By Ryan Lazo
It sounds like the plot of a made-for-television movie, but it’s reality for Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens. On Tuesday morning, the school welcomed back its two Olympians, Deajah Stevens and Dalilah Muhammad, in front of a packed auditorium of students and faculty.
They cheered as they watched video of Stevens finishing in second place during the 200 meters at the Olympic Trials (she finished seventh in Rio) and delivered a thunderous round of applause as they watched Muhammad become the first American woman to win the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles.
Nearly a month later, Muhammad still can’t fully comprehend the enormity of having two Olympians from the same high school.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “I think that’s unheard of. I would like to know if there is any other school like that because I don’t think there is.”
It’s a rare feat which likely won’t be repeated because of the difficulty it takes to even reach the Olympics.
Stevens, a three-time state champion while attending Cardozo, thought of giving up the sport numerous times. After graduating from Cardozo, the NCAA ruled she was a credit shy and thus ineligible to compete for South Carolina.
That was a devastating blow, but she rebounded, attending the College of the Sequoias for two years before transferring to Oregon.
Cardozo coach Gail Emmanuel, an Olympian herself during the 1984 Los Angeles Games, expects even more from Stevens in the future.
“She has two more Olympics in her,” Emmanuel said of the 21-year-old. “I anticipate that she’s going to do different events. She’s so multi-talented in the events from the 100 meters to the 400 meters.”
Stevens wasn’t alone in her struggles.
Muhammad, who was a four-time All-American at USC although she never came out on top in the NCAA finals, faced her own difficulty after failing to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
The doubts stayed in her mind. That’s when she decided to go home — to Cardozo that is.
Muhammad called her old coach and they went through workouts together while refocusing her mind and allowing her to achieve what she felt herself capable of.
“You’re trying to find a solution to your problem and you think, ‘What can I do next?’ ” Muhammad said. “For me, it wasn’t doing something different, but it was doing something I used to do.
“It was humbling, but I understood it. I know what it feels like to be in a large place and feel so small. When you go back to the places you’re comfortable with, you tend to find yourself.”
That she did.
The 2007 New York State Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year rebounded as she turned pro, winning her first national title in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2013 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She placed seventh in the 2015 version of the event before winning the 400-meter hurdles in 52.88 at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
Then, alongside seven of the world’s greatest athletes, Muhammad exploded out of the blocks at the Rio Games. After just a few strides, she was out in front of the pack and seemed to have an insurmountable lead at the midway point.
Muhammad tired down the stretch, but she still won easily with a blistering time of 53.13 seconds, a moment she won’t soon forget.
“Just stepping on the track, you realize why you’ve been doing this for so long,” she said. “You realize that this isn’t the hard part anymore, it’s the part you enjoy. The reality of winning was better than the dream.”
Though not many aside from Emmanuel, Stevens and Muhammad could have dreamed up this reality.