When Steven Gardiner races for the Bahamas in the men’s 400m final on Friday it won’t just be medals he’s chasing, but a sense of hope.
Gardiner lost two houses, days of training and peace of mind when Hurricane Dorian struck his homeland with devastating force on 1 September this year, destroying buildings, killing more than 60 people and leaving thousands without a home or belongings.
Thankfully, none of Gardiner’s large family lost their lives, but his grandmother’s wooden house was flattened by the most intense tropical cyclone ever to hit the small Caribbean archipelago, and the 200 mile-an-hour winds took much of the roof from his father’s home on the isle of Abaco.
For four anxious days of unanswered phone calls Gardiner had no idea whether any of them had survived.
Based in Clermont, Florida, where he lives and trains close to fellow Bahamian sprinter and close friend Shaunae Miller-Uibo, he completely lost contact after speaking to his parents on the morning before Dorian arrived to reap destruction.
“I just couldn’t train, couldn’t sleep, and was so worried,” he said. “I spoke to my family Sunday morning and they said they were prepared. The hurricane came that afternoon and we just lost contact.
“I knew this wasn’t the first hurricane for my family in the Bahamas. But it was the strongest one. I thought they would be safe but I just wanted to hear their voices and know for sure they were OK.
Eventually, that re-assuring call came via satellite phone.
“It was a relief,” said Gardiner. “A blessing to hear from them. He said they were all OK and had made it through alive.
“But it has been terrible. They were all on the island, actually in the eye of the storm.
“My dad has a concrete house but my grandmother’s home is wooden so after the storm had passed, she went to my dad’s and they all rode it out there.
“Then a part of my father’s roof was blown off so they had to go to the other end of the house to shelter. They were lucky.”
Gardiner immediately flew them all to Florida and now the entire clan, including grandma, dad, mom, three older sisters and dog, Blue, are living in Gardiner’s four-bedroom house, safe but uprooted, like many of their surviving compatriots.
“I don’t know whether they will go back,” he said. “I’m just happy they’re safe. Whatever they want is OK with me. They are strong people so they’ll make it.
“I haven’t been to the island yet but I know I have no childhood anymore.”
As World Championships build-ups go, it was hardly ideal. Gardiner won world silver in London two years ago and his goal for Doha 2019 was to make the podium again and possibly claim gold as a part of a Bahamian one-lap double with Miller-Uibo.
Somehow, he freed his mind from the troubles of his tormented land and returned to training. On 14 September, two days after his 24th birthday, he flew to Poland to run his first race in seven weeks.
Incredibly, he clocked his fastest time of the season and arrived in Doha with the small Bahamas team as the third quickest man in the world this year.
With gold now back on the agenda, Gardiner cruised safely through the heats at Khalifa Stadium on Tuesday and qualified from Wednesday’s semis in first place with another season’s best 44.13, the quickest of the round.
“I wanted to save something for the final,” he said afterwards. “I’ve been taking it step by step but I can definitely win this race. I feel back to my best now, and there’s more to come.”
Together, Gardiner and Miller-Uibo, favourite for gold in the women’s 400m on Thursday, have set up a fundraising campaign for people back home. But both know the sound of their country’s anthem and the sight of a Bahamas light blue flag flying over the Khalifa will be as big a salve as money.
“That was pretty big devastation our country went through,” said Miller-Uibo. “It was heart-breaking to see.
“We’re just trying to come out here and support them as best we can and be able to uplift their spirits a little, to give them something to look forward to and be happy about.”
“It’s a huge motivation seeing my home island where I grew up devastated by the tragic disaster,” added Gardiner. “It’s a small country and we’re both just hoping to make our country proud.
“I do feel a responsibility to do well here for people at home. But I know my family just want me to do my best, no pressure.
“They say, ‘Get a victory, get a victory.’ But if not, they’ll still love me.”