By Dylan Manfre
Graduate student and track and field star Sara Gardner is described as being as good a person as she is an athlete by her coaches.
Between track, a course load triple the size of a traditional graduate student and time with friends, the free time in her schedule goes by faster than her split in a relay. Somehow, she finds a way to make it all work.
Priorities are important to Gardner and when she isn’t cruising the oval, she works almost 20 hours a week as a graduate assistant in the Academic Success Center.
“You wake up every morning and say, ‘This is what I have to get done today’ and you find a way to get it done and I think a lot of it comes from track,” Gardner said. “You learn so many different qualities [from] coaches, your teammates and from going to practice everyday.”
Gardner also boasts an uncanny mental toughness; this attribute helped on multiple occasions during some of the lows of her collegiate career.
After transferring from Mount St. Mary’s College to Rider in 2015, she was forced to forego her sophomore season due to NCAA transfer rules.
A false start in the first meet of her post-undergrad career haunted her. She suffered three herniated discs in the right side of her back near the end of her senior campaign.
She admitted that, after being told about the transfer rule, she doubted her abilities and questioned how she would handle taking a year off from her favorite thing in the world.
“Mental toughness comes from rough times. To fall, false start, have rough practices and to have meets where you say ‘Hey, that wasn’t my meet.’ I think that’s what gave me my mental toughness,” Gardner said. “You need to be knocked down to get the mental toughness to get back to the top.”
During the recovery process from her herniated discs, she worked closely with Associate Head Coach Brett Harvey.
Gardner prioritized her training each day and the Holland Township, New Jersey native endured four rounds of steroid epidural shots in her back and was pain free by the fall 2018 season.
“[The injury] happened out of nowhere. We don’t know what caused it,” Gardner said. “That summer [of 2018] was a bit of a low because we were dealing with this pain. That was a rough time but I knew the end result would be worth it and we’ve managed to have a lot of highs this indoor season.”
According to Harvey, Gardner was able to set aside all the effects of the injury and raced as if she was pain free. While it was not evident to anyone watching, the pain lingered.
Gardner managed to have plenty of highs during her final indoor season. Some notable accomplishments include breaking her own Rider record in the 60-meter hurdles at the MAAC Championship on Feb. 18, running 8.41 seconds. Her gold-medal performance in the same event at the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championship meet in Boston was a highlight; she finished in an All-East time of 8.45 seconds.
It was the same event she faulted in at the beginning of this season.
The race served as a big pay-off moment to her recovery effort and hard work. According to Harvey, it was Rider’s first ECAC title in track and field since Jazmine Fenlator in 2007.
“It just goes to show, no matter how you start, it doesn’t change your outcome,” Gardner said. “That false start shook me. I’ve been working for that for five years. It was an emotional moment for me because it had topped the ending of my indoor career.”
Gardner, however, does not want to take all the credit for her performances. She values the bond with her coaches as well as the support of her parents, who helped her bounce back from many of the lows.
Harvey helped Gardner stay mentally focused during her redshirt year and worked with her. She said his training created a lot of momentum for her heading into her junior, senior and graduate years.
“She had a pretty tumultuous year [at Mount Saint Mary’s] so what we tried to do was assess what her strengths and weaknesses were as an overall athlete. She was kind of like a wild horse,” said Harvey.
The bond never wavered over the years. Harvey saw Gardner grow into the athlete and individual she is now and said she is one of the hardest workers he’s ever coached. Harvey recalled a defining meet in both of their careers — when Gardner defeated Quinnipiac’s Jessica Lee in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2018 MAAC Outdoor Championship meet.
Lee came into the meet as the conference record holder in the event at 13.65 seconds and never lost to Gardner.
“There was a real determination on Sara’s part to beat Jessica and win a title,” Harvey said. “There was the feeling that they were the two best female hurdlers the conference has ever seen. She wanted to be able to say she beat Jess head-to-head before she graduated. Sara beat Jessica to the first hurdle. For the first time, Jessica had to chase Sara.”
Gardner and Lee were separated by .20 seconds as they crossed the line in 13.41 and 13.61 seconds, respectively. Gardner’s time stands as the new meet record.
What Gardner admires most about herself is her resiliency and has made displaying those qualities to the underclassmen a priority.
“I tell myself ‘Hey, you’ve been knocked down. You’ll get back.’ I won’t let myself give up — ever. I hope that sticks for the rest of my life because it’s something my parents have instilled in me and I’ve instilled in myself,” Gardner said.