RIO DE JANEIRO — Sprinter English Gardner failed to make the Olympic team four years ago. She hasn't won a world championship. She hasn't even reached the podium there. But for months, she has been talking about the Rio de Janeiro Olympics as if the outcome in the much-anticipated women's 100 meters was predetermined.
“I don’t even think about it anymore. It just comes out of my mouth,” she said. “It just flows out. I know that I’m going to be on that podium. I know if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll be fine, and I’ll win.”
Forgive the 24-year-old Gardner for being a bit confident. She always has been this way. Maybe that was predetermined, too.
Her mother had a feeling Gardner was destined for greatness and settled on her unique first name because she thought it would sound good coming from a public-address announcer. The track and field events begin Friday at these Games, and Gardner is certain her name will boom from the speakers and the whole world will hear her name called.
“I was always this confident, somewhat cocky little girl,” she explained earlier this week in Rio, “but having more experience, patience with the process and trusting my training more, it’s probably made my confidence a little bit worse. I kind of know what’s going to happen before it happens, I know what things feel like — I know what bad feels like, and I know what great feels like.”
And she knows how to express it all in a colorful, playful manner that is unique to Gardner. For example, before the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, she had told her coach, John Smith, "If you can get me to the dinner table, you set the forks, knives and spoons, put the food on there, and I promise I'm going to eat."
Gardner won the 100 there with a blistering 10.74 seconds, the second fastest in the world this year. After crossing the finish line, she immediately pantomimed eating food, excitedly scooping it into her mouth with an imaginary utensil.
“I gave him the eat symbol,” she said. “I’m not done, but I’m finishing the appetizer.”
The main course, of course, is these Olympics, something Gardner has been plotting for years. She recalls the first days of her freshman year of high school back in Voorhees, N.J., receiving an assignment in her health and physical education class. Students were told to write down their short-term and long-term goals. Under short-term, Gardner drew the Olympic rings.
“She was like, ‘I said write tangible goals,’ ” Gardner recalled. “Basically, saying, ‘Whoa, kid. You’re basically saying you’ll be an astronaut in two years.’ But I was serious: I was going to be in the Olympics in a few years.”
That same year, Gardner’s mother, Monica, learned she had breast cancer and was given a grim prognosis. She came home and immediately began prepping her daughter.
“If I’m not here, I need you to know how to cook, how to clean, fold clothes, take care of brothers and sister, watch over your dad,” Gardner recalled her mom saying.
She also took all of Gardner’s medals and rewards, hung them all over a wall, and told her daughter, “When I’m not here to remind you how great you are every day, you look around and remember why you do this.”
Her Uber driver couldn’t afford the trip to Rio to see his son compete. So she raised the money to send him.
That was a decade ago. The day before Gardner’s Olympic trials began, she received a text from her mom that read, “I lived for this.” Monica Gardner has been able to experience the highs and the lows of Gardner’s young career, which included an anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered during a powder-puff football game in high school and a disappointing seventh-place finish at the 2012 U.S. trials.
She also saw Gardner win five NCAA championships at the University of Oregon and blossom into one of the best young sprinters in the world. All of it by design.
“A lot of people say, ‘I want this or that,’ but when they realize how hard it is, they shy away from the work,” said Robert Johnson, the Oregon track and field coach. “Not her. She has a competitive spirit and fire like no other.”
Johnson says if anything, Gardner sets the bar too high at times.
“She has an unwavering and undying belief in her ability, and you want to nurture that,” he said. “But she would talk about running 10.9 or 10.8, and I’d say, ‘Slow down. Let’s just focus on a PR. One step at a time.’”
Gardner can’t help herself. That’s not her nature. Never has been. She always has known what lies beyond the finish line, even if others can’t quite see it yet.
“I was taught to speak things into existence,” Gardner said. “There’s life and death in the power of your tongue. You’re the controller or your fate, and life is about choices. So I always choose to put that positive energy out there.”