LONDON — Tianna Madison won the first of her nine high school state track titles 11 years ago.
She went on to become an NCAA outdoor and indoor champion at the University of Tennessee before pulling off the ultimate shocker and winning the World long jump championship in 2005 at the tender age of 19.
Emerging from her own enormous shadow has been a difficult endeavor ever since, but Friday the Elyria High graduate was able to do just that.
And then some.
Madison, 26, earned a gold medal and a world record as a member of the United States’ 4×100-meter relay.
“I just knew if we had clean baton passes that we would definitely challenge the world record,” Madison said. “Smash it like we did? We had no idea, but I knew it was in us.”
Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter brought the U.S. its first Olympic gold medal in the sprint relay since 1996 with a time of 40.82, more than a half-second better than a record that had stood for 27 years.
The American quartet erased the old mark of 41.37 run by East Germany in October 1985. Here’s how long ago that was: Jeter was 5, Madison was a month old, and Felix and Knight weren’t even born.
“As I’m running, I’m looking at the clock and seeing this time that’s like 37, 38, 39. In my heart, I said, ‘We just did it!’ I definitely knew we ran well,” Jeter said. “When I crossed the finish line, I had so many emotions because we haven’t been able to get the gold medal back to the U.S.”
Felix collected her second gold of the London Games, along with the one she won in the 200 meters, while Jeter completed a set, adding to her silver in the 100 and bronze in the 200.
“It’s an absolutely unreal feeling. It just feels like for so long, we looked at women’s sprints and the records were so out of reach. To look up and see we had a world record, it was just crazy,” said Felix, who gets a shot at a third gold in the 4×400 final today. “I didn’t think that was going to happen.”
Jamaica won the silver medal in a national record of 41.41 seconds, with a team of 100 champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, 100 bronze medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart.
“All their girls are in top shape this year,” Fraser-Pryce said of the U.S. team. “You can’t say they didn’t deserve it. They prepared for it and they came out here and they delivered. For us, it’s back to the drawing board.”
The bronze went to the Ukraine in 42.04.
Madison, 26, known for her fast starts, ran the opening leg and got the U.S. off on the right foot, so to speak. Felix ran second and then, with Knight approaching for the final handoff, Jeter took nine strides, reached her hand back and took a perfect exchange. Jeter was staring at the clock as she covered the final 10 meters — and she jutted the stick in that direction.
“I saw the huge lead that we have, and I looked up on the board and saw the time flash, and I was so confused,” Felix said. “I was like, ‘That is not a 4×100 time.’ I was waiting, and then I saw the world record, and I was like, ‘This is insane.’ It was just a beautiful thing to see. As soon as Bianca passed to ‘Jet,’ it was done.”
Afterward, the quartet of champions paused to watch a replay of their record performance on the scoreboard at 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. When Jeter was shown crossing the finish line, Knight punched the air.
Madison said the team was confident before the race.
“It felt good to walk out into the stadium and feel the atmosphere and the electricity,” she told the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel. “We were comfortable and relaxed. The last time I ran a relay was probably in college, but it has been second nature with these girls.”
The perfect trip around the track ended a string of disappointments for the U.S. in the event.
In Athens eight years ago, Lauryn Williams was involved in a bad exchange in the final, leaving her team without a medal. In Beijing four years ago, the Americans didn’t even reach the final because Torri Edwards and Williams bobbled the last exchange in the semifinals. That marked the first time since 1948 that the U.S. wasn’t involved in the women’s 4×100 medal race at the Summer Games.
This time they were back in the final — and now they’re champions again, too.
“It’s a relief. It’s a joy. It’s everything,” Felix said. “We went into this race and it was the most comfortable I’ve seen this team. We were laughing and smiling. We’ve never been like that.”
And Williams even gets a gold medal this time, because she ran a leg in Thursday’s semifinal.
“Talking about the ‘botched handoff’ is history now,” Madison said. “She has completely obliterated that from her record.”
Winning the gold was also extra sweet for Madison, who has struggled in recent years, especially in the long jump. Friday was the zenith of a personal and professional transformation which she has said was nearly a year in the making.
“The big turnaround was my husband (John Bartoletta),” she said. “He told me I was sleeping on the gift God gave me.”
Madison led off Thursday’s semifinal heat in the relay as well and kept her spot Friday despite the addition of Felix and Jeter, who stepped in for Williams and Jeneba Tarmoh.
When the four finalists were asked if they believed the other two should have been part of the post-race celebration, Felix opted not to speak but Madison said if she had her way they would have been there.
“I asked Lauryn where her podium outfit was today because I did think all six of us would stand,” she said. “I don’t know all the details about when they’ll get their medals, but as soon as we crossed that line they were world-record holders (too), they were medal winners, and we’re all sharing in this together.”