Much of what Sandra knows about the first few years of her life has come from her great-aunt Veta. "She told me that my mother was more like the partying type," Sandra says. "She went away to party and left me behind. She didn't come back to get me."
Sandra last saw her mother two years ago. "I don't dislike her," she says. "But we don't share any emotions. She's never once said she loved me. She doesn't send me Christmas cards or anything. But I was upset when she didn't come to my wedding. The only family member at my wedding was my mom in New York. I had no blood family."
Sandra spent much of her early childhood in the care of a woman whose precise relationship to her is unclear. "She was supposed to be an aunt," says Sandra, scanning the family tree she has mapped out in front of her. "But she doesn't tie in up here."
Life in Kingston, which was hard for most people, was made doubly so for Sandra by her "aunt." "I was like her stepchild," she says. "If I wanted a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich after school, I'd have to beg one of her sons to sneak it for me. My mom in New York would send clothes, and my aunt wouldn't give them to me. I was running around with sores all over my toes. That's where I got a lot of my strength from, running wild the first seven or eight years of my life, building up natural strength."
At age 10 Sandra was passed to her grandmother. Behind the grandmother's house was a one-room outbuilding, which sheltered eight or nine of the 13 grandchildren who lived with her. "We didn't live in a hut or anything," says Sandra. "But to this day, when I go back to Jamaica, I think, No way all of us fit in this little room here," she says. "I remember three or four of us sleeping in one bed."
When Sandra was 11, Veta Farmer filed the necessary papers and brought her to Brooklyn to live. After the intoxicating chaos of life with 12 other children in Kingston, life with her great-aunt, who was a strict Pentecostalist, meant a radical change.
"You couldn't wear pants, couldn't go to the movies," Sandra says. "You couldn't have a boyfriend. You couldn't wear makeup or jewelry. You were just basic. You were there to serve the Lord, and that was it."
Since Sandra couldn't wear pants, tiny running shorts were definitely out. When she began running, she wore little skirts to practices at PS. 152.
Her natural strength showed from the start. Unlike her husband, who graduated from Centralia High with a respectable best of 37.8 in the 330 hurdles, Farmer-Patrick is one of those runners haunted by a brilliant past. However fast she runs, she can never do more than meet the expectations created by her prodigious early career. She was a 14-year-old high school freshman running her second 400-meter hurdles race when she clocked 64.81 seconds and finished sixth in open competition at the 1977 Penn Relays. Two months later, she won the U.S. junior (14 to 18) title in 58.90. That was a national record for freshmen and for 14-year-olds that stands today. The time was, and is, also faster than the record for sophomores and 15-year-olds. Sandra ended the 1977 season ranked fifth in the U.S.
For the next three years her progress was desultory. By the time she graduated from Brooklyn's Saint Angela Hall Academy in 1980, Sandra had lowered her best only slightly, to 58.31. It seemed at times she was sinking back into the passivity of her childhood, letting things happen rather than making them happen. After procrastinating for months, she chose the University of Arizona over her other pursuers by reciting "eeny, meeney, miney, mo" over three letters of intent. She spent only a year at Arizona before transferring to Cal State-Los Angeles. It was toward the end of her sophomore year there that she met Patrick, a student at the University of Tennessee who was handsome and solid as a rock.