It’s hard to imagine that 23-year-old English Gardner ever lacked confidence. Gregarious, self-assured, and extremely determined, the professional sprinter is turning heads on the international track circuit as she prepares to go for gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But just last year, the former Oregon Duck and four-time NCAA champion was having trouble keeping up with the competition.
After college, Gardner suffered a hamstring injury and struggled to transition from college life at the University of Oregon to a professional track career. It took a conscious change in perspective and a shift in attitude for Gardner to rediscover her stride. Since then, she went on to place second in the 4×100 meter relay at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing this past summer.
Here, Gardner opens up about how she has overcome past challenges, how her parents have helped her succeed, and how she has learned to set small goals in order to accomplish big things.
What’s the worst experience you’ve had as an athlete and how did you overcome that?
“My worst experience was when I was 14 years old and my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. They gave her a 30 percent chance of living. They put her on extensive chemo and radiation. I was watching her deteriorate, and I didn’t know whether to be the person that took care of my little brother and sisters or if I should just focus on being an athlete. It was the hardest thing to balance because you do have two separate lives.
Somehow, I used it as motivation. Hearing my mom telling me that she wanted me to go far gave me a little bit of an extra push to say, ‘I can handle both. I can take care of my siblings. I can walk them to school, get to class, do my homework, make sure I’m at practice, and give practice everything I have.’ I ended that year being one of the top ranked sprinters in the world. Even being pro, I haven’t had situations as hard as that.
My mom ended up coming to my championship meet with her bald head and a scarf. Even though she looked awful, she was there, and it made me go a little bit harder. This is about year eight or nine that she’s been in remission.”
How does an athlete become truly great?
“In sports, and in life, it’s all about your mental strength. If you dig deep internally, you’ll be able to find things that you can do that you thought you never would be able to do. For me, I had to change my perspective.
I went from being one of the top runners in the world to not even ranked in one year. My dad was telling me, ‘You’re still the same runner. You’re still the same girl that can go out and do what you want to do.’ But for me, hearing that wasn’t good enough because he’s my dad and he’s supposed to love me.
For me, I had to change how I looked at things. I had to actually believe that I was that person that my dad said I was. I completely pulled a turnaround. I ended up running one of the top world-leading times in the country the next week. I just had to believe in myself. Basically, it’s all about perspective—how you view things, how you see things.”
How many sneakers do you have?
“Too many! Some girls pile their closets with high heels. That’s how I am with sneakers.”
Do you have a lucky charm?
“I always have to have a necklace and I always have a watch, no matter what—when I’m running a race or when I’m training. If I took this watch off right now, you would see the meanest watch tan you’ve ever seen in your life.”
What does your training routine look like? How many miles do you run?
“I’m a short sprinter, so normally the furthest I run is 400 meters—one lap around the track. I try to keep it as simple as possible. I don’t even know what my mile time would be. A lot of people would probably beat me in the mile, if I could be honest about that!”
What does your diet normally consist of? Do you count calories?
“A typical runner usually has to watch their weight, but I cannot keep the pounds on to save my life. I run so much that the moment I bring calories in, I run them out. I have to double my calorie intake and make sure I’m taking in a lot of protein because I could start a season off at 130 pounds and end the season at 117 pounds because I lose so much weight. My diet is double protein shakes, making sure I have a lot of meat and protein in my diet, and making sure I’m eating a whole bunch of greens. I take in a lot of greens because that balances the pH in your body and prevents lactic acid build up that causes sore muscles.”
Do you have any advice for women who are just starting their fitness journey?
“In order to get big, you have to think small. People think that in order to be great, what you’re doing has to be phenomenal. When really, it can be as little as, ‘I’m going to make sure I eat healthy in the morning, and I will start with that.’ From there, build on that and have progression. I didn’t just wake up and become one of the fastest women in the world. I got my butt kicked a couple of times. I didn’t like it, I quit three or four times, but you have to be uncomfortable to find what you love. Finding what you love requires a whole bunch of time, discipline, and getting out there and just doing it.
You just have to do it. And once you do it and get through it, you’ll be better for it.”