English Gardner is gearing up to take home gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and she credits her New Jersey roots for helping her develop into the athlete she is today.
Gardner’s early start in track and field ensured her success in the sport. Gardner began running at the age of seven and is now a three-time USA Track and Field champion, two-time international champion, and two-time NCAA Outdoor 100-meter champion at Oregon.
"I grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey and it wasn’t one of the greatest places to be.," Gardner said. "You either get stuck in the culture or you develop and find a way out. Track was my outlet. I started track at seven and a lot of runners don’t start until they are in high school. So, I think I was kind of born to do this sport."
Gardner eventually honed her skills running at Eastern High School but not before getting coaching from her father.
"Growing up, in high school my dad coached me, he was more of a let’s get you as strong as possible then let your natural speed just take you and it ended up working well," Gardner said. "I ended up running 11.04 in high school then I moved on to college. He was more about let’s be ballistic, strong, powerful and quick.
Her training began to pay off but the dream to bring home an Olympic gold medal began when she was just a girl.
"The first time I thought about it I was 9," said Gardner. "I won my first USA championship and then I won my first state title in high school and got invited to the state dinner. I won MVP that year and I stood up in front of all of the people of South Jersey, I told them I would not stop running track until I got an Olympic gold and the whole room got quiet because you have a 90-pound girl telling all these people that I’m going to be an Olympian. I was so serious and adamant about it. I will never forget what it felt like to say those words."
Gardner was well on her way to becoming an Olympian until a knee injury -- suffered while playing in a charity flag football game -- stalled her run to the top.
"I planted my feet tried to do a spin move my foot stayed one way and my body went another way," said Gardner who was just a high school sophomore at the time. "I completely blew out my knee. I tore my ACL, MCL and my meniscus vertically and laterally."
Her world completely changed after her injury, colleges that wanted her began to drop their offers. She walked out of one meeting with a school crying.
"(I) turned to my dad and said 'it wasn’t meant to be,'" said Gardner. "Then Oregon contacted me and said they didn’t care what happened and so for me them having hope and faith that I would be able to be the athlete that I needed to be for the program was all that I needed...
"I came back my senior year (of high school) and ended up running a 11.5," Gardner said. "It was a blessing in disguise."
This year, Gardner is sponsored by Nike, coached by John Smith in Los Angeles and ready to bring home gold calling her shot a "redemption."
"In 2012 I was 19 and the only college athlete to be in the final for the 100 meters," said Gardner. "I ended up being the alternate and not even going to London and that hurt really deep.
What it means to get a shot at being the "fastest woman" isn't lost on Gardner.
"My main reason for running is way bigger than me," she said. "When you ask people who the fastest woman is, they don’t really know what to say. So for me that is why I am here, because women in track and field have done phenomenal things but are flying underneath the radar. I want to change that. Redemption year is here and I’m excited."