Eight hours and 5,700 miles separated Carmen Jackson, the longtime Northwestern High track coach, from Brianna Rollins last Saturday afternoon.
But Jackson was just as tense watching Rollins’ knee-high-socked legs clearing the hurdles on TV as if she had been in Moscow’s Olympic Stadium for the 100-meter hurdles world championship. Jackson squirmed on her sofa and then erupted into cheer as Rollins recovered from a poor start and overcame defending world and Olympic champion Sally Pearson of Australia to capture her first world title in 12.44 seconds.
Earlier this year, Rollins won the NCAA title for Clemson and in June, just after turning pro, she won the U.S. title in an American-record 12.26 seconds, beating Gail Devers’ 12.33 set 13 years ago. It was the third-fastest time in history and five-hundredths of a second shy of the world record set by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria in 1988.
It wasn’t just Rollins’ victory Saturday that impressed Jackson and track commentators. It was the way she did it. Looking like a 1970s-retro athlete in compression knee socks and a John McEnroe-styled red, white and blue-striped headband, she showed remarkable poise recovering from a poor start on such a massive stage.
Rollins turned 22 Sunday.
“When I saw Bri come out of the blocks, I told my son, ‘Oh, no! We’re in trouble!’ ” Jackson said by phone Tuesday. “But once she got over that fourth hurdle, I saw the tempo of her feet pick up and I said, ‘We got this! Nobody’s gonna catch her.’ I focused on her feet, and I just knew she had it.”
Rollins was traveling back from Russia on Tuesday and could not be reached, but she told the BBC after the race: “I didn’t try to focus on my bad start. I just tried to focus on my own 10 hurdles and just try to finish the race strong.”
Rollins’ path to the world title was bumpy. She grew up with six younger brothers, and their mother, Temperance, had trouble landing work, so the family scraped to get by with help from Jackson and kind-hearted friends and relatives. When Rollins showed up in Jackson’s office as a scrawny, baby-faced ninth-grader, asking if she could join the track team, the coach was skeptical.
Not only had Rollins never run track, she had never competed in any sport.
“I said, ‘Do you realize how difficult that is, to make our track team?’ ” Jackson said. “She looked frail. But her first time in the gym for conditioning drills, me and the other coaches were shocked at the things she could do. I said, ‘Oh, Lord, this girl is amazing.’ ”
Rollins’ only flaw was lack of focus. She struggled academically and was distracted by boyfriends. Jackson wouldn’t stand for it. By her senior year, she had her priorities in order and signed with Clemson. Homesickness set in. Rollins grew lazy. She hated the cold weather, and threatened to come home. She quit workouts at the slightest twinge of pain.
Jackson scolded her by phone. She reminded her that she had a special gift, and “a rare chance as a young black woman from the inner city to get a college degree” and make a good living.
“Sometimes, you have to dream for these kids until they catch the dream themselves,” Jackson said. “Bri finally caught it her junior year of college.”
Rollins applied herself on the track and in the classroom. She is one semester from graduating.
“When she came out of the block so slowly, she had two choices: fight or quit,” Jackson said of the world title race. “I knew she’d fight. She has learned how to come out of trouble. Things have never come easy for her, but from Day One, I told her, ‘Don’t invite me to your pity party.’ ”
Jackson gives that speech to many of her Northwestern athletes.
“Most of the kids I deal with have a lot of adversity in their lives, and we don’t sugarcoat things around here,” the coach said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t use as a crutch that you have no bread or milk in the fridge, or that you have a lot of dropouts in your family, or that your Mom has no money. That’s no excuse. Life’s about choices. Choose to be different. You’ve got me as a mentor. Tell me what you need, and we’ll get you there.’ Some buy in, some don’t.”
The question now is, how fast can Rollins go?
“Hurdlers usually peak at around 27 years old,” Joanna Hayes, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles, told The New York Times. “What Brianna is doing just isn’t done. It’s fair to call her a hurdle prodigy.”
Like all good coaches, Jackson won’t let Rollins rest on her laurels. After she congratulated her for the world title, she gave her a pep talk.
“I told her, ‘Now that you’re there, in the limelight, never forget where you came from because you got bundles of support from so many people in Miami,’ ” Jackson said. “And then I told her, ‘You still have a lot of work to do. You have not broken the world record yet. You can.
“You have not won the Olympic Games yet. You will.’ ”