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It was the hollow, vast emptiness of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo that struck Javianne Oliver the most.
She recalls showing up at the venue ready to race at her first Olympic Games, but she also couldn’t help but notice the quiet that engulfed her, with no fans allowed in the 68,000-capacity venue.
“Going to the stadium and seeing how big it is and seeing that there’s no fans, that was like the most surprising thing,” Oliver recalled. “It was just so big and so empty and just kind of echoey.”
While there was a lack of fanfare in the stands, Oliver did her part on the track.
The former Kentucky Wildcat, who competed for UK from 2015 to 2017, was one of 11 athletes with ties to UK who combined to win 12 medals during the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
Oliver won a silver medal as part of the United States women’s 4-by-100-meter sprint relay team, as the Americans were only beaten by a Jamaican team that clocked the second-fastest time in history.
She will be returning to Lexington soon for the first time in years and will be honored for her medal-winning performance during Kentucky’s Oct. 2 home football game against Florida.
More than a month has passed since Oliver’s atypical Olympic experience in Tokyo, which included being confined to the Olympic Village, which athletes couldn’t leave aside from competitions.
But despite the restrictions in place for the delayed Summer Games due to COVID-19, Oliver said she didn’t feel “trapped” while competing at the pinnacle of her sport.
“I think they did a good job making sure we weren’t bored in a village. I mean there’s games and there was pin trading and the stores and the dining hall, it was like a meet zone,” Oliver explained. “At the end of the day I did want to go to see Tokyo, I did want to explore, but maybe in a few years in Paris this can kind of calm down.”
Oliver said she was used to the routine of being tested and wearing a mask to prevent transmission of COVID-19, but there were still opportunities to interact and meet other athletes while confined to the Olympic Village.
“I think that’s so funny, like I met people on the elevator going up or down, maybe like in the room where you can do activities. I met some people coloring, (doing) crosswords, TV,” Oliver said. “It was just like we had no choice but to run into somebody you didn’t know.”
While the backdrop and setting of the Summer Games were unusual, that didn’t dampen the excitement Oliver had when it came time for the 4-by-100-meter sprint relay finals.
“I just kind of like, went blank and watched my teammates, but I just know at the beginning I just wanted to do everything I could,” Oliver, who ran the opening leg of the relay for the United States, said. “I was sitting on the number and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really (in) the 4-by-100, the race I used to watch as a kid at the Olympics.’
“It’s just such a surreal feeling, like you have to take it in sometimes, like just looking at all the women in front of me and my teammates waiting is just such a great feeling, just running (and) handing off the baton.”
The U.S. was in lane six for the event, two lanes above the eventual winners Jamaica in lane eight.
This alignment allowed Oliver to get an up-close look at one of her sprinting heroes, the legendary Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who ran the third leg for Jamaica.
“It’s still a surreal feeling seeing people from TV when I was younger and now being right beside them in races,” Oliver said.
Before arriving at Kentucky, Oliver, who is from Georgia, went to college at North Carolina.
She said she didn’t truly feel like an Olympian until she returned home from Tokyo and had a celebration in her hometown, where plenty of people got a look at her new silver medal.
“The medal’s really heavy, and everyone who picks it up does this really dramatic, ‘Oh, it’s so heavy thing,’” Oliver said. “I just like seeing everyone’s reactions when they actually see why I keep taking it on and off. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, now I understand it’s like 5 pounds around your neck.’”
Oliver was one of four track and field athletes connected to UK to win a medal in Tokyo, along with gold medalists Jasmine Camacho-Quinn in the women’s 100-meter hurdles and Sydney McLaughlin in the women’s 400-meter hurdles and women’s 4-by-400-meter sprint relay, and fellow silver medalist Kendra Harrison in the women’s 100-meter hurdles.
The growth of Kentucky’s track and field prominence thanks to their efforts — not to mention the impact of having all four track and field medalists be women — hasn’t yet set in for Oliver.
“Just to know that I’m an alumni and I have a part of recruiting now ... it’s just super exciting,” Oliver said. “I just haven’t digested how big it is to be a part of growing a program.”