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My Responsibility: Olympic Champion English Gardner Shares Personal Experiences As A Black Athlete In America

By Karen Rosen | July 01, 2020, 10 a.m. (ET)


Olympic gold medalist English Gardner had to be resourceful when the pandemic shut down all the weight rooms.

She bought some equipment and started lifting in her front yard.

At first, the two-time national champion in the 100-meter thought it was “pretty cool” that people in her predominantly-white South Jersey neighborhood were stopping to watch. 

“Everyone knows on my block that I’m an Olympian,” said Gardner.

But she cut her workout short last Friday.

“I felt a little uncomfortable because I had two cop cars circle my block four times and slow down in front of me lifting -- and I was the only one outside,” said Gardner. “A part of me didn’t know if maybe there’s been some break-ins in my neighborhood.”

She hadn’t seen anything like that on the homeowners’ Facebook page.

“I simply took my weights and went back in the house,” said Gardner. “I felt like the cops were there for me.”

She has a reason to be wary.

“I am afraid. I shouldn’t be afraid, but I am afraid,” said Gardner. “I have been a victim of police brutality.”

With Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation, the 28-year-old is speaking out about racism and expressing her thoughts on how conversations can be “a catalyst to change.”

As one of the fastest women of all time – tied for seventh world-wide and fourth American in the 100 at 10.74 seconds - Gardner said she is blessed to have a platform to use her voice.

“I think I have a responsibility as an African American athlete,” said Gardner, “and I joke with my mom that on top of that, I’m a woman, so I have a double whammy. I feel like it’s my duty to be honest and have a conversation and communicate and educate people on how I feel.”

A Traumatic Encounter
Two days before the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Gardner had the experience that “gave me my fear for cops,” she said.

Then a University of Oregon track star, Gardner was frantically moving to a new house because her lease was up.

She was driving a U-Haul and accidentally ran a red light in nearby Springfield. When a policeman pulled her over, Gardner expected a ticket. 

“I took full responsibility,” said Gardner.

Because she was a student, Gardner had a New Jersey driver’s license.

She said the policeman ran her license, then came back and told her it was a fake ID.

“I immediately called my father,” said Gardner, “and I said, ‘Sit on the phone with me,’ because at that point, the tone of the officer made me uncomfortable.”

As Oregon’s first NCAA champion in the 100-meter, Gardner was so well-known in the area that she couldn’t sneak into a local bar when she was underage.

But this policeman didn’t know who she was or care to find out. That’s when Gardner feared for her life.

“I got removed from the car,” said Gardner. “I was really shocked. I got slammed onto the hood of his police car on my belly. I remember it being so hot. I got placed into handcuffs. At the time there were no body cams or anything of that sort. My dad was on the phone telling me, ‘Don’t resist. Just listen and do what he says. Remain silent.”

“I really didn’t know a lot of my rights,” said Gardner. “That situation made me educate myself.”

Gardner said the policeman eventually let her go with no explanation.

“I got no apology,” said Gardner. “I got no ‘I’m sorry for the rough way I handled you as a woman.’ I didn’t get any of that. I got ‘Have a nice day.’ He got in his car and he pulled off. And usually that’s how it is.”

Gardner ended up seventh in the 2012 Trials – one spot away from qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team on the relay. She sat in her car and cried.

Four years later, Gardner won the 100-meter with the time that is still her personal best at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. She finished seventh in the event at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and ran the third leg on the gold-medal-winning 4x100 relay.

Comeback From Injury
Gardner said she has fully recovered from a hamstring strain at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, but is staying in shape this year in case some meets are held. She believes the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to next year may help her “put all the pieces together.”

“I don’t regret that the Olympics aren’t here, because there’s a lot bigger problems going on in the world,” said Gardner, “but I definitely know that I’m on the right track.”

During a recent session with her masseuse, who is white, Gardner said they wound up talking about wearing a mask in public to avoid contracting COVID-19.

“I told her about when I forgot to put on my mask and I kind of got bashed by the store owners, and the people in the store were mad and I had to run back to the car,” said Gardner, “and her response was, ‘You know, legally, they can’t make you wear a mask."

“I said, ‘Well, I have to think about my skin as well. I have to take the non-confrontational route, because if I don’t then I’m just an angry Black woman. I don’t get the same privileges to be able to cuss and fuss and get the same outcome (as a white person). And in that moment, she kind of stepped back and stopped my massage and was like, ‘Wow, I get that. I guess that is what white privilege is.’”

Or Gardner could have told her masseuse about the time her younger brother stayed with her for a couple of months. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so he would walk to a nearby convenience store.

“The cops have been called on my brother multiple times just for walking through the neighborhood,” said Gardner, who lives on a golf course. “Not committing any crime, not bothering or harassing anybody, literally just being in the neighborhood.”

Reform the Police
While Gardner said she believes that the police do “protect and serve” and are needed, “There comes a time where we do have to open up our eyes and say, ‘OK, there’s an issue with the police department.’ There needs to be reform. Blacks are not the only ones that get bad cops, that needs to be said, because I can talk to my white friends, and they’ll tell me, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotten several cops that didn’t want to de-escalate the situation.’ So there has to be accountability within the police department.”

Gardner said that if money is taken away from the police department, it should be used to help people who are underserved.

For example, Gardner said when she goes to a supermarket near the African American community, she sees shortages of bread and eggs, limits on chicken and often no hand sanitizer. A supermarket in the white community has plenty of hand sanitizer, employees wiping down carts and plenty of food.

“The numbers with COVID-19 in the African American community started to spike in New Jersey, and everybody is wondering why,” said Gardner. “And I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Well because these communities are kind of forgotten. They’re not taken care of."

“Racism today is interwoven in the system that we live in,” said Gardner. “It is me going to an all-white school and seeing a female come in with a knitted cap, but if I wear a cap, I’ve got to take it off. It’s going into the restaurant, and I’m being seated in the back of the restaurant, instead of being seated out in front. It’s little tiny things that because they’re not publicized or talked about, they kind of go unnoticed. So it seems like racism doesn’t exist. It exists.”

“The Race Conversation”
Gardner said she was 6 years old when her parents, Anthony and Monica, who are both pastors, sat her down for “the race conversation.”

“My parents told me the world is set up for your kind to lose,” said Gardner, “that you have to approach life a little bit different. You can’t just frivolously live. You have to think about your actions. You have to think about the way you come off. You have to have a plan because you just can’t be Black and go to school and get an education. It’s harder for you.

“You’ve got to make sure you never miss a day of school. You’ve got to make sure that you talk with an articulate verbiage and you present yourself in a smart way. My mom used to count how many times I said ‘um’ in my interview because she wanted me to be presented to the world a certain way.”

Gardner said her parents begged her not to participate in the Black Lives Matter protests. Anthony is also her coach.

“At the time, a lot of people were getting hurt and it just wasn’t safe,” said Gardner. “And they know their daughter - I’m very passionate. I’m going to be all in. So they knew I would be one of the ones on the front line standing in front of the police.

“I joked around with my parents. I said, ‘Well, if I do go to a protest and the police try to come get me, how are they going to be able to catch me?’”

Gardner’s parents told her she could protest in other ways by giving interviews, signing petitions and donating money -  and she has done all of that.

Witnessing History
“But I have snuck to a couple of protests on my own,” said Gardner, “just to be able to tell my kids, ‘I didn’t sit back and just watch it all happen. I kind of got in the nitty-gritty of it.’”

Gardner watched one protest near her home and on June 14th, she attended a peaceful protest in Washington. She also visited monuments including the Lincoln Memorial.

“I read his speech and reflected a little bit on how far we’ve come, but really how far we haven’t come,” said Gardner.

She saw photos of people protesting in the 1960s, including a sign about ending police brutality.

“And I’m like, ‘This was years ago, and we’re still saying the same thing,’” she said. “My dad always tells me – he says this about track – that madness is approaching the same situation the same way to get the same results. So when I look at my people, and I see them angry and blowing things up and burning things and using force to get what they want, I’m looking at it as madness. I understand, but it’s still madness.

“I wish as a people we had a little bit more solidarity in this subject, because it’s not going to be just Black people who can fix this problem. It’s going to take the entire world. It’s going to take yellow, brown, orange, blue, pink, purple people all together and be like, ‘What can we do as humans to change this?’”

Driving Change
Gardner believes people need to “exercise their dollar” to effect change “because the world is run on money. You don’t need to burn down cities to make your voice heard. You just need to stop buying whatever you’re buying. Change the way you buy stuff, change the way you invest your money, change the way you handle your money, get financial freedom for your family and create generational wealth.

“These are things that are going to not pacify the situation, they’re going to change it,” said Gardner.

Gardner is encouraged by positive actions such as the Confederate flag being taken down and she hopes the Black Lives Matter movement won’t fade away after the November election.

“I see it still being an ongoing process,” said Gardner, “but I’m optimistic because of the change that already has come. I think if we can be human first, that’s when people change.”

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English Gardner

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