BEIJING — Always, her story has been about belief.
As Damu Cherry stood on the bright orange track of the Bird's Nest stadium, however, disbelief was all over her face.
She stood 20 meters beyond the finish line, her hands on top of her head, a pained look on her face. All the miles, all the years, and she had lost by the snap of a finger.
By one one-hundredth of a second?
Can you believe it?
Do you believe in the stopwatch? Do you believe in the results of a photo finish?
Cherry's teammate Dawn Harper had already started her victory jog around the stadium, the American flag flowing behind her, after winning the 100-meter hurdles. The Tampa native had planned on making that run with her in the aftermath of an American sweep.
For the longest time, however, longer than the race, she could only kneel and stare at the video replay board to see what answer it would provide. Five women had finished in a clump behind Harper, and it was as if the judges were having to sort them out with tweezers.
"Please, please, please," Cherry remembered saying to herself.
And in the end, that couldn't help, either. In the time it takes you to flip a light switch, Cherry was fourth in a photo finish.
It can be a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching finish, fourth. It is the difference between celebration and consolation, between anthems and agony.
And this fourth seemed more like a kick in the ribs than most of them.
Harper won in 12.54 seconds. A tenth of a second behind her were Australia's Sally McLellan and Canada's Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, both in 12.64. A hundredth of a second behind them were Cherry and Delloreen Ennis-London of Jamaica in 12.65. Bridgitte Foster-Hylton was another hundredth behind.
Five women, separated by 0.02 of a second. Five women, close enough to fit in the same phone booth.
"I thought I had it," Cherry said. "I thought I had the bronze. Maybe if I had dipped my shoulder a little more. I don't know. Maybe if I had leaned a little differently. Maybe I could have gotten the silver.
"It's hard. But I have to take it and go with it."
Do you believe in second chances? Do you believe in a clean slate?
This was Cherry's moment, after all. This was her opportunity to put her name out there again. Since 2003, since a drug suspension, she had thought about this race.
Standing at the starting line, it was obvious how eager Cherry was to begin. She was chattering to herself, clapping her hands, slapping her thighs, telling herself to focus.
And then she was fourth. Shocking, she said. "That's what you get in the hurdles," she said. "Shocking results."
Consider American Lolo Jones, for instance. In the heats, she had established herself as the runner to beat. But she clipped a hurdle, and the next thing you know, she was seventh.
"It's like driving a car at maximum velocity," Jones said. "If you hit a curve, you're either going to maintain control, or you're going to crash and burn. I crashed and burned."
Compared with Jones, who left the mixed zone in tears, Cherry was upbeat.
"It's a blessing to be here," she said. "I can't complain. I wanted a medal, but I just have to take this and move on. Pretty much I did what I was supposed to do."
Do you believe in circumstances? Do you believe in explanations?
For years now, Cherry has tried to explain that her positive drug test was because of cheap, tainted supplements. Ah, but some will not forget, and others will not forgive. No one outruns a drug allegation anymore. Once the label is attached to an athlete, it lingers for life.
Even some of her teammates don't seem to totally buy in to her story. Did you hear the backhanded compliment given to Cherry by Harper after the semis. "She's proving she can do it without (steroids),'' Harper said.
Perhaps a victory here might have vindicated her. Perhaps it might have raised more suspicions. Who knows?
"Honestly, all I care about is answering to God," Cherry said. "He knows what's in my heart. He knows everything about me. I could really care less what anyone else thinks. I don't care if anyone else forgives me.
"It's made me a stronger person. When I'm done with this sport, I'll be able to handle everything in life. Nothing is going to stress me out."
Well, fourth place, maybe.
"I'm ready to go out and run it again," Cherry said, smiling. "This time, maybe I'll dip a little more."
Do you believe in running through the disappointment? Do you believe in clearing the hurdles?
.5 a.m.-5 p.m. MSNBC
.8-10 a.m. Tele.
.10 a.m.-1 p.m. Ch. 8
.5-8 p.m. CNBC
.6-8 p.m. Oxygen
.8 p.m.-midnight Ch. 8
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