RIO DE JANEIRO Carmen Jackson has steered hundreds of girls from Liberty City’s mean streets to the Northwestern High track.
The faster you run, she tells them, the farther you can go.
Brianna Rollins listened, and her fleet feet carried her all the way to the Rio Olympics, all the way from a house that sometimes had no water, no electricity and no food to the finish line of her imagination.
Rollins ran to first place in the 100-meter hurdles Wednesday, becoming the first athlete from Miami to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic track and field event.
“She had nothing, and now she has the world,” Jackson said, rejoicing in the Olympic Stadium stands.
Rollins ran from a neighborhood where drug dealers’ gunshots are as common as summer thunder to the top of a historic podium, leading the first U.S. sweep of the women’s 100 hurdles at the Olympics.
“They say good things don’t happen in Liberty City, but yes they do, and she is proof, right here in living color,” Jackson said, jumping up and down and high-fiving everyone around her. “My lord, this is beautiful.”
It wasn’t a perfect race. Jackson, who believes flattery makes runners soft, gave her former pupil a six on a scale of 10.
“I hit quite a few hurdles,” said Rollins, whose winning time was 12.48. “But I didn’t let it upset my composure. I kept my tunnel vision. I wanted a medal, because a medal can’t be taken away.”
Rollins, 24, and Jackson, 59, were both attending their first Olympics, Rollins just nine years after taking up the sport and Jackson 29 years after taking the coaching job at Northwestern, where she’s built a dynasty, bringing 13 state title trophies back to the inner city.
When Rollins crouched into the starting blocks on a warm night that felt like Miami — there were even unexpected swarms of termites flying under the lights — Jackson was the nervous one, standing next to husband Calvin in a section in line with the fourth hurdle.
“She might have a few butterflies but you can count on Brianna when the pressure is deepest,” Jackson said. “She’s not afraid of anything because she grew up fighting so much adversity.
“I tell my girls when you race, you’ve got to be ferocious, and you can be sweet and polite afterward. Bri had that killer instinct. She just needed someone to tap into it.”
As the sprinters rose into the starting position, and a hush came over the crowd, memories shuffled through Jackson’s mind. When Rollins came to her in the ninth grade and said she wanted to try out for the Bulls team, Jackson shooed her away.
“She was a shy, skinny, weak-looking thing,” Jackson said. “I said, ‘Why don’t you pick another sport. This sport is tough.’”
Rollins had no sports experience other than racing the boys on her block. But she always won and she loved to run. She was one of seven, with six younger brothers. Her father was in prison, her mother was unemployed.
Jackson finally gave in and told Rollins to practice with the second-string sprinters. Rollins became intrigued by the hurdles “because it looked like fun,” she said.
“Fun?” Jackson snorted. “Bri said, ‘Miss Carmen, I want to jump over those things.’ She had no idea. I said, ‘You realize the hurdles hurt when you hit them and the track hurts even more when you fall on it.’”
Rollins said it took her a year to master the three-step footwork between the 33-inch hurdles. Today, she’s known as a technician, skimming over the sticks with what her coach Lawrence Johnson calls “an unusual combination of pure speed and coordination.”
When the gun cracked and Rollins sprung from the blocks, Jackson clutched her hands together beneath her chin. She squeezed Calvin’s arm. Rollins had a clean start but she didn’t attack the first three hurdles.
“Look at her now,” Jackson yelled. “Come on, Bri!”
Jackson, 59, has no patience for lazy or irresponsible kids, kids with absences, tardies, bad grades. She’s Dean of Discipline at Northwestern. She could be a boot camp sergeant.
She learned when she was growing up in Midtown as a sprinter under coach Carol Hardemon and then Lulabelle Smith at 1975 state champ Jackson High that if she wanted to coach kids in Miami’s impoverished and crime-plagued neighborhoods, if her purpose was to be a life saver, it would be an all-encompassing mission.
“It’s not a child’s fault if his parent is a crack addict,” Jackson said. “Everyone can’t make it to the Olympics, but every child deserves a chance to escape the cycle, go to college, learn a trade, follow a dream.”
So she’ll cook for her girls, buy them school clothes, give them a ride, make sure they do their homework.
“’Did you eat today? Was there a murder on your street last night? Do you have shoes?’” she said. “But at the same time you can’t let the problems be a crutch. I tell my girls, ‘Don’t invite me to the pity party because I ain’t coming.’”
Jackson wants to see the Gwen Cherry Park track and pool renovated — she noted how black swimmer Simone Manuel won gold in Rio. She envisions an Academic Success Center at Northwestern for kids who don’t own computers.
“We can reduce the shootings,” she said.
Not many of Jackson’s girls quit. She recalls one who stopped coming to practice, got pregnant and was lost to the wasteland. Rollins had it rougher than most. Then she and her mother and brothers moved into her grandparents’ house and things stabilized.
By the fourth hurdle, Rollins had found her rhythm. It’s a dance as much as a race: One, two, three, jump; one, two, three, jump. Jackson was counting as she watched.
“She’s getting more aggressive,” Jackson said as Rollins accelerated and devoured the hurdles. “Run like a Bull! They’ll never beat her to the line once she hits top speed.”
Jackson’s excitement was just like that of Jesse Holt, who watched from the stands in Beijing as one of his protégés, former Northwest Express Track Club and Central High 400-meter hurdler Bershawn Jackson, won bronze in 2008 at Bird’s Nest Stadium in a U.S. sweep of the event.
It was his first Olympics, too, after all those hours mentoring kids, purely out of love for them and belief in how the sport could lift them.
Jackson’s reward was also a selfless one: Witnessing one of her most unlikely success stories make history.
“From rags to Rio!” she cried out as Rollins leaned across the finish line ahead of U.S. teammate Nia Ali in second place and Rollins’ training partner in Los Angeles, Kristi Castlin, in third.
“That’s the little girl from Northwest 64th Street, from the school on 71st Street,” Jackson said, hugging Calvin, himself a state champ coach of the boys at Northwestern in 1991. “Bri from the hood. She paved her own path. All I did was give a push to keep her in the right lane.”
As Rollins and her teammates took their victory lap, Jackson and her husband rushed down to the edge of the track. Rollins ran up a ramp and leaned over a railing to hug her old coach. Jackson whispered in her ear. They flashed the horns of the Bull sign with their hands.
“Miss Carmen told me she loved me,” Rollins said. “She’s the one who guided me through everything. I’m here because of her.”
Jackson may have shed one or two tears but already her mind was racing back to Miami. She was thinking how Rollins could be an inspiration, connect with the girls in the projects, show that no one is locked into a caste system.
To Coach Carmen, a gold medal is beautiful, but there are too many lives to be saved to rest on any laurels.
“It’s a new Liberty City now — home of Brianna Rollins,” Jackson said. “You can cancel all the pity parties.”