RIO DE JANEIRO — A few days after her frustrating seventh-place finish in the finals of the 100 meters, American sprinter English Gardner finally began to feel more like herself again.
The blistering speed that propelled her to victory at the United States Olympic Trials last month had resurfaced for the first time in Rio.
“I looked at my coach and I said, ‘Where were these legs?'” Gardner said. “If I had these legs all week, I would have been fine.”
The return of those legs may have come too late to carry Gardner to individual glory, but their reemergence helped ensure she wouldn’t leave these Games empty-handed. The 24-year-old New Jersey native redeemed herself by running a brilliant third leg in the women’s 4×100-meter relay final on Friday night to help the U.S. pull away from rival Jamaica and repeat as Olympic gold medalists.
With the U.S. holding a narrow lead over Jamaica after solid opening legs from Tianna Bartoletta and Allyson Felix, Gardner grabbed the baton and took off like her life depended on it. She ate up the dreaded tight curve in Lane 1 and extended her team’s advantage, providing Tori Bowie ample cushion to hold off a hard-charging Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and cross the finish line in 41.01 seconds, the second-fastest time in history.
“We had to take tonight,” Bowie said. “I know how competitive Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is, and I was determined to not let her catch me. My teammates did a wonderful job on the first three legs, so I didn’t want there to be any disappointment.”
The U.S. sprinters indeed really needed this psychological boost after ceding bragging rights to Jamaica in track and field’s other signature events. Usain Bolt emphatically extended his reign in the men’s 100 and 200 meters, Elaine Thompson swept first place in the women’s 100 and 200 and the Jamaican men outclassed their American counterparts in Friday night’s other 4×100-meter relay.
The American men’s relay was still in contention entering the final leg when Bolt took the baton for Jamaica and sped away from the field. An ailing Trayvon Bromell gamely tried to respond despite a left heel injury that will require surgery next Saturday, but he had Japan’s Aska Cambridge roar past him for silver and had to lean at the finish line to preserve bronze.
To add to the U.S. quartet’s woes, that bronze medal didn’t remain its for long. The team found out near the end of its victory lap that it had been disqualified because meet officials ruled that the handoff between Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin occurred before the takeover zone.
The USOC subsequently filed an inquiry requesting that the sequence be reviewed. Results of that review are not expected until Saturday morning, but the U.S. sprinters are hopeful they’ll prevail.
Said Rodgers: “When you see the replay, you can see me and Justin have the stick, but I never let go until we got inside the zone.”
Said Gatlin: “Mike Rodgers still had a hand on the stick.”
While the U.S. men wait overnight to learn their fate, the American women can celebrate besting their biggest rivals.
Either the American or Jamaican women’s 4×100 relay has won gold at every major international championship for the past 12 years with the exception of the 2008 Olympics. They were favored to go 1-2 in Beijing too before both teams dropped the baton, resulting in disqualification.
It certainly didn’t detract from the significance of the American victory Friday night that its time of 41.01 seconds was just shy of bettering the world record of 40.82, set by the U.S. four years ago at the London Olympics. In reality, coming within two tenths of a second of the record this year might have been the more impressive performance considering the Americans’ unfavorable lane assignment on the far inside of the track.
The Americans drew Lane 1 because of their unusual route to the final.
Their medal hopes appeared dead when they botched the second baton pass in their preliminary heat on Thursday morning, but they received a reprieve after judges upheld their protest that a Brazilian runner bumped Felix as she was preparing to make a handoff to Gardner. The U.S. women took advantage of their second chance by posting the fastest time of the prelims in their solo redo, but qualifying in that manner doomed them to the first lane.
When the U.S. learned its lane assignment, Bartoletta gathered her teammates before the race and challenged them to turn a negative into a positive.
“I’m out there, I have seven girls to catch and they’re all in front of me,'” Gardner said. “So we had targets, and that’s what made it easy. We actually could see the runners and pick them off one by one.”
Gardner did just that on her leg, putting the U.S. into position to score revenge against Jamaica and putting herself into position to secure redemption for her nightmare 100-meter final.
“I worked so hard this year,” Gardner said. “I did not want to go home empty-handed.”