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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.”

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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.