A long run back: How English Gardner overcame depression, anxiety on road to Rio
- English Gardner appears to be a confident, brash sprinter who won the women's 100 meters in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. But just seven months earlier, she was struggling in the fight of her life.
EUGENE, Ore. — It started the same way the last one had. First, a realization that she couldn’t breathe correctly, like a snake had slithered up and around her torso, crushing her windpipe. Next, her hands and feet went numb, a sensation both familiar and unwelcome. Then a rush of thoughts, over and over and over. Notlike2012, notlike2012, notlike2012, pleasenotlike2012.
Another panic attack? Here? Now?
And English Gardner still had 10 meters to go.
Gardner crossed the line in the 100-meter semifinals at the July U.S. Olympic Trials in 10.74, good enough to win her heat and earn a spot in the finals. But one of the unabashed stars of the sprints—a woman who made no apologies for oozing confidence—had spent most of her pre-race routine throwing up, crippled with anxiety. She thought she could outrun it. But just like in the past, it overcame her.
Gardner found her way off the track, to the back of the athlete tent, still trying to catch her breath and stave off the tears that started to fill her eyes. Then her father, Anthony—part coach, part cheerleader, part proud dad—appeared. He assured her that it’s not going to be like 2012, when she finished seventh in the final. This was 2016, he said, and she was ready this time.
Three thousand miles away in Voorhees, N.J., Monica Gardner, English’s mother, tried to channel a calm energy to her little girl. Seven months earlier, Monica suspected something was off when her oldest daughter, the baby she knew was meant for greatness, showed up for Christmas alarmingly thin—16 pounds missing off her normally lean, 5' 6", 128-pound frame—and her bubbly, brassy personality dulled. Monica’s suspicions were confirmed later that week, when English stumbled into her parents’ room late one night, crying and shaking. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” she gasped.
“You know how moms do,” Monica says. “I invited her in my bed, like she was my baby. I just wrapped my arms around her … prayed for her, talked her through it.”
After that, Monica decided to step in further. It was obvious that English, like children no matter how old they get, needed her mom. English, who as a teenager nursed and consoled Monica through a wicked bout of chemotherapy and radiation, was suddenly a little girl again, broken and hurting.
Typically, it was Anthony who spent long stretches in Los Angeles, where English trained. But Monica told Anthony it was his turn to come home to Voorhees and run the house. “Mama Bear has to go out there for awhile.”
So in January, she packed a month’s worth of clothes and flew across the country.
English and Anthony have always been close. Maybe it’s because, in the moments after English was born, doctors were worried about English’s low body temperature, so Anthony took off his shirt and held his baby girl against his chest, skin to skin, helping warm her. It was the start, Anthony says, of an incomparable connection.
Maybe it’s because Anthony has the athletic background—a long and triple jumper in high school, he ran hurdles at Delaware State—and was the first to declare his daughter could be a track star. Maybe it’s because he saw himself in the brash, outgoing competitor that English became. At 12, Anthony and English attended the Penn Relays, and English leaned over the railing, gesturing to the sprinters.
“Hey Lauryn,” she called to Lauryn Williams, then one of the world’s elite runners. “I’m gonna take your job some day!” Anthony pressed his hands to his temple and shook his head. What am I gonna do with this girl? He decided to buy in to her fearlessness. He set goals and times, and taught her that true love manifests itself in sacrifice.
“There were so many days where I remember my parents would buy me tickets to go certain places to run and not have enough money to eat, so they would share a Snickers bar,” English says. “My dad would spend his last dime to buy me track spikes.”
If her father gave English ambition and moxie—insisting that he set up a tent so English, then in middle school had shade to cool off before her race—Monica taught her about having guts and an unbreakable spirit.
When Monica was pregnant with English almost 25 years ago, she told her husband that the baby kicking and squirming inside her was going to do something incredible. She wasn’t sure if she’d be a ballerina or a recording artist or a firefighter but “she is going to touch the world.” So Monica decided she needed a name “that people would remember, something that sounded good over a loudspeaker.”
As English started at Eastern Senior High in Voorhees, N.J., her family received startling news: Monica had stage three breast cancer and was likely to die within months. She sat her children on the couch in order—Anthony Jr., English, Ariel and Brandon—and told them that Mommy was very sick. English looked up at Monica with her big brown eyes, the ones that imply a constant state of surprise, the ones that today charm fans and media alike. Tears streaking her checks, she begged, “Mommy, please don’t leave me.”
“My heart,” Monica says, “sank to my feet.”
The family had known hardship before. Monica says they were homeless twice when English was young, the first time when English was six and her parents had poured all their money in their church—Anthony and Monica are pastors, currently serving at Life Giving Word Ministry in Burlington, N.J.—which left nothing for their mortgage. They spent weeks on a friend’s living room floor. A few years later, when their offer on a home fell through, the Gardners spent two months at a Residence Inn in New Jersey, aided by the generosity of church-goers and Anthony’s mother. Monica and her husband had no shame about their struggles, telling their children this would make them strong.
But if Monica died from cancer, it would be different, and English knew it. Anthony, Jr., the oldest, returned to college, and missed most of his mom’s battle with cancer. Ariel and Brandon were too young to fully grasp how bad the situation was and could continue to get.
English understood, so when her dad needed to continue work at a mortgage company to keep paying the bills, she took on the role of surrogate parent, rising an hour earlier to help Ariel and Brandon get dressed, and walking them to the bus stop. She wrote a letter to the district superintendent, detailing her family’s situation and explaining why she was often late to first period. She accompanied her mom to chemotherapy treatments, and held Monica’s hair back when she kneeled over the toilet to vomit.
“She saw me at my worst,” Monica says.
When Monica’s hair eventually fell out, English rubbed and kissed her mother’s bald head, telling her how beautiful she looked. Thirty-plus radiation treatments burned and discolored Monica’s skin. If she sat in the sun, her skin started to peel. Soon, she couldn’t get out of bed.
But amid the nightmare at home, English found a sanctuary on the track. For two hours a day, English didn’t have to think about anything except practice, and she relished the freedom that came with acting like a regular teenager.
One day her freshman year, a few months into Monica’s chemo treatments, English came home and found her room wallpapered in medals, plaques, certificates and relay batons. Every square inch of space was covered with accolades from track meets dating back to when she started running at seven years old.
“When I’m not here to tell you that you’re amazing, you look at this wall every day and remember when you’re great,” Monica said. Then she told her daughter that some day, when English qualified for the Olympics, reporters and TV cameramen would walk into this room and understand how she got to the top.
By the time English graduated high school, Monica’s premonition was taking shape. In summer 2006, doctors deemed Monica cancer free. The winning formula, according to Anthony: One amazing oncologist and numerous horrifying chemo treatments. When the family got the call, Anthony threw a huge party, inviting family friends and neighbors. He told his wife, “A load is coming off your shoulders.”
Now, almost 10 years after Monica’s scans came back clean, she held her trembling daughter in her arms, wondering why track wasn’t acting as a release for her daughter anymore.
In fall 2007, English’s junior year, her high school held a flag football game to raise money for breast cancer research. Of course English was going to play, and she went all out, showing up to the game decked out in pink. Ever one for showy finishes, English tried a spin move as she sprinted to the end zone on her way to corralling a pass. Instead of scoring, she tore her right ACL, MCL and meniscus. She missed that entire track season, and with no current sprint times, almost every college pulled its scholarship offer. The lone school still committed to the speedster? Oregon, the program made famous by distance runner Steve Prefontaine.
English had doubts about helping revive a sprint program on life support, but when Oregon assistant Robert Johnson took a redeye flight to New Jersey to meet the Gardner family and prove how serious he was about recruiting her, she decided she’d take a chance.
Together they turned the Ducks into a women’s track powerhouse. Anchored by English, who won two 100-meter outdoor titles (2012 and ’13) and one 60-meter indoor title (’12), Oregon took home three consecutive NCAA Indoor championships (2010–12) and finished second at Outdoor four times (2009–12). Brimming with confidence after her 2012 success, English told Johnson she had bigger plans.
“Johnson, he was a low expectation, high outcome kind of guy,” she says. “I was the crazy one saying, ‘Hey … I am going to run in the Olympics. We’re going to do it in 2012.’ And he kinda looked at my crazy and was like ‘Well, let’s try to break 11 seconds first.’”
Just a few weeks removed from winning the NCAA outdoor title, English stood behind the blocks at the 2012 Olympic Trials—at Hayward Field in Eugene, her adopted home—and felt a wave of exhaustion. Burnt out after running full indoor and outdoor seasons, with her peak times behind her, she finished seventh.
Devastated, she sobbed uncontrollably in her father’s car afterward, chucking her phone out the window in frustration and wailing about a squandered opportunity. Angry at herself for not managing her races correctly, she vowed it would be different at the next trials in 2016.
A year later, in 2013, she moved to Los Angeles and turned pro, forgoing her final season of collegiate eligibility. She switched coaches—the hardest decision she’s ever had to make, she says—pairing up with legendary sprints coach John Smith, who has tutored Olympic medalists Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon and Carmelita Jeter, among others.
“To get somewhere you want to go, that you have never been before, you’ve got to do things you have never done,” she told her father, who was surprised at her decision to leave Johnson. “I can’t stay in this atmosphere, even though I have had so much success here. I have to leave if I want to transform myself.”
To English, it sounded and felt right at the time. But then it became anything but right.
Her first year as a pro was, in her words, awful. She felt lonely in L.A., thousands of miles from family and friends. She lost almost a full second off her 100-meter time, and clashed with Smith, a traditionalist who wasn’t concerned about being friends with English. To her, it felt like Smith didn’t want to have fun, exemplified by the times he put a stop to workouts that featured music thumping in the background.
Frustrated, she wondered what life would be like if she had a 9–5 job. She had a heart-to-heart with Smith, telling him she needed a personal relationship with her coach—like she’d had with Johnson at Oregon—in order to thrive. He complied, and the two started by talking on the phone or texting daily. They went to lunch on off days, where English peppered him with questions about his life and coaching philosophies.
Finally, English felt settled. Last spring she finished as runner-up at the USATF outdoor championships, clocking a 10.86 in the 100 meters—her fastest time in two years. Then, in the fall, she sprinted headfirst into a wall of depression.
English says now that her spiral began with a breakup. As she mourned a failed romantic relationship, her mind wandered down a darker path. What if this was just the beginning of my heartbreak? What if I can’t handle the pressure and expectation of the coming season? What if I run badly and lose my contract and can’t provide for my family? What if I’m a disappointment—again? What if I’m not destined for greatness?
She sobbed herself to sleep, terrified that turning pro had been the wrong decision. She took sleep aide after sleep aide, desperately trying to cure her insomnia. She lost her appetite and shed nearly a sixth of her body weight. Showering took a herculean effort. Her training, she says, was absolute trash. When she showed up for Christmas in New Jersey, Monica’s eyes widened: How’d her baby become so … frail?
“Sometimes when you’re on the verge of greatness, there is a moment where it’s almost like everything is working against you,” Monica says. “Here we were, getting ready for the Olympic trials again and ‘Am I gonna make it?’ and thinking about 2012, it just began to consume her.”
Monica arrived in L.A. in early January of this year, with younger sister Ariel in tow, determined to help. “We loved her back to life,” Monica says. Ten years ago English had helped save her mom. Now mom had to do the same for daughter.
“We have to fatten you back up!” she told English, as she baked chocolate chip cookies and pizza and heaping piles of mac ’n’ cheese. You’re so lucky, she would tell English, just a couple months from the trials and you can eat whatever you want.
She scooped generous amounts of ice cream into bowls, and whipped up homemade Frappacinos, telling English it was going to be OK, they were going to figure it out, Mama was here and Mama was not leaving until things were fixed. They watched movies—English is an avid Disney fan, naming her five-year-old cockapoo Abu after the monkey in Aladdin—and snuggled on the couch. Monica redecorated English’s apartment, convinced that new surroundings could give her a jumpstart. And when an overwhelmed English melted into tears and told her mom she was scared this was all a mistake, that she wasn’t good enough, wasn’t big enough, to handle it, Monica pulled her close and let her baby cry it out.
“This anxiety is real,” Monica says, adding that she suspects that multiple athletes suffer from something similar. “When you think about putting your body to that level of stress every time you get on that line, it has to take some type of toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally. You’re raising your cortisol levels to a billion, and then it goes up and down again and up again. It takes a toll on the body. There should be more of an emphasis on sports psychology.”
Deeply spiritual women, Monica and English got on their knees and prayed daily, as English cried out to God asking for peace and understanding and to please, please take this fear away. English thought about words from her father, wisdom he had passed on years ago: “Before you are about to receive your blessing,” he told her, “there is always a bunch of stuff that’s going to try to distract you from it.”
Monica played the role of comforter. By phone, from across the country, Anthony went with tough love. One day, a frustrated English snapped at him, “I know what you’re looking for and I don’t have it right now.” Anthony didn’t waver. “Yeah you do,” he said. “And I’m gonna pull it out of you.”
Smith, her coach, advised her to pour everything into track, promising that she’d see returns. “Be selfish,” he told English “You’re trying to date a million and three things when track and field is the most jealous person you will ever meet. You have to just date track, and if you can just be in a relationship—mentally, physically and spiritually—with this sport, it will love you back.”
Her parents echoed Smith’s advice, explaining to English that sometimes it is O.K. to be a workaholic, that committing yourself fully and completely to your purpose is a way of honoring God and using your gifts for good. She reminded herself that for almost a decade, track had been her sanctuary. It still could be that. In the months leading up to the July trials, she wryly joked to herself, “If you make the Olympic team, you won’t be depressed.”
English started seeing a therapist, too, a move she says she’d recommend to every professional athlete. She had multiple conversations with her doctor about going on antidepressants. In the end, she chose not to use medications because “I felt like they would take away what makes me great.”
A couple years ago, to combat the doubt that had started to creep in, English created an alter ego and nicknamed her Baby Beast. “All those great performances you see are definitely not English,” she says. “I’m chill, laid back, pretty funny. [Baby Beast] is serious, confident, she’s not scared of anyone.” The alter ego gives her a necessary edge, and English worried that antidepressants could “suppress that part of me.”
English’s struggle is not unique. While exercise is prescribed as a common treatment for feeling down—a rush of endorphins typically helps kick a bad day—researchers are finding that athletes, particularly female athletes, are more likely to experience depression. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 18% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from some form of anxiety—but only one third of those affected seek treatment. The numbers are even higher (31.3%) for college students. And according to a 2016 study from the British Journal of Medicine, one in four collegiate student athletes show signs of depression, with female athletes twice as likely to experience symptoms.
Athletes aren’t superheroes, and English wishes more people understood that. “I thought my shoulders were built for the world before, but clearly I was a little weak,” she says. “But now, I think I am much stronger. One thing I said was that I am not going to be afraid to share my story. I am not that typical athlete, I am not that person you see on TV and they are so superior. No, I am just like you.”
Before her 100-meter final at the 2016 Trials on July 3, English’s phone buzzed. It was Monica, checking in on her girl like she always does before a big race, reassuring her in the way only a mother can.
“Remember you are great. Remember you are born for this,” she wrote.
Then, harkening back to 10 years prior, when English helped pull Monica from the depths of cancer: “Now I am able to tell you: I lived for this.”
And in that moment she, English, realized she had lived for it, too. That they had pulled each other back up, and back together, to share this. The distraction was gone. Now it was time for the blessing.
After she crossed the line first, in 10.74, finally making good on her Olympic promise from four years prior, Baby Beast pantomimed shoveling food into her mouth with a fork. She later explained was a sign to her coach, Smith, who she once told, “If you set the table, I am going to eat it all.”
Then English returned, and dropped to her knees, tears springing to her eyes. “When I crossed the line, I just remembered all the moments I had, the belly cries at night by myself,” she says. “The heaviness of my heart that whole time, it was gone … When I got to my [hotel] room I have never cried so hard in my life. You would have thought I lost … Those sobs were just as hard as the sobs I had alone in my room, when no one knew.”
She says now, on the eve of her Olympic debut, that those tears were a cleansing. She walked out of that hotel room and all the leftovers from depression stayed behind. When she celebrated the trials win with her parents—first with a flying leap into her dad’s arms immediately after the race and later with her mom on the phone—everyone cried. “You did it, you did it,” Monica and Anthony told her. English corrected them.
“When I crossed the line, it was like we did it. She fought to see me in this moment, our family fought to see this moment,” English says. “We sacrificed so much for this dream … The tears and screams and the joy, it literally broke my heart again, because I was running not just for me.
“I was running for them, too.”