DES MOINES, Iowa -- As one dominant U.S. women’s hurdler raced at her final USATF Outdoor Championships, another made it clear that she’s here to stay – and dominate.
Fourteen years after her first outdoor national championships, Dawn Harper-Nelson said farewell to the meet and passed the hurdles torch (so to speak) to Keni Harrison, who proved she is the present and future of the sport.
Harrison ran away with her second consecutive national title in the women’s 100-meter hurdles in a time of 12.46 seconds – in a headwind, no less – which is the fourth-fastest time of the year. Christina Manning, third in the event last year, was 0.19 seconds back in second, while Sharika Nelvis was just behind Manning at 12.68 seconds.
In a loaded final at the event, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, 2008 Olympian Queen Harrison was fourth in 12.76 seconds, followed by two-time Olympic medalist Harper-Nelson, who clipped a hurdle and finished fifth at 12.93. Kori Carter, the 2017 world champion in the 400-meter hurdles, was sixth in 13.11 seconds, followed by Oregon’s Alaysha Johnson, the school-record holder, at 13.23.
“The 100 hurdles will always be stacked,” Keni Harrison said after her win. “I think that’s what makes our event so exciting. Everyone on the line wants it and everyone on the line can get it. It’s just who wants it more and who has what it takes to come across the line first.”
Harrison, 25, is the one who has had what it takes the past two seasons.
In 2017 she won her first national title in Sacramento, California, after breaking her hand the month before. Now injury-free, she was able to run 0.14 seconds faster this year.
Harrison’s first U.S. title was redemption for missing the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. This one, she explained, is a confidence booster.
“The more I’m able to come here and run under pressure and have a target on my back, and still be able to come across the line first is definitely building my confidence, and the more I win a national championship the better I feel,” Harrison said.
Performing – and succeeding – under pressure will only help her mental toughness, which she said has been an area of weakness in the past.
Harrison was a favorite to make the team for the Olympic Games Rio 2016, with the four fastest times in the world – and the American record – heading into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, but she faltered at trials and finished sixth.
Later that month she showed her performance there was a fluke, by setting the world record at a Diamond League meet in London and breaking a mark that stood for 28 years. She ended that season as the Diamond League overall champion.
“This sport is definitely mental, and I’ve learned that,” she said. “Physically, I’ve always been in shape at these big meets, but sometimes, mentally, I’m not strong enough. My mind is definitely getting a lot stronger and it’s definitely preparing me for the future.”
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Once Harrison combines her speed and technique with that mental fortitude she’s working on, she hopes to match the likes of Harper-Nelson, who after Olympic gold (2008) and silver (2012) medals, world silver (2017) and bronze (2011) medals, four Diamond League trophies (2012-15) and four national titles (2009, 2012, 2014-15) has declared this will be her final season.
“I love running against Dawn,” Harrison said. “She was one of the hurdlers that I looked up to. She is always so bubbly, always a strong competitor. It’s sad to see her go. Just seeing her career, I definitely want to have what she has, especially an Olympic gold medal. She’s still someone that I look up to.”
Harper-Nelson, who at 34 is 12 years older than the youngest competitor in Saturday’s 100-meter hurdles final, wished she could have reached the podium a seventh time at her final nationals, but was satisfied with the way she left it all on the track.
“Obviously I would’ve loved to have not clipped a hurdle, but I love that everyone knew because I was in the final it was going to be a good race,” she said. “They knew that I was going to push the envelope and leave it all out there. I’m happy with my performance because I know I didn’t go in there timid or sad; I’m glad I went in there fiercely.”
Just as he has been for most of her career, Harper-Nelson’s husband Alonzo was by her side as she spoke to the press.
“It was bittersweet,” Nelson said. “When they said this was her last U.S. nationals, I got a little emotional as well because I’ve been through the whole thing with her. We always look forward to the end of June because this is U.S. nationals time.”
Harper-Nelson has spent much of her season reflecting on her career, soaking in the moments and acknowledging her many ‘last’s.
But she has one more ‘first’ ahead of her: competing at the Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco.
“I haven’t been to Rabat before, so that will be cool that one of my last meets will be my first time racing there because I don’t have any more ‘first’s on the circuit because I’ve been to all the races. So, Rabat will be really cool to race at.”
Rabat will be one of the final stops before Harper-Nelson arrives at what she is dreaming of as her “perfect ending.”
“The Diamond League champion – to bring home that bad baby. I have four of them, a fifth one would just – you would say, ‘Did she win the Olympics again? Why is she crying so hard?’” she said, confident that she would celebrate that victory like no other.
As of now, she does not have a date marked on the calendar for her final race, though anticipates it could come at a meet in Berlin in early September.
Whenever it happens, Harper-Nelson has already thought about the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
“I want them to say, ‘When Dawn went to the line, my money was on her,’” she said emphatically. “You hear that a lot, but a fierce competitor can also be that they’re in the mix; no, I got the job done. When I go to practice I think about that you have to be ready so when your time arrives you’re not thinking about having to pull something off. I want people to know that I trained for it, and when the time came I got the job done.”