Overcoming the odds: Eastern Regional’s English Gardner heads to Olympics once again

Despite making team, sprinter still hindered by recent COVID battle

English Gardner has heard the noise over the past few years.

Since graduating from Eastern Regional High School in 2010, the former Voorhees resident has gone on to have a successful track-and-field career, both as a member of the University of Oregon and a U.S. representative in consecutive IAAF World Championships and the 2016 Olympic Games.

Gardner’s trophy case dons silver medals from back-to-back, second-place finishes as a part of the 4×100-meter relay team during the world championships in Russia and China in 2013 and 2015, and a gold medal for the same event at the aforementioned Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In recent weeks, Gardner could be found on the track at her alma mater in Voorhees, putting the final touches on her workout routine as she prepares to head to Tokyo later this month for her second Olympic Games.

But much to Gardner’s displeasure, her times haven’t been where she’s wanted them to be over the past year and a half or so. Once talked about as among the most promising runners in the country after the 2016 games, Gardner said she’s been dealt one bad hand after another, and fans, critics and analysts haven’t been shy about letting her know it.

“I always have something happening, it feels like,” said Gardner. “It looks like I have very crappy cards all the time. And from the outside looking in, it can almost look like I shouldn’t be in this sport anymore.”

Since 2016, Gardner has torn her ACL for a second time, having first done so while a student at Eastern. At the 2019 IAAF World Championships, she pulled her right hamstring during the semifinal race, taking her out of competition for several months. When she finally felt ready to come back, the pandemic hit.

But her biggest test may be the one she still faces: the lingering effects of  COVID.

“I made it through all of 2020 without catching COVID, but then when 2021 hit, I ended up catching it in April,” Gardner recalled. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time to be honest, but it taught me a lot about my body and the type of runner and person that I am.

“It’s just been so difficult to come back from,” she added.

Gardner was sick for basically all of April. She experienced muscle cramps, joint pain, a full body rash, headaches, extreme fatigue and more symptoms, along with the loss of smell and taste that can accompany COVID.

The illness still affects Gardner to this day, despite the months that have passed since her last positive test, and it has prevented her from coming back the same runner she was before.

Gardner said it’s still tough to catch her breath between workout reps. She also tires more easily and has swelling of her muscles and joints after races.

Perhaps most frustrating, says Gardner, is a continued case of brain fog that has left her more addled, causing her to forget many things on a daily basis, but most notably how she sets her blocks on the starting line despite more than a decade plus of track experience.

“The brain fog has probably been the scariest of the symptoms, because I’ll forget how to get somewhere, even if I’ve been going there my whole life,”  said Gardner. “I’ll forget phone numbers I shouldn’t forget, I’ve forgotten my block settings, I’ll forget my keys in the car … That’s affected my running so much, because now I don’t feel like I have that mental connection when I’m running anymore.”

Gardner said it almost feels like she’s relearning how to run competitively,  struggling with her blocks, her start and pulling her legs throughout the race.

“I’ve been at it for a month now and it’s been a tough road to basically reteach my body who it is and get grounded in that,” said Gardner. “It could be easy to be frustrated and just quit, especially when everyone around me is saying that I fell off or there’s new runners that are better than me.”

Gardner heads to the Olympics after finishing sixth in the trials in Eugene, Oregon, in June and is being added to the 4×100 relay pool despite not reaching the times she’s wanted to of late. Gardner is currently preparing to fill in as the third leg of the 4×100-meter.

Because of that, Gardner has fostered a new mindset in recent months, while also reminding herself to appreciate the life she’s been given, in an effort to continue her pursuit to once again become a dynamic runner on the track.

“As a competitor it’s definitely bittersweet,” said Gardner. “You always want to be at the top of your game, and having caught COVID so late, that held me back, and I wasn’t able to finish the top three (in the 100-meter race) like I wanted.

“I’m absolutely grateful to have made the team for the relay, and it’s a beautiful feeling to know I’m going to represent the country once again,” Gardner added. “But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say I wanted more for myself.”