September 7, 2010 in Sports

Running from turmoil into spotlight, Mead student has lofty goal

By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photo

Mead sophomore Andrew Gardner casts a long shadow as he runs through the fields above the school preparing for the GSL cross country season.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Survival, not running, was Andrew Gardner’s only concern as a youngster.

Barely seven years later, the Mead sophomore is still facing big – though less daunting – challenges.

“His goal is to win state, try to match (former Panther) Matt Davis’ three state championships,” Panthers cross country coach Steve Kiesel said. “That’s a pretty lofty goal, but it’s realistic. He has his work cut out for him. The 4A level is stacked. Everybody will be gunning for him based on what he did last spring in track.”

Gardner was outstanding in track – but he wasn’t too shabby in cross country last fall, either.

He was eighth in the state cross country meet, second in the 3,200-meters at state track, running the third fastest time in the nation as a freshman with a state- record 9-minutes, 1.40 seconds.

What that doesn’t say is what drives Gardner, and it certainly isn’t Davis’ amazing record.

“I just hate to show my (individual) goals,” Gardner said. “I’m going to be more of a team athlete this year. I’m going to take the team farther. This last year it was bad; we didn’t go anywhere as a team. It was pretty bad at state when I ran alone and nobody could support me.”

Kiesel predicted that answer.

“He’s a coach’s dream,” the coach said. “He’s as good as he is because he works so hard. The most disappointing thing for him last year was that we didn’t make it to state. He was lonely at state.”

The Panthers didn’t qualify for state in cross country for the first time since 1988 before winning the track championship in record-breaking fashion.

Gardner wasn’t even 10 when he was sent to an orphanage in Ethiopia because his parents were too poor to take care of him. That’s where fate intervened, when Michelle Gardner saw a film about the orphanage and was drawn to a young boy protectively embracing his infant sister.

“Most 8-year-old boys don’t remember to make their bed,” she recalled. “I just wanted to be his mom.”

A 1-year old baby complicated matters, but the Gardners weren’t scared off because they had already adopted three children – from China, Russia and India – after having three children of their own.

“It wasn’t like there was a master plan to do that,” Michelle Gardner said. “We had our three kids and we were teaching in Taiwan … we thought we could have one more girl.”

That was nine adoptions ago, the last six from Ethiopia.

Michelle and Steve Gardner are awed by the seventh child (and fifth son), starting when he came home from the Banana Split Run – Evergreen Elementary School’s fun run – and reported he ran 20 laps.

“That didn’t seem right,” said Steve Gardner, a fourth grade teacher at Evergreen. “We wondered if we had a kid that exaggerated. … Fortunately, we didn’t call him a liar. It was a gift.

“He’s one of those obnoxious kids that can pretty much pick up any sport and do it. He played football for a while. The first time he picked up a bat he hit a home run. Some kids are gifted that way. I’m not one of them. I usually got beat up by those kids.”

But to think that Gardner is among the best of an outstanding group of young distance runners in Spokane because he is from Africa is selling him way too short.

“It’s not a fair assessment,” Kiesel said. “He works hard, that’s the bottom line. … Whether or not his heritage has something to do with it, I’m sure it does. His background is an amazing story of survival. I have a feeling that plays a big role in how good he is and his determination to be successful.

“Right now he’s obviously pretty darn good. How good is still to be determined.”

Soccer was Gardner’s first sport.

“We realized he was fast and suggested he go out for track,” good friend Isaiah Wohlfeil said. “He broke all the school records.”

“I wasn’t a runner,” Gardner said. “I was really small for my age when I came here … and I didn’t run at all. It just came natural. I started thinking I might be pretty good at running but I wasn’t so serious. My seventh-grade year I played football.”

Coaches suggested he give cross country a try in eighth grade, a plan that almost backfired – not because of difficulty but because his ability overwhelmed his need to be part of something.

“It wasn’t fun. I hated it. I was always running alone,” he recalled. “When I came to high school, it’s a different sport. I really like it.”

Gardner was off and running.

“I’m the kind of guy that likes to handle the pain,” he said. “In any other sport the coach can pull you out, sub some other guy in. In cross country you just have to deal with it.”

He does take inspiration from Ethiopian superstars.

“It really helps if you’ve gone through a hard life to start with. It sounds like you have to work for more things to get out of (difficult circumstances),” he surmised. “I think most of those guys that are really good, they didn’t go the easy way, they had to earn it. If you have the gift, you can work with it and be successful in life.”

Gardner was challenged by more than just being sent to an orphanage.

As the adoption was going through, his little sister Tseynesh died from an obstruction of her esophagus, according to Steve Gardner, who rushed to Ethiopia to comfort Andrew.

“There was another little girl,” Steve Gardner said, “and Andrew said he’d still like to be a big brother.”

So Dinah came to Spokane with him.

“It’s not to replace my sister but to have that connection with a younger girl,” Andrew said. “Not to forget my sister, but when I look into her eyes, it’s my sister. She’s nothing different.”

He won’t say he is running for his sister, but she isn’t far from his thoughts.

“I know she passed away. God knows, I don’t, for what reason,” he said. “I’m going to leave him in charge for that part. He kept me safe so I’m going to use the opportunity that I have now to really shine for myself and my sister.”

He did say a trip back to Ethiopia two years ago, though he didn’t see his parents, helped him understand the sacrifice they made to send him away, appreciate what he has and motivates him to run through any pain he has because they have it so much worse there.

Gardner certainly isn’t running for the solitude to escape the chaos of a full house.

“It was crazy, just jumping in, not knowing what is happening,” he said. “This is my idea, you’ve got to make one friend at a time. You couldn’t really jump in and start doing things. You had to study one at a time.

“The best part was my oldest brother Peter. He was amazing when I first came. He let me do things with him … he really brought me to the family.”

Boundary changes forced Wohlfeil to district rival Mt. Spokane but didn’t change his friendship with Gardner.

“We’ve always been friends so we worked hard to keep that going even after we switched schools,” Wohlfeil said. “I don’t get to see him run but we always talk about it. I like how hard he works at what he does. He’s one of those people that has natural athletic ability. It’s always fun over there. It’s really cool, he gets along so well with all of them. It’s always crowded but everyone likes each other.”

The proud parents are just enjoying the ride.

“We were caught off guard with how good he is,” Steve Gardner said. “The neat thing is he’s just a neat kid. We can’t take credit for that, he came to us later in life. … The important thing for us is he continues to enjoy it and it is his desire to do that, not mom and dad pushing.”

There doesn’t appear to be much to worry about there.

“It’s hard, but I have to make the best of the things that happened,” Gardner said. “I try to take all the opportunities that come, take advantage of that. …

“Running is something that is going to help me be successful in life. Not just in athletic life but in life.”

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