Former UM standout Dominique Darden a step closer to Olympics

Dominique Darden is a nightclub hostess by night — very, very late at night.

When the sun comes up, she takes off her high heels and puts on her spikes. By day, Darden is an aspiring Olympian.

She runs around the clock, but in two different worlds. When she’s not working 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. at Dream in South Beach or at King of Diamonds in Miami, she’s training at the University of Miami track. Or grabbing a nap.

The grueling schedule has paid off for Darden in one of the sport’s most grueling events: the 400-meter hurdles. Darden finished with the fifth-best semifinal time (55.77 seconds) on Friday at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. She’s an unlikely finalist, but if she finishes in the top three Sunday she will make the team for the London Olympics.

Eighteen months ago, Darden skidded across an oily patch on a Gainesville street and crashed her scooter. She gashed open her right knee.

“It looked like a shark attack,” she said, and a photo on her Twitter account confirms that gory description.

Darden, a 2006 UM graduate who was ranked in the world’s top 20, had to take a year off and lost her sponsorship. She needed a job, and she got one in Miami Beach at Dream, the latest hot spot on Washington Avenue.

“I had no income but I wanted to keep running,” she said. “It’s good money on South Beach, much more than I could make in a 9-to-5 job. It’s graveyard hours, though, and it’s been a rough adjustment.”

Darden is a VIP hostess. She books table reservations, greets guests at the door and handles their special requests.

“Such as designer birthday cakes,” said John Donato, Dream’s director of operations. “She is a sweet person who goes out of her way to make it special. We do a lot of business with athletes, so she fits in perfectly. You never know who is coming into town and she communicates with them. She knows Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Santana Moss and Bryant McKinney from her UM days.”

Darden was even workg Friday, taking reservations long distance for Michael Vick’s Saturday party. Employees at the club were sending her messages of encouragement and congratulations all day.

“She is such a sweet girl — never tired,” Donato said. “We tease her and ask her when she’s going to race us.”

Darden isn’t a performer but she hangs with a racy crowd, particularly at King of Diamonds, a popular “gentleman’s club” that “offers an aphrodisiac for everyone’s wet appetite, advertises “full friction, full liquor, full nudity” and “boasts a provocative roster of over 300 dancers” on its website. The club holds Seductive Boxing Matches, Erotic Reggae Sundays and Naked Hustle Wednesdays.

“They call me rover girl because I have to do a little bit of everything,” Darden said.

Among her colleagues and pals is Miami’s most acrobatic stripper, Tip Drill, who was injured in February performing her famous pole-sliding trick.

Somehow, Darden slips seamlessly from the wee-hours world of DJs, exotic dancers, champagne-swilling club mavens and wealthy hedonists to the dog-eat-dog world of track and field, where hard bodies, not luscious ones, are necessary for success.

Her motto on her Twitter page is a quote from Andy Warhol: “You have to do stuff average people don’t understand because those are the only good things.”

Darden returned to Miami not only to work but to train with Amy Deem, coach at UM, coach of a group of pros and coach of the 2012 women’s Olympic track and field team. Deem does not approve of Darden’s employment choice or hours.

“If she wasn’t one of my ex-athletes I would not have agreed to coach her,” Deem said. “There have been some Saturday practices where I had to carry her off the track she was so tired. But the 400 hurdles is not a lucrative event. She’s got to make a living. It’s not like she’s out partying. She is working and juggling her track career. She is one tough woman.”

Deem said Darden snapped back quickly from her knee injury. “She did a 31-inch vertical leap right after she resumed training,” Deem said. “She is a very gifted athlete.”

Darden also has had the benefit of training with T’Erea Brown, who qualified in 55.13 seconds Friday, Thandi Stewart, who finished 13th, and Lauryn Williams, who didn’t advance to the 200 final. Tiffany Williams also advanced to the 400 hurdles final, which means three Miami women will be running against each other.

Miami’s Bershawn “Batman” Jackson advanced to the final of the men’s 400 hurdles with the second-fastest time, 48.83.

Sanya Richards-Ross looked smooth in winning her heat of the 200. She intends to run the 400-200 double in London.

As for Darden, she was thrilled to make the final. Maybe it’s time for a celebration at Dream with her teammates and coach.

“I have never been to those clubs,” Deem said. “Not even when I was 23 years old.”