* Madison Gardner earned her second straight GHSA 5A state title in the 400m.
Photo Credit: MileSplit Georgia
"It's actually surprising, and I'm proud of myself to see the progress. I didn't like the 400m and now I'm doing good in it. It's crazy."
By Ashley Tysiac - MileSplit
"When I was younger, I hated the 400m with a passion," Gardner said.
Gardner still remembers throwing crying fits before each 400m race she competed in at club track meets, less than enthused to make the painful one-lap sprint around the track.
But with those tears now a few years behind her, Gardner has become a young sprint star in Georgia.
With an impressive personal best of 54.13 to her name set in May at the Wingfoot Night of Champions, Gardner has certainly come to embrace the event that her younger self once dreaded.
But her ambition and drive hasn't ended with her impressive race at Wingfoot. Gardner will look to solidify her place among the nation's best sprinters next week in Greensboro at adidas Outdoor Nationals.
The key to her progression, Gardner said, goes beyond simply putting down faster times. It's a newfound maturity and mentality shift that Gardner credits for her success at the high school level after years of struggling to find her stride in youth competition.
"It's actually surprising, and I'm proud of myself to see the progress," she said. "I didn't like the 400m and now I'm doing good in it. It's crazy."
Photo Credit: Alex Brust/MileSplit Georgia
Though only a couple of years into her high school career, Gardner is certainly not a newcomer to track and field competition.
She began running and training competitively on the youth track circuit as an elementary schooler, and when Gardner joined Drive Phase, Inc. as a nine-year-old, head coach Lamar Grant said she stood out from the crowd.
"She kind of always had this predisposition to being competitive in track," he said. "She was a quick little girl at nine years old."
Gardner fully embraced all aspects of the sport from the start - not just the competition - and possessed a bubbly enthusiasm. Grant still has old photos of Gardner at summer track meets decked out in her club uniform, along with complementing knee-high socks, colorful streamers and hair accessories, all with extra embellishments.
Beyond her outward liveliness as a member of the Drive Phase program, Grant said he believed early on that Gardner had the makings of a top youth track athlete.
"We could always tell that Madison had phenomenal potential," he said.
However, the success Grant and others foresaw Gardner achieving didn't come immediately for the young sprinter.
Up and down performances at summer meets and on the USATF circuit left Gardner feeling discouraged and more disengaged with the sport in middle school.
2020 rolled around, however, and Gardner knew she wanted to change that pattern of disappointment. So when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down meets across the country, she didn't see that as an entirely negative change. Rather, it gave her the opportunity to focus on training at an elite level.
"When I got older, I noticed I had to lock in more," she said. "When I was younger, I really didn't believe in myself. Everyone saw a lot of potential in me and I just now started to see it."
Gardner began paying closer attention to all the little aspects of proper athletic training - positive mentality, nutrition, hydration and core work, to name a few. She began working with a new sprint coach who developed a training regimen for her to adopt. Instead of going through the motions at practices, Gardner would ask questions about each workout and engage with the learning process of her training.
It was such a significant demeanor change on Gardner's part that Grant was slightly concerned at first, afraid her new serious attitude was a sign of a disconnect between her and the sport.
But it meant quite the opposite in actuality, as Gardner's changed mindset served as her full effort to live up to her athletic and personal potential.
"The biggest change in her in the outcomes and results that she's achieved has I think been more of her mental buy-in into the training process," Grant said, "Realizing that the final product that you put out in races is really based on what you do or don't do in practice."
Come time for her high school debut in 2021, Gardner anticipated seeing the results of her hard work reflect on the track.
She certainly saw those positive outcomes and made quite the introduction to the Georgia high school running community.
Gardner went from holding a 400m best of 56.40 as a middle schooler to running 54.94 at the GHSA 5A outdoor championships for her first individual high school state title as a ninth grader. She followed up her championship-winning performance with a lucrative 400m win at her first Wingfoot Night of Champions.
History repeated itself one year later as Gardner repeated as the 400m champion at both the outdoor state meet and Wingfoot in 2022.
"When I was younger, I really didn't believe in myself. Everyone saw a lot of potential in me and I just now started to see it."
For Gardner and her coaches, her immediate high school success wasn't a shock, but rather a first showcase of the athletic promise those around Gardner saw in her throughout her childhood.
"Just seeing Madison over all these years with all of this potential, the fact that her freshman year in high school we saw all of that potential being realized, I think it was a satisfying and reassuring experience for her," Grant said.
Gardner already has two state titles under her belt, but she has more goals she hopes to check off her list before the season ends.
She has her eyes set on going under 54 seconds for the first time in the championship section of the 400m at adidas Outdoor Nationals next week. With top competition to race against, Grant said Gardner's race around the track at North Carolina A&T's Aggie Stadium could become a monumental moment for her young career.
"I think this national meet is definitely one that will raise her eyebrows and get her feeling really excited and give her the adrenaline that she needs to break through that 54-second glass ceiling," Grant said.
After adidas, Gardner will look to cross winning her first individual USATF national title under her belt as she prepares to compete for Drive Phase during the summer.
Beyond this season, the future looks bright and bold for the Banneker underclassman. Gardner hopes the two years still ahead consist of more 400m state championships and greater improvement, not to mention her ambition to capture the attention of top collegiate programs.
Gardner has certainly grown greatly from the young girl who dreaded sprinting a full lap around the track.
Now as Gardner readies in the blocks for each 400m race, the tears don't flow. Rather, only positive thoughts occupy her mind, a new mental approach that she plans to carry with her to nationals and beyond.
"I can be proud of my mental progression and I can be proud of the progress I made over the years," Gardner said.