and NCAA champ. And every time she saw an LSU uniform, she'd run with extra fury, to the point that when she trained later with former LSU sprinter Kimberly Duncan in Los Angeles, English said, "I sat her down and told her, 'I just want you to know none of that was about you, OK? None of it. You were just collateral damage.'"

By her junior year at Oregon, Gardner was the only college sprinter to make the 100-meter final at the 2012 Olympic trials.

But Gardner finished fourth, just missing an individual Olympic spot. The step up in competition gave her a taste of what lay just ahead in the notoriously aggressive world of sprinting (she turned pro right after the meet).

"One of the other girls tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Hey kid, it's all about the Benjamins [$100 bills] -- you'll understand later,'" Gardner says. "It was her way of saying I wasn't ready for this. And she was right. America doesn't see it. But everything is about mind games. Intimidating people on the [start] line.

"It starts in the back before we get our hip numbers and our lane assignments all the way up to when we get on the line. I mean, there's some runners who will purposely scream and yell and be hyped to psych out the person next to them. A lot of runners will purposely take their time getting in the blocks so that you're sitting down there for a long time. And there's a lot of glares -- I mean, if eyes could kill."

Gardner stands only 5-foot-6, and she is slight for a sprinter. "She looks like a 1,500-meter runner, right?" says John Smith, the venerable coach whose Los Angeles club she began training with after leaving Oregon. He smiles and says, "Do you know she can squat [lift] 330 pounds?"

When Gardner ran a race for Smith not long after joining his training group, which has also included sprint champions Ato Boldon and Jeter, Smith says, "One of the guys looked at me and said, 'Did you see what I saw?' And I said, 'Yes. But we have be careful.' She's so strong-willed, sometimes I look at her and think, 'I don't want to break this.' Because she'll just go. She's special."

Today, the Olympic dream Gardner has had since childhood and carries into the U.S. trials isn't just for her anymore.

She still talks in terms of "when I win the gold medal" in Rio -- not if -- and it is entirely conceivable that she will get to Brazil and it will be yet another thing she has spoken into existence. And when she does it -- not if -- she admits she probably won't follow through on her joke about becoming the first Olympic athlete to take champagne onto the medal podium and spray everyone in sight once she hears the national anthem.

English Gardner figures she may just sit down next to her folks and allow herself a good, long cry.