The long run back: Overcoming depression

English Gardner
English Gardner in the Women’s 100 Metre opening round during the 2017 USA Track & Field Championships at Hornet Stadium in Sacramento, California. (Photo Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

English Gardner, who won the women's 100 meters in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in 2013 and 2016, appears to be a confident sprinter with the world at her feet. Her personal best of 10.74 seconds, set in 2016, ranks her in the top ten all-time for the distance. But, just seven months before that, English was battling a terrible enemy: depression.

When her mother, Monica, was pregnant with her, 25 years ago, she told her husband that the baby inside her was going to do something incredible.

"I wasn't sure if she'd be a ballerina or a recording artist or a firefighter, but I knew she was going to touch the world," Monica tells Sports Illustrated.

As pastors, English's parents are people of faith, which they have relied on through trying times. English, too, leaned on Biblical texts as motivation for her own life.

"My parents instilled in me the importance of faith at a young age," she told The Washington Post.

When English started high school in Voorhees, New Jersey, her family received startling news: Monica had stage three breast cancer and was likely to die within months.

The family had known hardship before. They were homeless twice when English was young, but this was different, and English knew it.

As her father continued working to help provide for the family, she stepped up to help raise her two younger siblings as her mother became weak, also helping to care for her mother during her illness.

Incredibly, in 2006, all of Monica's scans came back clean and the doctors deemed her cancer-free.

In fall 2007, English took part in a flag football game to raise money for breast cancer research, which resulted in her tearing her ligaments and the cartilage in her right knee. She missed an entire track season and lost all of her college scholarship offers, except for one, the University of Oregon.

English had doubts about helping revive a sprint program on life support, but when Oregon's assistant coach, Robert Johnson, took a flight to New Jersey to meet her and her family, he proved how serious he was about recruiting her.

"I decided to take a chance," English says.

Together, they turned the Oregon Ducks women's track team into a powerhouse. Anchored by English, who won two 100 meter outdoor titles (2012 and 2013) and one 60-meter indoor title (2012), Oregon took home three consecutive NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Indoor Championships (2010-12) and finished second at Outdoor four times (2009-12).

Brimming with confidence after her 2012 success, English told her coach she had bigger plans. "I am going to run in the Olympics. We're going to do it this year."

When English took the field at the Ducks' home stadium, she ran with a plan to praise God. "I went in [the Olympic trials] knowing that if there was a great moment to happen ... that I would not waste that moment at all, that I would not be ashamed of giving Him glory, that I would not be ashamed of calling on His Name."

Just a few weeks after winning the NCAA outdoor title, English stood behind the blocks at the 2012 Olympic Trials and felt a wave of exhaustion. Burnt out after running full indoor and outdoor seasons, with her peak times behind her, English finished seventh.

She was devastated. Angry at herself for not managing her races correctly, she vowed that it would be different at the next trials in 2016.

A year later, in 2013, English moved to Los Angeles and turned pro, forgoing her final season of collegiate eligibility. She switched coaches and paired up with legendary sprints coach, John Smith.

To English, it sounded and felt right at the time. But then it became anything but right.

"My first year as a pro was awful," she admits.

She felt lonely in L.A. thousands of miles away from family and friends. She lost almost a full second off her 100-meter time, and clashed with Smith, a traditionalist who wasn't concerned about being friends with her.

Finally, English settled. In the spring of 2015, she finished as runner-up at the US Athletics Track Federation outdoor championships, clocking a 10.86 in the 100 meters—her fastest time in two years. Then, in the fall, she sprinted headfirst into a wall of depression.

English says that her spiral began with a failed romantic relationship. Bereft, her mind wandered down dark paths. She sobbed herself to sleep, terrified that turning pro had been the wrong decision. She took sleeping pills, desperately trying to cure her insomnia. She lost her appetite and shed nearly a sixth of her body weight.

"My training was absolute trash," English recalls.

When she returned home for Christmas, she and her mother got down on their knees and prayed daily, as English cried out to God asking "for peace and understanding and to please, please take this fear away".

Gold medalist English Gardner
Gold medalist English Gardner of the United States during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 4 x 100 meter Relay at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Her parents encouraged her by saying that "committing yourself fully and completely to your purpose is a way of honouring God and using your gifts for good."

She reminded herself that for almost a decade, track had been her sanctuary. It could still be that.

After crossing the line first in her 100-meter final at the 2016 July Trials, English got down on her knees, praising Jesus and thanking Him for her victory.

She had recorded one of the fastest times for an American woman ever.

As she remarked in a recent Twitter post: "Lord I know for a fact ... you're not finished with me yet!" and "My God is greater than anything!"

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