Volleyball’s Loss Is The 400’s Gain

The tallest of the world’s top quartermilers, Steven Gardiner came to track late, but debuted at 50.01. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

THE MEN’S 400 FINAL at the World Championships last fall was stunning to anyone who watched it. It was also, says winner Steven Gardiner, just as stunning to live it.

“Honestly, running the race, I didn’t know I was going that fast until I actually watched it over,” says the 24-year-old Bahamian. “My finish was unbelievable. The time really shocked me. It felt comfortable, but also very fast.”

Gardiner’s gold medal, won in a national record 43.48 that moved him to No. 6 on the all-time world list (see sidebar), represented a crucial step in his drive to become the Olympic gold medalist in the 1-lapper.

One person who wasn’t surprised was his coach, Gainesville-based Gary Evans. “It was in August,” Evans says, “I saw him run the 300 in 31. He started running it consistently and it was getting easier and easier each time. I called his agent and I said, ‘If he doesn’t get injured, we’re gonna win.’ I see what this kid was running. Everybody else, I felt, had peaked already, kinda jumped out there early.”

World-ranked for 4 years in a row now, the 6-foot-5 (1.95) former volleyball player didn’t turn to track until just before his 17th birthday. “Volleyball was my favorite sport to play,” he explains. “The transition to track was tough for me. My teammates at the time, the runs they could do—I couldn’t finish.”

He wanted to be a dashman but his first coach nixed that. “He was like, ‘You look like a 400, you’re a quartermiler.’” Gardiner’s first-ever race at the distance, a 50.01, proved his coach’s point. The next season he was able to focus on the 200, where he clocked 20.66 and made it to the semis at the ’14 World Juniors in Eugene. College recruiters, who were there in droves, somehow didn’t pick up on Gardiner’s potential. “I think I would have gone,” he says of the NCAA route, “but it wasn’t a big option for me.”

A year later, still just 19, he won his national title in 44.27 two weeks after taking the Oslo DL in 44.64. In ’16 Gardiner was just 20 in Rio. In his semi, he could only muster a 44.72, which left him 0.23 short of the final. “It didn’t discourage me from doing what I had to do later in the year finishing up,” he says. “Then the next year I wanted to come back and be stronger and better and make the final.” (Continued below)

He started training with Evans that December and exceeded expectations the following year. He opened up with a 44.26 in April. He went undefeated until he got to London for the WC, where he delivered a powerful 43.89 lap to win his semi. In the final he managed to win the silver in 44.41 behind WR holder Wayde van Niekerk’s 43.98.

Gardiner has only burnished his credentials since then. In ’18 in one of his early-season dabbles in the 200, he rocketed to an NR 19.75 with negligible wind (0.3). That put him on the rare list of men who have broken both 20-seconds and 44. A month later he improved his 400 NR to 43.87 to win the Doha DL and move to =No. 12 on the all-time list.

He doesn’t race as often as some. He and Evans agree that works to his advantage. “Rest is important, so I think it has paid off well for me,” he says.

“He’s a blessing,” says Evans. “An impressive talent. His leg lift just helps out. He has no ground contact. I mean, he gets his feet off the ground so quick. He reminds me of Usain Bolt. When you have no ground contact and you’re that tall, you get your feet off the ground and then open up your stride length. And he has the speed to go with it. The perfect scenario for a 400 runner.”

This winter Gardiner had a late start to his base training phase because of the lateness of the WC. Said Evans in January, “We’re training hard. We know now that we are no longer the hunter, we are the hunted. And we know and respect the 400 field. It’s just something astonishing that someone might go 43 and not medal. It’s so deeply talented that you have to train hard.”

Says Gardiner, “I was better in the longer runs than I was last year in the winter. And then the coronavirus knocked me off the track a bit. We’ve had to change up a few things.”

No more track access, for one. Now he is doing his workouts on grass. “We’re still active and we’re still working. It’s more like off-season training now.” He says that prior to the quarantine, he and Evans were on track for a big Olympic year. “We were working on a few different things,” he says. “Small stuff that we should be able to fix so we can do it better. We had a lot of base going on.

“I was looking forward to going to my second Olympic Games and doing what I didn’t get to do in ’16. This just gives me more time to prepare for next year.”

He adds, “It’s hard for everybody, I know that for a fact. But you just keep doing it because you love it, you know?”