When Brianna Rollins was a skinny kid growing up in Liberty City, she used to race the neighborhood boys down her street. First one to the mailbox was the winner.
Rollins was always the first one to the mailbox.
“There was a bunch of us on the block,” Rollins said. “I was the only girl. Everybody wanted to race me. I’d beat them and they’d want to go again. I just loved running.”
But Rollins had no Olympic aspirations. She knew nothing about track and field, had no idea what a hurdle was. She and her six younger brothers crammed into their grandparents’ house when their father was sent to prison. Their mother worked long hours as a security guard. The Olympic Games were something on TV, a distant fantasy for a little girl in Miami’s impoverished inner city notorious for its gangland killings and gunfire.
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But Rollins never stopped running. She’s not racing boys to the mailbox anymore. She’s racing for a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the Rio Olympics.
Rollins’ gift for speed carried her to a college scholarship, a professional career on the international track circuit and the starting line of Tuesday’s qualifying heats at Olympic Stadium.
Rollins, 24, was a late bloomer but in the last three years she has become NCAA champion, national champion, world champion and now gold-medal favorite.
“I’ve worked really hard, but I feel blessed, like this was destined for me,” she said.
Rollins, who owns a personal best of 12.26, will try to keep the U.S. streak of success alive in the event. Americans have won at least one medal in every Olympics since 1984 except for 1996, when Gail Devers, attempting to make up for her famous fall over the final hurdle in 1992, finished fourth.
“She reminds me of Gail Devers with her combination of speed and power,” said Rollins’ coach, Lawrence Johnson. “I always had a feeling about her I couldn’t shake. Adversity fueled her fire. Today, she’s a superstar.”
When Rollins got up the nerve to try out for the Northwestern High track team as a freshman, she did not impress coach Carmen Jackson, who has won 13 state titles in creating a dynasty at the school.
“She was a shy, frail-looking thing,” Jackson said. “I didn’t take her seriously. I said, ‘Why would you want to pick this sport? It’s hard. It’s very hard.’”
She reminds me of Gail Devers with her combination of speed and power. I always had a feeling about her I couldn’t shake. Adversity fueled her fire. Today, she’s a superstar.
Lawrence Johnson, Rollins’ coach
Rollins came back to ask Miss Carmen four times if she could join the Bulls before Jackson relented.
“I put her in a beginner sprint group,” Jackson said. “One day she pointed to the hurdles and said, ‘I want to jump over those things. What are they called?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
It took a year for Rollins to learn the footwork of the 100 hurdles, which requires eight strides into the first hurdle and three between the remaining nine.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was fearless,” Rollins said.
Injuries held her back. But Jackson saw potential.
“What distinguishes Brianna is she’s flat-out fast,” Jackson said. “She didn’t have a whole lot in her life but she had a passion for the sport.”
Rollins remembers how she was always wanting for shoes during her childhood in the Robin Hood section of Liberty City.
“We were not fortunate enough to have all the electronics and toys,” she said. “I hung out with my cousins and brothers. We’d climb trees, play basketball and football, and challenge each other to races.”
When her father, Brian, was imprisoned, her mother, Temperance, had trouble paying the bills. They moved in with grandmother Mae Moore, a postal worker, and grandfather Barney Moore, who owned a lawn-care service.
“We didn’t want them on the street, so we opened our house and made room,” said Mae, who raised five children of her own. She made sure the children went to church and didn’t skip school. Rollins helped take care of her brothers.
“I told them, ‘No matter what you do, do your best. Be the best little frog on your side of the pond,’” Mae said. “Brianna never let any obstacles stop her.”
Jackson honed Rollins’ talent and encouraged Johnson to sign her at Clemson.
“She was inexperienced and didn’t have the top time in her recruiting class, but Coach Jackson told me so much about her I became intrigued,” he said. “The first couple years were a test of perseverance for her. She had nagging lower back injuries. She came from a very humble background and she was homesick. She would sit on the track and cry, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”
Her grandmother encouraged her to be patient.
“She had some stumbles at Clemson but I told her that sometimes the bad is what gives you a push,” Mae said.
Her breakthrough year came in 2013 when she won NCAA indoor and outdoor titles and the world championship in Moscow in 12.44 ahead of Australia’s Sally Pearson and Great Britain’s Tiffany Porter.
“She has a special skill set of speed, power, rhythm and coordination,” Johnson said. “She has deceptive foot speed. She could be world class in the open 100 or 200.”
Rollins won the U.S. Olympic Trials in July by a wide margin in 12.34, just .01 shy of Devers’ meet record. Her training partner Kristi Castlin was second in 12.50 and Nia Ali third in 12.55.
“I was sitting on my sofa and when they got in the blocks I had to stand up,” said Jackson, who is in Rio to attend her first Olympics and watch one of her protégés. “I held my breath. It was an incredible field. By the second hurdle I knew it was over. I could see the killer instinct on Brianna’s face.”
It was first time in a national meet that the top seven runners clocked 12.75 or better. Ex-Olympians Queen Harrison and Dawn Harper-Nelson were left out in the cold, as was Keni Harrison, who subsequently set a world record.
I told them, ‘No matter what you do, do your best. Be the best little frog on your side of the pond. Brianna never let any obstacles stop her.
Mae Moore, Rollins’ grandmother
“We’re the best in the world,” Rollins said. “Hopefully all three of us end up on the medal stand.”
Johnson transferred to a coaching job at Cal State-Northridge and brought his stable of hurdlers with him. Rollins lives in Los Angeles with her two English bulldogs. Her boyfriend, former Clemson wide receiver Bryce McNeal, moved west, too. She spends most of her time at the track or with training partners Castlin, Dalilah Muhammed and Maria Cox.
“This is my job and all I do is train,” Rollins said. “It can get lonely sometimes but we treat each other like family.”
Rollins misses her family back in Liberty City, where she’s remembered as the scrawny girl racing boys in the street. She’s tried to set an example for her brothers and her hometown.
“She can tell them, ‘Hey, look at me, see where I’m going. Reach down and pull the best out of yourself,’” Mae said.
Rollins’ brother Matthew predicts that his sister won’t lose in Rio.
“She’s set the bar high for her brothers,” he said. “She was always the fastest.”