Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

Penn Relays: After long climb, English Gardner's life is on track

The brick wall separating the stands from the track within Franklin Field is, perhaps, six feet tall.

The first time English Gardner attended the Penn Relays, as a 12-year-old, she rushed to that barrier and looked down upon the competitors milling about before an event. She was a budding sprinter then, and admittedly "kind of a crazy kid, and very confident in my abilities."

Spotting Lauryn Williams, the great American sprinter, Gardner delivered a simple message.

"I'm gonna take your job one day," she screamed.

Who knew then that far more imposing barriers would lie ahead? That making the leap from the stands to the track would be the least of her worries?

***

Gardner, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey, was back at the Relays this weekend, running 100-meter legs in the victorious women's sprint medley relay and the second-place 4x100 relay, as part of Saturday's USA vs. the World competition.

It was maybe the sixth or seventh time she has competed at the event over the years, she said one day earlier. This time, she returned as an Olympic champion, having been part of the 4x100 relay team that won gold last summer in Rio.

As the 25-year-old Gardner sat in a news conference Friday, she seemed every bit as bubbly and self-assured as she had been all those years ago. She was wide-eyed. She laughed easily. She talked about personal records and putting on a show this weekend.

Long gone were the vestiges of depression, with which she had struggled late in 2015 and in the early months of last year. Her first public discussion of her battle with that disease had been with SI.com's Lindsay Schnell on the eve of the Rio Games, and she talked about it again when she was pulled aside following Friday's presser.

It had been "a slow descent," Gardner said, and it left her in a deep, dark place. She recovered only with the help of professionals, as well as her family. And now she appears to be all the way back.

"I believe to be able to rebuild, stuff has to be destroyed, and that was my moment," she said. "I needed to be broken down. I needed to destroy it and now I'm back and I'm better, I'm stronger, I'm more confident and I'm just a totally different person. I'm having fun with track again, and that's what it's all about."

Her openness about her affliction was born of a desire to help others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults struggle with depression. That's 6.7 percent of the United States' population, aged 18 and older.

"The thoughts that I had — suicide and stuff like that — those thoughts are real," she said. "I thought that sharing my story last year would give someone hope — let them know there's other options than that option."

According to Schnell's story, Gardner's mom, Monica, believed her daughter — the second-oldest of four children born to her and her husband, Anthony — was destined for great things from birth, and as a result gave her a distinctive first name "that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker."

That proved to be the case. She starred at Eastern, then won two NCAA 100-meter outdoor championships, as well as a 60-meter indoor title, during her three years at Oregon.

After turning pro in 2013, she sought not only to harness her considerable physical abilities but also her emotions. She was too skittish, her coach told her, too ridden by anxiety.

As a result, she said, "I basically created an alter ego where I can contain her and gear her only toward getting my goals, and that's getting a gold medal."

She took to calling this thing "Baby Beast."

"I just needed to contain her," she said, "because she was running wild, all over the place."

She finished second in the 100 at the USATF outdoor meet in the spring of 2015, but by that fall her fortunes had turned. A torn hamstring was limiting her on the track. She and her coach were not on the same page. 

"All these things kind of weighed down on me," she said. "My love life was crappy. Spiritually I had kind of gotten away [from] my meditation and praying, things like that. As it went on longer, the worse it got."

Next stop, rock bottom. And she stayed there for about six months, by her recollection.

"I've never experienced anything like that — anxiety, depression, just not wanting to get up out of bed, not wanting to go to practice, not wanting to eat, lights off all the time — just stuff like that," she said.

Her mom flew to Los Angeles, where English was living at the time, to help out. As Monica told Schnell, "We loved her back to life." Her daughter had, in fact, done much the same for her a decade earlier, when Monica survived breast cancer.

English also sought professional help, from not only a psychologist but a sports psychologist and a spiritual counselor.

"I tripled up on myself," she said with a laugh. "I'm a big personality, so I figured to control that big personality, I needed more than one person."

She won the 100 at last year's Olympic Trials, and while she slipped to seventh in that event in Rio, she did earn gold in the relay.

She was back. Back on the side of the wall, she had been trying to reach for so very long.

And there she remains.

Drexel's Chris Crawford soaks up tradition at U.S. Open

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Drexel's Chris Crawford soaks up tradition at U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. — The U.S. Open is all about tradition. This week is the 117th playing of golf's national championship and this event more than most celebrates those golfers who play the game as amateurs. 

Soon-to-be Drexel graduate Chris Crawford has been soaking up all the traditions this week at Erin Hills. Playing in his second U.S. Open after qualifying through both local and sectional competition for the second straight year, an extremely difficult feat, the 23-year-old fifth-year senior enjoyed the amateur dinner put on by the tournament organizers with the USGA. Crawford and his fellow amateurs, a stout list including Texas' Scottie Scheffler, who shot 3-under Thursday to seize the early low amateur lead, were celebrated the entire evening — one of Crawford's early highlights in a long week here in Wisconsin. 

Crawford produced a 3-over par 75 Thursday during the first round to tie for 102nd out of a field of 156 players.

"I played OK (Thursday)," Crawford said. "I'm going to take more positives than negatives out of the round. I played really well for 14 holes and just had a few bad swings on the other four holes."

Indeed, Thursday morning started nervously for the former Drexel golf standout. On the opening par-5 first hole, he snap-hooked his drive into the weeds out of bounds to the left, resulting in a double bogey. Three holes later, he chipped one shot over the back of the fourth green and took another double-bogey, placing him 4-over through four holes. 

Although bogeys might keep many of us alive in our weekend matches, it doesn't cut it in a U.S. Open. Crawford responded well in the ensuing 14 holes, going 1-under in that stretch.

Crawford's coach Mike Dynda, who teaches him at LuLu Country Club in Glenside, Pennsylvania, said he makes a big point to prepare Crawford's mind for his big rounds.

"I texted him last night and said, 'When you got to sleep, imagine that you're on the 18th hole and you have a putt for 9-under,'" Dynda said. "It's important to go to sleep and dream like that."

On the other side, Dynda — who taught the golf team at Drexel from 2003-2015 — also told his pupil to stay away from expectations. When you're 23 and you're playing in your second consecutive U.S. Open, one might think it would be easy to get ahead of yourself. Not so with Crawford, according to Dynda.

"I've taught him to not have any expectations for the five years we've been together," Dynda said. 

Crawford had a superstar practice round on Monday, playing with Jordan Spieth, Jim Furyk and Wisconsin's own Steve Stricker.

"It was a lot of fun playing with those guys and just watching them strategize about learning a brand new U.S. Open course," Crawford said. "I think that's the biggest thing I was impressed with, was the way they talked about strategy on this golf course.

"They were all very nice with me and were very specific to ask about me and they wanted to learn a little bit about my life, so I appreciated that."

For Dynda, talking with Furyk brought back a fond memory. Furyk's father, Mike, actually sold Dynda his first set of golf clubs, Tommy Armor 845s, back in Philadelphia years ago. 

With one round in the books and the forecast calling for rain this weekend, Crawford was looking forward to having the proper mentality as he headed into Friday's second round.

"I want to go out there and just not get ahead of myself," Crawford said. "I'm going to think positively and appreciate that I'm playing in the national open."

Crawford teed off at 2:31 p.m. local time off of the 10th hole.

"This week is so cool because I never do something like this," Crawford said. "Playing in front of such large crowds is a treat and I just love the interaction with the fans before and after the rounds as well."

Last year at Oakmont, dozens of friends and family made the drive down the turnpike to see him play in his first U.S. Open. This year, Crawford estimates that he has around 15 friends and family out in the galleries cheering him on. Though coach Dynda caddied last year, those duties have gone to current Drexel golf coach Ben Feld.

It's a party this week of Drexel golf proportions.

Atlantic 10 reveals 2017-18 schedule pairings

Atlantic 10 reveals 2017-18 schedule pairings

Philadelphia basketball fans will be getting a double dip of one of the Atlantic 10 conference's best rivalries once again next season.

With the league's 18-game regular season format in place for a fourth straight year, it was revealed Wednesday afternoon that Saint Joseph's and La Salle will battle twice — once in North Philly at Tom Gola Arena and a second time at the Hawks' home just off City Line Avenue. Each team in the 14-member conference will play eight teams once and five teams twice.

The full pairings for the Explorers and Saint Joe's are listed here:

La Salle
Home: Dayton, George Mason, St. Bonaventure, VCU, Fordham, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis
Away: Davidson, Duquesne, George Washington, Richmond, Fordham, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis

Saint Joseph’s
Home: Dayton, Duquesne, Saint Louis, VCU, Fordham, George Mason, La Salle, Massachusetts, St. Bonaventure
Away: Davidson, George Washington, Rhode Island, Richmond, Fordham, George Mason, La Salle, Massachusetts, St. Bonaventure

It was also rumored earlier in the day that the Hawks have added a Big Five matchup at Temple for Dec. 9.