Autumn Gardner had no idea what was coming that fall day in 2014 when she was called into the office of assistant CSU track coach Ryan Baily.
Gardner was entering her second season with the Rams and was looking forward to a good year. Sure, she had struggled to find her rhythm in the high jump, but she was positive she could figure it out and be just fine with some encouragement and coaching from Baily.
But Baily didn’t call her in for a pep talk. He called her in to cut her from the team.
For Gardner, who was talented enough to finish second in the state meet – not to mention earn a full-ride Division I soccer scholarship – the news was devastating.
“I lost it – totally lost it,” Gardner said. “I was not expecting to get cut. I had never been cut from anything in my life. I cried and cried. It was horrible.”
“She was awful”
Baily didn’t pull any punches when recalling the reasons for letting Gardner go.
“She was awful, plain and simple,” he said. “We had seven high jumpers, and she was No. 7. Autumn’s a great person, and she would do anything I would ask, but at that time she just didn’t have it. She was bad, and she knew it.”
Gardner had no idea how to react. She had been competing in one sport or another pretty much since she was old enough to walk. Her best friends were athletes. She loved being part of a team.
She was such a talented soccer player that Jacksonville University offered her a full-ride scholarship before she blew out her knee during a freak accident working at Water World near her home in Westminster, Colo. The injury derailed her soccer career, but she could still pursue her other love – high jumping. After finishing second in the Class 5A state meet her senior year at Mountain Range High School she was given the opportunity to compete as a non-scholarship walk-on at CSU.
But after a year struggling to find her form at CSU, Baily and Rams head coach Brian Bedard made the decision to cut Gardner.
“At first it was kind of nice,” she said. “For the first time in my life I had some free time because I didn’t have to be at practice or lift weights or go to meetings.”
Climbing back to find herself
The euphoric feeling of freedom, however, was fleeting. Within a week she was longing to be with teammates. She needed to compete.
She started spending up to three hours daily at CSU’s Student Rec Center. She fell in love with the climbing wall and spent hours perfecting her skills. She was leaner and in better shape than she had been since her soccer playing days.
And then she had a revelation.
“I just decided that I didn’t want my athletic career to be over,” she said. “I met with Coach Baily and asked him for another chance. He gave me some workout plans and told me to come back in the fall.
“I put everything I had into those workouts.”
Over the next several months something remarkable happened. Gardner, the athlete who was so bad she was asked to leave, found her groove. She started competing on equal footing with CSU’s top high jumpers and went into the first meet of the 2015-16 indoor season at Colorado School of Mines feeling good.
Remarkably, Gardner not only competed, she won, leaping a personal-best 5-feet-9.
“I told her when she came back that I had never been forced to cut a kid twice, and I didn’t want her to be the first,” Baily said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but she came back with a different attitude, a different fire. She was killing our workouts and just started getting better and better.”
Despite battling injuries for the next two years, Gardner came into her senior year hoping to cap her career with a memorable performance. She had qualified for NCAA Regionals as a junior and finished third in the Mountain West Indoor Championships, but she was looking for more.
Fast-forward to April 15. It was Senior Day for the Rams in Greeley. Construction delays at CSU’s Jack Christensen Memorial Track had rendered the facility unusable this spring, so the Rams were honoring Gardner and other seniors at the NoCo Open at the University of Northern Colorado.
The big day
Gardner wasn’t expecting much that day. Her warmups were a mess, and she didn’t feel great. But she went into her normal pre-jump routine – including listening to her fire-up tune “The Downfall of Us All” by A Day to Remember – and started jumping.
Gardner kept clearing the bar and eventually attempted 5-10 3/4 – her personal best. She cleared it easily. Baily then set the bar at 6-01/2 – beyond the school record. Gardner had no idea she was attempting to make history.
“I didn’t think I had made it; I had brushed the bar,” she said. “But when I looked back, the bar was still standing.”
Her teammates, along with competitors from other teams at the meet, went crazy. McKenzie Wright, her fellow competitor and friend, was among the first to embrace Gardner.
“McKenzie gave me a big hug and said, ‘They cut you from this team! They cut you from this team, and you just broke the school record!’” she said. “That’s when it kicked in and I realized what I had accomplished. I’ll never forget it.”
Gardner isn’t finished. She’ll join her teammates in Fresno, Calif., next week for the MW Championships, then compete in NCAA Regionals with a berth in the NCAA Championships on the line. She ranks first in the conference and 15th nationally.
“More than anything I want to go to nationals,” she said. “It’s ironic that during that year I was cut I was flipping through channels and nationals were on TV. As I watched it I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I wasn’t even on a team, but something inside me knew I needed to get there. That would be full circle for me.”
Still aiming higher
Her triumphs on the track are far from her only accomplishments. She is a volunteer coach at Poudre High School and will graduate with a degree in Health and Exercise Science in the College of Health and Human Sciences. She has already tested to be a firefighter, and she’ll got to EMT school in the fall.
Bedard, who admits he didn’t want to give Gardner a second chance, has great admiration for his unexpected star high jumper. He even gave her some scholarship aid this year for the first time.
“Autumn’s a hard worker who is really mentally tough,” he said. “That’s the type of kid I want on this team – and the kind of person want to serve as a firefighter. She’s pretty special.”
Gardner can only smile when she reflects on her journey. She’s a far different person from the one who was blindsided that day four years ago in Baily’s office, and she’s grateful.
“Getting cut was the best thing that ever happened to me – and the hardest,” she said. “I go after things that intimidate me now, just to prove I’m bigger. If I hadn’t been cut there’s no way I would be going into firefighting.
“What are the chances that Baily would give another chance to the girl who was seventh on the team? I mean, really? But I’m so thankful to him. He’s helped make me the person I am today.”