The crowd at Hayward Field saw a familiar sight in the women’s 100m ‘international race’ at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene on Saturday: English Gardner rocketing from the blocks and clawing down the track with her tenacious stride, hair swishing from side to side.
She stopped the clock in 10.84, a personal best and her first major victory since 2013.
Gardner now stands fourth on the 2015 world list, just 0.03 behind the joint world leaders, Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Ivory Coast’s Murielle Ahoure.
She had succeeded countless times before at Hayward Field while a student at the University of Oregon but Saturday’s performance was a breakthrough for her after more than a year of frustrating results and questions about whether she would ever return to the form that made her one of the best US sprinters and endeared her to the crowd in Eugene.
“I finally believed myself,” Gardner said after the race. “It wasn’t just someone telling me I could do it and that I had it in me; I was able to do it myself.”
For three years, Gardner trained and competed in Eugene, posting fast times and setting records on her way to the 2013 US 100m title and a fourth-place finish at the 2013 IAAF World Championships.
Back in 2011, she also ran a North American junior record of 11.03 and she stands equal third on the world junior all-time list behind two East Germans who set their times in the Soviet Bloc era.
It looked certain that Gardner would continue to flourish and possibly assume the mantle as the top US sprinter, a role to which there were numerous aspirants but few as promising as Gardner. She had the electrifying times and a self-assurance that commanded attention.
But Gardner hit a rough patch in 2014, and hit it hard.
She turned professional and with that came a move from Eugene to Los Angeles.
“I lost a lot of faith in myself and as a runner that’s really disappointing,” said Gardner.
In 2014, her best time was 11.01, far off her 10.85 personal best from the year before, posted when she won the national title.
She tore both hamstrings and initially struggled to adjust to training with her new coach, John Smith, with whom she still works. The slump extended into the early part of 2015.
Gardner’s best times entering the meeting on Saturday were only 11.34 and 22.74, meaning she couldn’t command a lane in the Diamond Race 100m event, which featured Fraser-Pryce and Ahoure.
But returning to familiar territory gave her a chance to shine once again on the track where she established herself as a sprinter.
“The crowd here is amazing. They don’t even realise how much they push me down the track. To be able to stand on the line with the people who are top in the country and my name still brings the loudest roar is something that means the most to me,” added Gardner.
The connection brings added pressure though, and Gardner will have to channel the crowd’s energy and expectations once again when she returns to Eugene in four weeks to qualify for the 2015 IAAF World Championships.
“It’s like giving a speech in front of a crowd. You can do that all day, but when Mom and Dad are in the crowd it’s kind of different. And I feel like everybody here is my family,” she said.
Gardner laid waste to a classy field in Eugene on Saturday, including Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson, who was the world leader before the Prefontaine Classic.
“I didn’t feel as fast as I ran, which is to me a good thing it means I can only get faster,” said Gardner. “It’s always good when you have a little bit more to go back and work on so I’m just excited that I have more room to expand.”
The confidence that won over the Hayward Field crowd when she first raced in Eugene in 2011 has clearly returned; Saturday’s run seeing many of the self-doubts evaporate.
“Everybody knows that when English steps on the track, she steps on it with a little bit of cockiness and a little bit of swagger, and I felt like the last couple of races before this I didn’t have that and not because I couldn’t dig it out of me, I felt like it just wasn’t there.
“After seeing that it is possible for me to get back to where I was and to run a career best today, I’m pretty much on a road back to where I was.”
Kevin Sully for the IAAF