He doesn’t like the cold, Steven Gardiner. Not many Bahamians do.
So when the 21-year-old rocked up to the stadium last Tuesday night for the final of the men’s 400m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, he was well wrapped up in the chilly night air.
In the semi-final two days before – on what was a much warmer evening in London – Gardiner had blitzed the Bahamian record, clocking 43.89 to hand some heavyweights of the event a comprehensive beating.
The sensation when he reached the line was a wicked combination of physical agony and emotional ecstasy.
“It was a surprise,” says Gardiner, who collapsed to the track and lay there for a prolonged period after the finish. “I took the rounds step by step, focused on the heats instead of the final, then only when I got there did I focus on the final.”
The journey there had been a long time in the making, and when Gardiner reflected on it he was able to pick out one pivotal decision that helped make him a genuine contender for the world title.
In his early teens, athletics was an unknown entity for Gardiner, who harnessed his tall, pencil-thin frame for volleyball, which has his favourite sport for most of his youth. It was around the time of the London Olympics, which he watched on TV back home, when he first took up track and field at the age of 16. Little did he know then that five years on he would be sprinting around that same London track with almost 60,000 fans in the stands.
His talent was obvious early on, Gardiner clocking 47.78 for 400m off limited training in 2013. The following year he dropped down to 200m, cranking out a personal best of 20.66 on home turf in Nassau.
His real breakthrough came in 2015, Gardiner's return to the 400m marking him out as a potential star when he clocked a Bahamian record of 44.27 to win his national championships.
A native of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, Gardiner moved to the capital city Nassau when he switched coaches from Anthony Williams to George Cleare, and heading into 2016 he had aspirations of an Olympic medal.
In Rio, however, Gardiner was well off his best, able to run only 44.72 in his semi-final which left him fifth and brought his Games to an abrupt end. Something, he knew, needed to change.
Moving away from home is a tough sacrifice to make for any 21-year-old, but late last year Gardiner knew he needed to train in a different environment if he was to make that final jump to the top table of one-lap running.
He settled on coach Gary Evans in Orlando, Florida, which is a relatively short hop northwest of the Bahamas. Gardiner has trained there since last autumn alongside 400m runners Tony McQuay of the US and Novlene Williams-Mills of Jamaica. The breaking-in period was tough, but the payoff would prove immense.
“The workouts get tough but I just suck it up and pull through,” says Gardiner. “Training has been a lot more this year, so has resting.”
In his first race of the season, Gardiner got a glimpse of just how effective his new setup had been. He was put in the B race at the Grenada Invitational in St. Georges, but Gardiner nonetheless outshined and outran the winner of the A-race – Kirani James, who clocked 45.44 – by running a national record of 44.26.
That was the run that convinced him anything was possible in 2017, even with South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk ruling the event with seemingly unstoppable force.
Gardiner racked up wins on the IAAF Diamond League circuit in Doha and Stockholm in the months that followed, then claimed another national title on home soil in Nassau in 44.61.
His hot streak of form brought added pressure heading to London, though Gardiner – who is softly spoken and polite to the point of deferential – had a strong belief in his ability.
“I expected to get a medal,” he said. “The form was right there.”
The month before had brought him to a new level, even if he had to suffer to do it. “We had a tough three weeks,” said Gardiner, “but it all paid off.”
In the final, he lined up two lanes inside Van Niekerk, who everyone assumed had gold sewn up from the outset. With the South African bolting through the first 200m, Gardiner kept composed and started to unfurl his long, languid stride as he hit halfway.
“Wayde is an awesome opponent, but we all stay in our lane and focus on our own lane,” said Gardiner. “Once I focus on myself, anything can happen.”
Gardiner rounded the last turn in fourth place, well down on Van Niekerk but within touching distance of Botswana’s Baboloki Thebe and Jamaica’s Nathon Allen.
It was then that his gargantuan stride came into its own, Gardiner eating up the ground on the two just ahead and pulling into second approaching the line.
When he crossed in 44.41, it delivered a sweet silver medal for Gardiner, who was quick to credit all those back home who had helped him climb so high.
“I’m thankful to finish strong, finish healthy, and to get a medal,” said Gardiner, who left the stadium with a final warning to his one-lap rivals for the future. “Next year will definitely be better.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF