The fire alarm sounds in the Rio Olympic Village and Jenna Prandini finds herself hustling down a stairway next to Simone Biles and the rest of the Team USA gymnastics squad.
Yes, that squad – gold medals dangling from their necks, earned the day before.
The alarm was false. Real, however, was the moment for Prandini: “I would have never in a million years dreamed of meeting Simone.”
The Clovis native, through years of high school, college and national track and field brilliance, yet described all along by her father as just a “normal” girl, has joined a pantheon of athletes in unmistakable red, white and blue.
Yes, she was a high school homecoming queen, but hardly pretentious.
Popular, no doubt, but rarely the voice in a crowd.
Always an achiever, but unfailingly modest in subsequent media attention as a five-time state high school meet gold medalist, 14-time NCAA All-American at Oregon, 2015 U.S. national champion in the 200-meter sprint and 2015 Bowerman Award winner as the NCAA Athlete of the Year for women’s track and field.
22.20 Prandini’s personal record in the 200 meters, which would have placed fourth in the 2012 London Olympics
And now this.
So how to say one Jenna Elizabeth Prandini, 23, is like the girl next door anymore?
She and others among the 31st Olympiad’s record Team USA 554-member delegation matched white pants, navy blue blazers and horizontal-striped shirts while parading into Rio de Janeiro’s historic Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremonies.
Prandini, who will debut Monday at 5:30 a.m. PDT in a 200-meter heat, shouldered with American golfer Rickie Fowler in the march into the venue separate from Olympic Stadium, which is staging track and field.
She could be identified briefly in the background on NBC, smiling and munching on popcorn seemingly as routine as once watching a Clovis Cougars football game at Lamonica Stadium.
Being now with the best athletes in the world, hearing ‘United States of America’ announced was incredible. It sent chills all over my body.
Jenna Prandini on the Opening Ceremony in Rio
“Walking in was an indescribable feeling,” she says by cellphone from Rio. “I’ve always watched the Olympics and dreamed of being there, though not specifically track in the beginning; I wanted to be a soccer and volleyball player. And being now with the best athletes in the world, hearing ‘United States of America’ announced, was incredible. It sent chills all over my body. It was so awesome to be there.”
Her Olympic experience so far includes chatting with Serena Williams.
She’s hung out with Katie Ledecky.
She’s part of a U.S. team featuring the sensational seven of Sports Illustrated’s Olympics preview edition: Biles, swimmers Ledecky and Michael Phelps, basketball’s Kevin Durant, soccer player Alex Morgan, and track and field athletes Ashton Eaton and Allyson Felix.
Prandini appears in a small photo on page 47, huddled with fellow American 200 Olympic entrants Tori Bowie and former College of the Sequoias star Deajah Stevens at the USA Trials four weeks ago.
She’s now in Rio, shoulder to shoulder with the sensational seven, the prestige and fashion to go with it.
“I brought my own clothes,” says the athlete raised on Gibson Avenue, a half-mile north of Clovis High. “But we were given two bags of luggage, training, lounging, basically enough stuff where we’re always wearing USA gear wherever we go. It’s cool to have stuff with rings on it.”
The five Olympic rings, symbols of pride and glory.
“Not many have the opportunity,” she says.
Prandini is one of only three women all-time from the Central Section to make the Olympics in track and field, says historian Bob Barnett.
The first was Christine Sonali Merrill, who was born in Bakersfield, attended Bakersfield Christian High and competed in the 400 hurdles at the 2012 London Games for Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia. The other is Clovis West graduate Nikki Okwelogu, who joins Prandini in Rio while throwing the shot put for her parents’ native Nigeria.
“It’s really fun,” Prandini says. “I’m getting to meet so many athletes I’ve always watched. I’m pictured with Serena (Williams). I’m walking around with Katie (Ledecky). Oh my gosh, these are the type of people I’ve only watched and now I’m passing by them, saying, ‘Good luck,’ and rooting each other on.”
Those include Felix, an American track and field icon and 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meters at London.
Prandini took down Felix, but only after literally going down herself while punching her ticket to Brazil.
Plunging to Rio
Felix, a four-time Games gold medalist, counting relays, was denied an opportunity at sweeping the Rio 200 and 400 – a combination achieved by only three others in Olympics history – when beaten by Prandini for the third and final 200 qualifying position in the Trials at Hayward Field on Prandini’s former college track in Eugene, Ore.
In a photo finish, Prandini, with Felix closing, leaned at the finish line, lost balance and plunged headfirst to the track.
Fortunately, volleyball experience had her execute a roll similar to one often seen after a player dives for a dig in the sport.
“Photos look worse,” she says, “but, actually, I only came away with a tiny scratch.”
Prandini’s parents, Carlo and Theresa, older siblings Chrissy and Mark, 60 others from the Clovis area and thousands of Prandini-biased Oregon Ducks fans in attendance inhaled, fearing a serious injury and awaiting official results from the digital scoreboard.
Only the times of Bowie (22.25 seconds) and Stevens (22.30), as clearly the top finishers, were posted immediately.
But who placed third?
Would it be Prandini, lying on the track, propped up on elbows, staring down the scoreboard?
Or would it be Felix, standing and riveted to the board as well?
The place went silent.
Carlo Prandini on the scene at Oregon’s Hayward Field at the U.S. Trials
“The place went silent,” says Carlo Prandini, a day before leaving for Rio with his wife and two days before Mark and Chrissy go as well in a trip that will cost the family at least $20,000.
“We’ll pay it every four years if we have to,” says Dad, smiling. “We’re not complaining; it’s worth it.”
His son described the agonizing wait for the complete results displayed on the scoreboard: “About 15 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity.”
Mom: “I’ve never been more nervous before, any race ever. I seriously could not sit in my seat. It’s something you think about all of your life, you just want (her) to get there in her life and now she’s right there, knocking there on the door; can she do it? The anticipation.”
And brother: “We were sitting about 10 meters before the finish line. I thought Jenna got third because she was beating Allyson by a step when they passed us, but we didn’t know for sure.”
Then popped the marks: Prandini 22.53; Felix 22.54.
That represented the most meaningful one-hundredth of a second in Prandini’s life and overwhelmed her family, who screamed, wept and exchanged high-fives with seemingly all of the Pacific Northwest.
Mark put the accomplishment into perspective: “We (as a family) have been big fans of the Olympics. We went to the Olympic Trials in 2000 and ’04 (at Sacramento State) because we love track. We’ve always been asked, ‘Do you think Jenna will make the Olympics one day?’ And, even though she has always been amazing, we know how hard it is to make it; it’s almost impossible to make the U.S. Olympic team, especially in the events she does because you have to be one of the best in the world, and one of the best in the world that day.”
Examples: Ariana Washington and Felicia Brown, ranked Nos. 5 and 7 in the world this year with 200 times of 22.21 and 22.26, failed to escape the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Prandini, likewise, placed a non-qualifying fifth in the Trials’ 100 despite coming in with the 10th-fastest time in the world (10.95).
But she made it in the 200 by inches. And she could also be added to Team USA’s 400 relay, which won’t be determined until this week. First round of the 400 relays begins Thursday.
Prandini could have taken a far less dramatic path to Rio.
Her father has distant cousins of the Prandini name living in Italy. Newspaper articles have been written about Jenna Prandini there and, two years ago, the Italian Olympic Federation made a run at her, guaranteeing her membership on Italy’s team at Rio while suggesting she establish dual citizenship while attending Oregon.
Prandini, who a year ago signed a five-year professional contract paying well into six figures annually with Puma and has since graduated with a business degree at Oregon, remained loyal to her nation.
“It’s an honor to represent any country,” she says. “I am so honored to be here wearing USA and living out something that I have been dreaming about ever since I was a little girl.”
Next goal: Make the final and race for a medal.
It promises to be a close call.
If Prandini’s at her best – and she’s confident she will be – her chances are good at making it through Monday’s first round, Tuesday’s 6 p.m. semis and into Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. final.
She ranks 12th in the world with a season-best of 22.39.
Two factors are favorable for her in advancing to the finals:
▪ That time is eighth-best in the 200 field.
▪ And she has a personal record of 22.20, clocked while winning the USA national title last year. That time would have placed fourth four years ago in London.
Top entrants at Rio are the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers (21.93), Bowie (21.99) and Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson (22.16).
“I know if I put together a good race I can run with anyone,” Prandini says. “I’m in good shape; I’m running great in practice. If I get to the finals and run a PR, which I think I’m more than capable of, I should be up there.”
On the medals stand?
In the Olympics?
What a story that would be for the Clovis girl next door.