It was the kind of injury that ends careers. That ends dreams.
For English Gardner, it was only one more obstacle to overcome. One more barrier in her way. One more hurdle in her quest to become the fastest woman in the world.
It was Nov. 26, 2008, the day before Thanksgiving. Gardner, then a sophomore at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, N.J., and already one of the fastest high school sprinters in the country, decided to join her friends for a little game of Powder Puff football on the turf field over at Eastern.
I told her not to play, Gardners dad Anthony recalled. I was worried shed get hurt. But her younger brother T.J. was playing, and she and her brother are so competitive with each other. Who can eat dinner faster. Who can run to the store faster. Who can spit farther. Everything. He was playing, so she had to play and try to do better than him. Nothing was going to stop her.
As a freshman at Eastern in the spring of 2007, Gardner won the New Jersey Meet of Champions title in the 100-meter dash, edging Lakewood senior Shavon Greaves, who would go on to become an All-America sprinter at Penn State. A year later, Gardner repeated her 100 title and won the 200 as well, then went on to place second among the nations fastest sprinters in the 2008 Nike Outdoor Nationals in Raleigh, N.C.
Gardner was already getting offers from all the top collegiate track programs in the country. More than 100 of them. She wasnt even halfway through high school, and she was one of the most heavily recruited track athletes in the country.
Then she went to play Powder Puff football. And everything changed.
It was a running play, and I had planted my foot to juke and make a move, and my cleat got stuck on the turf, Gardner recalls now. My cleat stayed one way, my body went the other way.
At first, I didnt think I was hurt. Im always doing crazy stuff. It kind of really felt if I did something really bad, I wouldnt be able to walk, but I was able to walk.
It would be another day until an MRI confirmed everybody's worst fear: Complete tears in her right anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and lateral meniscus.
But everybody suspected right when it happened that it was bad. Really bad.
I looked at her, and I had tears in my eyes, Anthony Gardner said. Im thinking, What is this girl going to do now? Track was everything to this girl. It had been since she was 7. It was devastating.
"She just looked at me and said, Dad, Im going to come back from this.
About 2 12 years later, as a freshman at the University of Oregon, Gardner ran 100 meters in 11.03 seconds. All that did was make her one of the fastest women in the world.
This weekend, Gardner is back home. For the first time since she was in high school, she'll compete in the 118th annual Penn Relays at Franklin Field, where tens of thousands of track fanatics will witness a real-life miracle.
"When I found out we were going to Penn this year, I can't even tell you how excited I was," Gardner said. "To be able to come back home and run in front of all the people who supported me and were there for me -- my friends and teammates, my coaches, my family -- it's going to be just an unbelievable feeling."
. . .
After shredding her knee, Gardner missed her entire junior year of track. Instead of racing, Gardner spent 13 months rehabbing. And she approached her rehab the same way she approached training.
A couple times after she did her supervised rehab, I caught her in her room, with the door locked, doing rehab on her own, Anthony Gardner said. She was doing so much, we had to stop her.
She worked so hard. The thought that she wouldnt come back wasnt in her vocabulary. She never thought she wouldnt come back even stronger, and if she did, she never let on she was thinking that way. Thats how she is. She doesnt know when to stop. She has no off button on her.
Just her personality, Anthony Gardner said.
Tell her she cant do something, shell work even harder to prove that she can. Its how shes always been.
I had the idea it didnt matter what the world could throw at me, I would just work 10 times harder and get back to where I was, English Gardner said. That was my mind set from Day 1. I remember my dad, tears in his eyes, and everybody was telling him its a career-threatening injury, that, Shell never run like she used to.
"He was so broken and hurt. I looked at him and said, Get yourself together, weve got work to do.
On the outside, she was brave and courageous and confident.
On the inside, she had her periods of doubt.
Even after being cleared to return to light training during the spring of 2009, she could tell she just wasn't the same.
There are moments when you realize it just feels different, she said. When I started running again, I didnt feel as snappy and quick. I didnt feel as smooth as I was before my injury. When I came back for my senior year, I was going to run through anything, but it felt like something was missing. I tried to block it out, but it was hard.
As Gardner recovered and rehabbed, virtually all the colleges that had pursued Gardner so intensely a year earlier suddenly were nowhere to be found.
Track powerhouse Louisiana State, where Gardner had dreamed of going since she was a child, quickly lost interest. She was crushed.
"She cried and cried and cried, when she realized they were no longer offering a full ride," her dad said.
That was the low point.
I had the hat, had the shirt, had the jacket, she said. Unfortunately, they doubted my ability. When I found out they werent really interested in me anymore, the tears just started flowing. It hurt. I remember saying to my dad, this is going to motivate me even more to prove them wrong.
Gardner vowed to run faster than ever. Never doubt this girl. She did.
In December of 2009, 13 months after her injury, Gardner returned to competition at a low-key meet at Seton Hall University. Her time was pedestrian -- 7.32 seconds for 55 meters. But it was a start.
And just two months later, she went to the 73rd annual Eastern Championships, a historic meet at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan, and shocked a loaded field in the 55-meter dash, running a meet-record 6.91 seconds, her fastest time ever and the second-fastest time among U.S. high school runners in the winter of 2010.
She raised her hands in the air and screamed as she crossed the line just ahead of Myasia Jacobs of Paramus Catholic, who would go on to win two national scholastic sprinting titles.
Just like that, the calls started coming in again. All the colleges that had lost interest in Gardner were suddenly interested again. Among them, LSU.
"They called and apologized," Gardner said.
But Gardner ruled out every college other than Florida State, Oregon and Princeton, the only colleges that stuck with her during her injury.
I cant go to a program that didnt believe in me, she said.
So in the fall of 2010, Gardner flew across the country and began college life at the University of Oregon, a school known for its peerless distance running program but with virtually no tradition of sprinting.
It was an unusual decision. But for Gardner, finding a college that never wavered in its belief in her was more important than anything.
I took a gamble coming to Oregon, she said. When I made the decision and told my parents in the kitchen, everybodys mouth dropped because they could have sworn I would go to a sprint school.
But you know, it didnt feel right anywhere else but Oregon.
. . .
At Oregon, Gardner got off to a strong start. In her first meet in a Ducks uniform, she ran 60 meters in 7.29 seconds, the No. 1 time among collegians at that point and a school record.
But she was still not totally healthy. Her knee injury affected with her stride, and she struggled with compensatory injuries in her hamstrings, hips and quads. Soon after her 7.29, she was diagnosed with a cracked shin.
She wanted to keep running. Instead, her coaches red-shirted her, and she missed the rest of the indoor season.
When they told her they were red-shirting her, she threw a temper tantrum, her father said with a laugh. Thats how she is. She just wanted to keep running. Shes so competitive. She thinks she can run through anything.
By last spring, finally, Gardner was 100 percent. For the first time since the spring of 2008, she felt like herself.
And heres where this story turns incredible.
Last May 14, Oregon competed in the Pac-10 Conference championships at Roy P. Drachman Stadium on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Ariz.
In the stunning span of just over 11 seconds, she transformed from just another fast collegiate sprinter into a world-class athlete.
It was a miracle, said Gardner's father, who watched from the stands that day. I don't know any other way to put it. It had to be a miracle.
Gardner won the 100-meter dash final in 11.03 seconds, which broke two-time Olympian Angela Williams U.S. junior record (athletes 19 and under), broke three-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers meet record and wound up as the 11th-fastest 100 time in the world in 2011.
Gardners time was fastest by a world junior in 23 years and third-fastest ever by a girl 19 years old or under, behind only two sprinters from the former East Germany.
She also became the fastest collegian in the country for 2011, the fourth-fastest American woman in 2011 and the sixth-fastest collegian of all-time.
That day ... I got there and just felt great, Gardner said. I rarely feel like that, but it was one of those days I just felt amazing. On top of the world. Nobody could tell me that day I wasnt going to do something great.
Then, I heard the ESPN announcers didnt even mention me when they were introducing the race. They didnt mention me once. I remember at the starting line thinking, Im going to shock the world.
And 11.03 seconds later, she had.
Gardner went on to win double All-America honors at NCAAs, in the 100 and 400-meter relay. This past winter, she won her first NCAA title and led Oregon to the NCAA indoor track team championship. Her 7.12 for 60 meters was eighth-fastest in the world, fourth-fastest among all U.S. women and fourth-fastest all-time among college women.
Gardner has qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, scheduled for June on her home track in Eugene, and she's a legitimate candidate to not only reach the 100 final but to make the team and represent the U.S. in London in the 2012 Olympic Games.
My passion for the sport is outrageous, said Gardner, who turned 20 earlier this week. My dream is to go all the way. Whatever it takes to make the Olympic team, thats what Im going to do.
Gardner wont run the open 100 at Penn this week, but she will anchor Oregons 800-meter relay team, which will race Friday afternoon and then again Saturday if it advances to the Championship of America finals. She may run one other relay.
Coming to Oregon, you learn that anything is possible, Gardner said. Steve Prefontaine, the greatest distance runner to ever come through Oregon, started our No Limits motto. We talk about that all the time. No limits. I dont put any limits on me. I dont put any limits on my ability. I just feel like Im going to keep getting faster. I know I am.