Christina Clemons Had A Long Road Back

Christina Clemons hopes the third time is the charm at the Olympic Trials. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

IT EATS AWAY AT Christina Clemons sometimes, just like it would for any driven athlete: Eugene, June 23, 2012, the finals of the Olympic Trials 100H.

The field lined up dominated by veterans: Dawn Harper Nelson, then 28. Kellie Wells, 29, Lolo Jones 30, Ginnie Crawford 28, Michelle Perry 33… And then there were the young’uns: Clemons at 22, Brianna McNeal (then Rollins) at 20, Nia Ali 23. Clemons crossed the line in 5th, behind four of the vets, ahead of McNeal and Ali.

The future beckoned brightly to the Ohio State star (née Christina Manning), who 2 weeks earlier had capped her collegiate career with an NCAA win.

But ’13, scheduled to be her first full season in the pros, brought with it devastation in the form of a ruptured Achilles. What might have easily been a career-ending injury cost her dearly, as it took 4 years to get back to hurdling fast and pain-free.

By ’16, although still struggling she made it to the OT semis, where she bowed out with a 13.15. Later that day she watched the final as McNeal won and Ali placed 3rd, with Kristi Castlin sandwiched in between.

“It’s crazy to me,” Clemons admits. “I can’t help it, but every time I think about it, I feel like that was supposed to be me.”

The winner of 5 Big 10 titles while a Buckeye, the Maryland native had won the NCAA hurdles indoors and out in ’12 and clocked a PR 12.68. She ranked No. 7 in the U.S.

The next winter, she blew out her Achilles: “That right there took 4 years. That’s a huge chunk of my career, you know. Track & field is short-lived.” She admits she probably wouldn’t have made it through without the support of her college coaches, Karen Dennis and Joel Brown.

“They played a huge role. I was able to stay there and get my treatment and rehab. I remember the first time that I tried to come back and run. My coach had to remind me what I’m coming from and that it’s going to take time.

“I had never been injured before. I never even had a charley horse before. This was something, a ‘career-ending injury’ to someone who didn’t know what that meant.

“The doctor said, ‘You ruptured your Achilles.’ My coach, I looked over at her, she was in tears. And I’m just like, ‘OK, when can I run?’ I was so ignorant to the injury itself. It was a good thing for me too [in coming back], because it was like, ‘I’m not doing enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not strong enough.’”

The rebuilding of both her tendon and her confidence took a long time. In 14 she only managed two outdoor meets, hitting just 13.61. The next year, she clocked 13.04 in April but a mid-season setback kept her out of the USATF meet. In ’16 she got down to 12.87 and made it back into the U.S. Rankings at No. 10 after 3 years away.

“In ’17,” she says, “I was 100% healthy and ready to go.” She placed 3rd in the USATF indoors and out, 5th in the World Championships and ran a PR 12.54. She ranked No. 4 globally.

The following season brought silver at the World Indoor and she was runner-up outdoors at USATF, putting together a No. 5 World Ranking.

Then came ’19, a year for which she says she has mixed feelings. “It was bittersweet,” she explains. “I was having one of the best seasons as far as competing and how I felt and everything. I went into [USATF] completely confident, with no doubt whatsoever. If anybody would’ve told me I wouldn’t make that team, I would have laughed.

“But you can’t say ‘guarantee’ with track. You can’t say ‘guarantee’ with hurdles especially.”

At hurdle 6, Clemons was in 3rd, on the team,but she smashed No. 7. “At that point I knew it was a wrap,” she says. “I don’t compete at a level where I can do that, where I can make a mistake like that and come back from it that far in the race.”

Bouncing back from that 8th-place finish wasn’t easy: “I felt defeated. That’s probably the first time where I felt almost depressed from a competition. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I didn’t want to be around anyone except for my husband. It was just tough going to practice. I was going through the motions. I feel like I’ve been very resilient through all that I’ve been through, but for some reason this one hit me really hard.”

But over the winter she got over it. “Short-term memory with track is what they tell us,” she says. “You have to have that short-term memory because if you hold on to it, it will mess you up, which is what happened to me in ’19. It messed me up for the rest of the season.”

She came into ’20 “full-throttle,” heading to Europe for a big indoor season, scoring wins in Paris, Düsseldorf and Madrid and ending up second-fastest on the yearly 60H list. “If I had not run indoors,” she says, “I wouldn’t have competed this year at all, so I’m glad to have done that.”

When COVID came calling, Clemons had been training at Alabama State, but that faded, she explains: “It got shut down to where we couldn’t use any of the facilities. My husband and I were just trying to find places to train.” They ended up in Lawrence, Kansas, where husband Kyle went to school. Along the way, they built their own gym equipment, including a squat rack. That effort has turned into a business venture. “People caught wind of it and we started selling.”

The stress of the pandemic also pushed her to release her creative demons via TikTok, where she put together several elaborate videos (multiple roles and costume changes). “It’s just fun. I go on there to laugh and I enjoy making people laugh. Especially during a time like this, when there’s so much to be stressed about or worried about or even scared, just being able to go into a platform and see people just laughing and making them happy and brightening up days.”

Currently Clemons is coached by Alabama State’s Garfield Ellenwood and is taking workouts long distance. After the seasons lost with her Achilles, after the disappointment of hurdle 7 in Des Moines in ’19, after the pandemic, Clemons wants more than anything to be on the big podium: “It drives my career.”

Her husband, former Kansas 400 star Kyle Clemons (they married in ’18), has relay golds from the ’15 Worlds and ’16 Olympics. Christina, closing in on 31, wants bullion of her own, saying, “It’s what drives me.”

She explains, “I have to challenge myself. I have to push myself beyond limits. I told my coach I want this to be the hardest training I’ve ever experienced. That’s the only way I can go out there and be the best. I have to do what no one else is doing. It comes down to what you do in training when the eyes aren’t on you.”