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Gritty Gardner wins 100 for Oregon in record time

EUGENE -- She was giddy and goofy, all at once.

She fell to her knees at the finish and playfully stuck out her tongue at the camera on the award's stand.

If anybody was having more fun than English Gardner Friday at the NCAA Track & Field Championships, I must have missed it.

A day after it appeared a nagging ankle injury might end her meet early, the Oregon junior raced to victory in the women's 100 meters in a Pac-12 record 10.96 at Hayward Field. It was the third-fastest time in collegiate history.

"She executed almost to a 'T,' " Oregon coach Robert Johnson said. "I told her after the race, there's probably another few tenths we can get off of there."

That would put English under the collegiate record of 10.78 by Louisiana State's Dawn Sowell, a mark that has stood since 1989.

I'm not sure that's happening, at least this year. But I wouldn't bet against Gardner finishing in the top three at the USA Championships June 20-23 at Des Moines, Iowa, which would put her on the U.S. team at the World Championships at Moscow later in the summer.

"That's been the No. 1 goal from back in the fall," Johnson said.

Given the ankle issues, did Gardner surprise her coach Friday?

"I would never ever doubt English Gardner," said Johnson, adding with a gesture to the media, "If I were you guys, I'd wait to watch (Saturday) as well."

Gardner will run legs on Oregon's 4x100 and 4x400 relay units Saturday in a bid to overtake Kansas for the NCAA championship. The Jayhawks lead scoring entering the final day with 48 points, 15 ahead of the runner-up Ducks.

It's all, in the mind of Gardner, a bit miraculous after the way she felt in finishing a non-qualifying seventh in the 200 semifinals. The ankle, she said, had been bothering her all season. She wasn't sure if she'd be able to compete in her races Friday and Saturday.

"Lots of prayers, lots of ice" were the secret, the effervescent 5-6 junior from Voorhees, N.J. said.

As she climbed into the starting blocks before the 100, her legs were of silly putty, Gardner claimed. She was worried as much about a false start as her knee.

"I almost hyperventilated, threw up, passed out at the (starting) line," she said, her larger-than-life eyes widening as she described it. "I was trying to get myself to calm down, get all that anxiety out."

Gardner got out of the blocks first and stayed there.

"I can always count on that part of my race," she said. "Today was more about focusing on getting out of the start, and from 30 (meters) on. Usually I get tied up with someone at 30. For some reason, I was all by myself today. Inside, I started to panic. I was like, 'Oh my God.' Then I thought, 'Keep your composure, stay calm, keep driving and lean.' "

Toward the end, Central Florida's Octavious Freeman -- who finished second in 11.00 -- made a move.

"I heard the crowd," Gardner said. "That made me feel like someone was coming. I had a little bit of go-get-'em at the end. I'd like to thank (the fans) for pushing me a little the last 10 meters."

When she crossed the finish line, "There were a lot of emotions," she said. "I didn't know whether to scream, to cry, to shout. I just fell to my knees and thanked God that I got out there and ran what I did and was able to redeem myself.

"I'm just overwhelmed, on a high right now," Gardner added. "It's kind of like, keep my words short so I don't say anything stupid. That's how excited I am right now. To be able to finally break 10 (seconds) at home is just short of a miracle."

Gardner didn't break 10 seconds, of course. But she did break into the "10s," joining a short list of women who have ever done that.

The ankle held up fine. Were the prayers or the ice more important?

"I'm going to go with prayer," she said, smiling. "That's the only thing that makes me do supernatural things out there. Definitely a lot of God's help, but the ice had a lot to do with it, too."

Or perhaps it was a matter of meeting a challenge.

"I've always been a gritty runner," she said. "Always had to run through adversity. There's always something wrong. Never had a perfect race. I just had to get out there and get my hands a little dirty and run like me."

Asked how her ankle felt as he conducted the interview session, Gardner said, "Probably because my adrenaline is flowing, I don't feel anything. I can't wait to go out there (Saturday)."

Friday was a big day for Oregon, with Laura Roessler finishing second in the 800 and Phyllis Francis (400) and Jordan Hasay (1,500) each getting a third.

Besides the relays, Oregon has Anna Kesselring and Becca Friday in the 1,500 finals on Saturday. Even maximizing points might not be enough to catch Kansas, with Paris Daniels in the 200 and both relays still left. The Ducks, chasing a triple crown after winning NCAA titles in cross country and indoor track, want it badly.

"We still have some battles to fight," said Johnson said. "It's not over yet. Any time you have that big of a deficit, you really have to keep going. (The Jayhawks) have some opportunities to score as well."

The reincarnation of English Gardner significantly impacts those chances, of course.

There was only one hangup to Gardner's otherwise splendid Friday at Hayward.

"She's in drug-testing right now," Johnson said, "and she can't pee."

Hate it when that happens.

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