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‘Hurdle Nerd’ Harrison Defies The Clock In Night-And-Day Effort To Make This Her Time On Track

By Philip Hersh | June 29, 2016, 12:31 p.m. (ET)

Keni Harrison competes in the women's 100-meter hurdles at the 15th IAAF World Championships at Beijing National Stadium on Aug. 27, 2015 in Beijing.

It’s 2 a.m. A text message pops into Edrick Floreal’s phone. Whether Floreal is still awake when it arrives or sees it a few hours later, he doesn’t have to look at the message to know who sent it.

Who else would be seeking answers in the wee hours to questions about biomechanics and physics?

Who else would have just finished watching video of her latest workout and wondering what her coach has to say about takeoff angle and velocity?

Who else but Keni Harrison, the woman whom Floreal calls the “hurdle nerd,” no matter that attention deficit disorder has always made written instruction, especially in math, a struggle for her?

“When it comes time to talk hurdling, she turns into some kind of Einstein,” Floreal said.

It doesn’t seem to make any difference that Floreal has told her she should be sleeping rather than thinking and talking (in the virtual sense) about hurdles at 2 a.m. He tried pointing out to her that if Harrison were going to stay up worrying, he was going to go to sleep, so the responses still would have to wait until the next morning.

“When I’m up at night, I like to go through what I did that day,” Harrison said. “When I have a question, I don’t look at the time, I just text him. I love asking questions.”

Floreal can laugh about occasionally losing this argument. He knows that the way Harrison processes the answers about the best way to run 100 meters while hurdling ten 33-inch-high barriers has helped make her a global sensation this Olympic track and field season.

Her success also gave Floreal the last laugh with 1992 Olympic silver medalist hurdler LaVonna Martin-Floreal. She had called her husband of 23 years a fool when he said after watching Harrison practice the first time, “Keni’s going to be a lot better than you ever were.”

Three years after Harrison left Clemson to spend her final two collegiate seasons and now the first full season of her pro career with Floreal at the University of Kentucky, she is that – and much more.

In late May at the Prefontaine Classic Diamond League meet in Eugene, Oregon, Harrison became the fastest outdoor hurdler in U.S. history and second-fastest ever globally with a time of 12.24 seconds.

She shaved .02 seconds from the U.S. record that her former Clemson teammate, Brianna Rollins, set three years ago. Harrison was just .03 from the world record set by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria 28 (!) years ago.

Because Floreal was with his Kentucky team at NCAA regionals the weekend of the Prefontaine meet, his wife went with Harrison to Eugene. The Floreals were texting back and forth before Harrison’s race but when it was over, LaVonna called.

“Ohmigod, Ohmigod,” she stammered, making her husband worry something bad had happened. “You told me this girl would set the world on fire.”

Harrison is red hot going into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, which begin Friday in Eugene. She has the four fastest times in the world this season and victories in all three of her Diamond League appearances. That string of triumphs and impressive times has bolstered confidence that was lacking until her senior year at Kentucky.

“I’m just finally developing into the athlete I know I can be,” she said.

The Harrison family poses for a photo on Christmas in 2015. From left to right, back row: Gary, Jojo, Cory, Kipp, Victor, Hyung, Karon; front row: Bo, Keni, Gabriela, Casey, Tasha, Kara.

How she got to this point involved clearing life hurdles that could have been insurmountable, were it not for her own will and the love of parents who raised her as one of the nine adopted children in their family of 11.

Gary and Karon Harrison, both former Naval officers who recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary, began adopting when they had trouble enlarging their family after first child, Casey, now an Air Force pilot and captain, was born 33 years ago.

“My husband had once dated a woman whose family had adopted and fostered a lot of kids, and he always kind of wanted to do that,” Karon said.

Their first two adoptees, daughter Bo, 32, and son Hyung, 31, were from Korea. Then came four from the United States: son Cory, 26; son Jordan, 25; and daughters Natasha and Keni (whose given name is Kendra), both 23. Next were two Bolivians, son Victor and daughter Gabriela, both 21. Last of the adopted group is son Kipp, 19.

“Some people collect souvenirs when they travel. We collected children,” Karon said, laughing.

Gary retired from the Navy as a commander in 1997 and since has worked for the TSA. Karon, a lieutenant commander in the Navy reserve, retired from the service in 2015. She has worked at a preschool for the last 12 years.

The military life had led to the Harrisons living in seven different states and Bolivia until settling for good in Clayton, North Carolina, for the 18 years since their second natural child, Kara, was born. They originally squeezed into a Clayton house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It later was expanded to seven bedrooms with four baths.

Chaos? “Not to me,” said Keni, adopted in Memphis at 3 months old. “It’s all I know. We fought a lot when we were little but now that we’re older, we all appreciate each other a lot more. It could get hectic at times, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Because the children went to school outside the district, the parents had to shuttle them. Gary hauled the kids in an old hotel van from which he had removed the labeling.

Seeing the diverse group of kids all piling into the van one day after school, someone asked Keni what day care center the van was taking them to. “We’re just going home,” she replied. “They’re my siblings.”

She would be the only accomplished athlete in the family, concentrating on soccer – and cheerleading – until her junior year of high school. Older sister Casey had all but bribed her to start track by getting her new running shoes.

Keni would develop such a sense of body control that what started as a fall from a wet roof during a church mission project wound up in her doing a flip with a landing gymnastics judges would have loved. “She even put her hands up in the air like she was performing,” recalled her sister, Gabriela, who witnessed it.

“She was blessed to be an athlete,” mom Karon said. “She got to go to college because of it.”

Keni spent her first two years at Clemson, then four deep in talented women’s hurdlers (including Rollins, who became 2013 world champion and Bridgette Owens, two-time NCAA outdoor bronze medalist). Floreal thinks Harrison was lost in the shuffle, even if she did finish fifth in the 100-meter hurdles (and fourth in the 400-meter hurdles) in the NCAA outdoor championships as a sophomore.

When the Clemson head coach resigned over NCAA rules violations in January 2013, her specialty coach, Tim Hall, moved to Kentucky as an assistant, and Harrison moved with him. When Hall left for Tennessee after the 2014 season, Floreal became completely responsible for her training.

“I didn’t see her as the worst of Clemson’s hurdlers,” Floreal said. “I saw her as the best of Kentucky’s hurdlers. The challenge was to get her to see she could be the world’s best hurdler.”

Floreal is a native Haitian who moved to Canada, won five NCAA triple jump titles for Arkansas and represented Canada at two Olympics, finishing 18th in the triple jump in 1988 and 28th in the long jump in 1992. He studied physics in college until track commitments led him to change majors, but knowledge of that subject helped him learn about the hurdles from books and from coaching his wife.

“I’m no guru,” he said. “I saw raw, untapped ability in Keni and an inexhaustible desire to learn. She is committed to all aspects of a professional’s life: diet, rest and prioritizing track.”

Because of her learning disability, much of Harrison’s education has been visual. She was on an Independent Education Plan (IEP) that allowed tests to be read to her.

“I had to work really hard,” she said. “Reading and comprehending were tough. Math was the hardest one.”

She earned a Kentucky degree in community planning and development with a 3.5 GPA that made her an academic All-America. The NCAA named her one of its 2016 Today’s Top 10 Award winners, recognized for achievements on the field, in the classroom and in community service.

In her first year at Kentucky, she became the first hurdler since 1999 to win both the 100 and 400 hurdles at the Southeastern Conference Championship. But she ran substantially slower in both at the NCAA Championship, leading Floreal to realize she still lacked confidence.

So he played a mental game with her. Floreal told the extremely near-sighted Harrison if she wanted to run like a superhero, she had to take off her glasses metaphorically to transform her 5-foot-3, 115-pound, mild-mannered self into a track superhero.

Bazinga! As a senior, she won the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles in the hurdles, was second in the outdoor intermediate hurdles with a personal best 54.09 and finished second at the U.S. championships to make the U.S. team for last year’s outdoor worlds.

Then the question became which hurdles event she should focus on for the Olympic season, when she needs a top-three trials finish for a place in Rio. Should it be the 400, in which the domestic and global competition is good but not great, or the 100, in which the five fastest women in the world last year were all from the United States? (Harrison was fourth. And that top five didn’t include Rollins, injured off-and-on in 2015.)

“I was told by about 30 people we would be idiots not to do the 400,” Floreal said.

There was one big flaw in that logic. Harrison likes the 100 better. She was tired of the longer endurance runs needed to train for the 400, where the hurdles are three inches lower but the pain level is substantially higher. Although Floreal thinks she can ultimately be better in the 400, he saw an immediate upside in trying the 100 partly because of the attention the hot competition will put on that race.

“The 100 and 400 hurdles contradict themselves,” Floreal said. “One you float around, take long strides, the other is short strides, explosiveness. It’s stride enlargement versus stride reduction.

“If you removed the long, hard and painful work, I knew she could drop a lot from her personal best in the 100,” the coach said. “Sometimes the path to greatness is the most difficult path.”

Going into the season, her personal best in the 100 was 12.50. She lowered that to 12.36 in her first outdoor race April 6, and her top four times of 2016 all are under 12.50. Her slowest of six races is 12.66 on a windy, rainy track in Stockholm, a time TV commentator Tim Hutchings called “almost superhuman in these conditions.” She is unbeaten outdoors.

“I’m not scared of the competition,” she said. “Running the 100 is more enjoyable because I know I’m running against the world’s greatest at the trials in one of the hardest events to make the team.”

One remaining hurdle the Olympics would give Harrison a chance to get past is running her best at a global championship. She was disqualified for a false start in the 100 semis at the 2015 outdoor worlds. She mashed a couple hurdles and finished dead last in the 60-meter hurdles final at the 2016 indoor worlds, a race she had entered with what would remain the world’s second fastest time of the season.

“Those experiences have made me a better athlete,” she said. “That stuff happens. For it to happen at two big meets made me want to study what I’m doing wrong and work harder to let people know they can count on me in big meets.

“I feel everything happens for a reason, and I don’t think it was my time yet. The way this season is going, I feel it’s my time now.”

With the clock ticking on the biggest year so far of her young career, Floreal wanted her to get repeated exposure to the feeling of racing against the world’s top athletes. She had not met those opponents at all until last summer.

“I told her my goal was to put her in the furnace as much as possible,” Floreal said. “I’m going overboard to make sure she can line up under pressure and deliver against a world-class field so that will be the norm, and when she gets to Rio and Eugene, it will feel like business as usual.”

Still, the speed at which she has burst to the top of the world is a little unnerving. Her mother knew Keni’s dream was to go to the Olympics, but Karon figured until last summer that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were a more reasonable goal.

“There’s a lot of pressure on her as a new, young athlete,” Karon Harrison said. “I worry if she messes up, everybody is going to look down on her. That’s what I feel her fear is, too.

“She doesn’t like it when the family posts a lot of things on her Facebook wall. She doesn’t want to have those expectations and not live up to what people want from her.”

After Harrison tickled the world record in Eugene, her agent, Emanuel Hudson, asked if she felt ready to break it so he could get an appropriate bonus added to her contracts. He response was, “Don’t talk to me about money or records. It makes me nervous.”

Floreal said removing the pressure is his job. He said she makes it easy by taking an uncomplicated approach to who she is.

“I enjoy studying my film, and I enjoy getting better, and it’s really cool to see my hard work pay off,” she said. “My coach has been telling me I can run these times, and I just listen to him.”

And the coach also listens for his phone, hoping it won’t ding in the middle of the night but no longer being alarmed by that sound at such hours. It will just mean Keni Harrison wants to know why her lead leg trajectory looked a little off.

He has never had a level of communication like this, day or night, with another athlete. He gives her the video, knowing full well what happens next. “A lot of questions, all the time,” she said. Call it the revenge of the hurdle nerd.

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.