Dawn Harper Nelson celebrates at the IAAF World Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
After more than a decade of distinction, Dawn Harper Nelson finally hurdled off into the sunset Tuesday.
The 34-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist retired after running her last 100-meter hurdles race at the IAAF World Challenge Meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.
“I would love to be remembered as someone that when she lined up, you know for a fact she left it all out there,” Harper Nelson said Monday. “And the biggest thing is, you know if you had to bet you were putting your money on Dawn.”
From America to Zagreb, Harper Nelson, was always a factor in the most competitive Team USA women’s track and field event. Brimming with personality, she’d beam and wink at the camera, model elaborate hairstyles or do cartwheels in celebration.
“I enjoyed track and field because it’s given me so much since the age of 12,” Harper Nelson said. “and I hope that I’ve given something back to track and field.”
In her last hurrah, she placed seventh as the other three Team USA hurdlers went 1-2-3. Sharika Nelvis was first in 12.65 seconds, followed by reigning Olympic and Diamond League champion Brianna McNeal (12.66) and Christina Manning (12.79). Harper Nelson’s time was 13.21.
“I always say that the women’s 100 hurdlers, we’re just a different breed in general,” Harper Nelson said. “Think about it: We want to run as fast as we can at 10 barriers. Who wants to do that, knowing that 10 times I could make a mistake and mess it all up? And we don’t dodge. We race. The same girls line up over and over.’”
But next season the starting line won’t be the same without Harper Nelson, who reeled in the gold medal at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 before she was even national champion. She added silver at the London Games in 2012 with a time of 12.37 seconds that is still her best.
Harper Nelson captured four U.S. titles between 2009 and 2015 and made four world championships finals, earning the bronze medal in 2011 and silver in 2017.
She also secured four straight Diamond League titles from 2012 to 2015.
At the 2015 world championships, Harper Nelson fell over the second hurdle in the semifinals, but an even more crushing disappointment came a year later. She missed the final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for Track and Field by a scant .01 seconds after injuring her hip before the semi. The three athletes who qualified swept the podium in Rio.
Another Medal Moment
Dawn Harper Nelson celebrates at the IAAF World Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
Harper Nelson returned to London in 2017 to claim the world championships silver at age 33. With four Americans, including world record holder Keni Harrison, in the final, Nelson was the only Team USA athlete to medal.
That deserved one of her trademark cartwheels.
“They wanted me to do one in Brussels (at the Diamond League Final, where she placed seventh last week),” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m too sad to do one. I lost!’”
But Harper Nelson envisioned capping her career in Zagreb with a cartwheel – or more than one. “I’m just going to do them probably all around the track,” she said. “They’re going to be like, ‘Ma’am, get off the track.’ ‘No, I’m still going. I’m still going.’”
Harper Nelson considered retiring last year, but opted for one more season to “have a fun year.”
But that’s all she has time to do. While Harper Nelson has spent years racing the clock, her biological clock is starting to tick more loudly.
“I’ve always known I wanted to have children,” she said.
Growing up in East St. Louis, also the hometown of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Harper Nelson had three goals: wife, mother and Olympic gold medalist. She has ticked two of the three boxes.
She said she and husband Alonzo, the only boy who could beat her in eighth grade, laugh that if their roles were reversed, she’d say, “Retirement, what are you talking about?”
But as much fun as she’s having racing, more and more Harper Nelson wants to come home to “somebody who’s going to look up to me and put their hands up, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, you need me! Hi!”
She already knows what it’s like to be sleep deprived. Her adrenaline wouldn’t allow her to sleep after the race in Brussels and she arrived in Zagreb tired for what she called her “last shebang.”
The meet director told her he planned a special farewell to her at the event.
Harper Nelson said she has been too focused on running her final meets to get emotional.
“So many friends are like, ‘Oh my goodness, have you cried yet?’” And I’m like, ‘No, I’ve been moving out of my place and traveling and it hasn’t hit me. And I know it’s going to hit me and I’m just going to lose it. And I’m going to be like, ‘It’s happened.’”
Change Of Scenery
Dawn Harper Nelson (L) and her husband, Alonzo Nelson, attend the 28th Anniversary Sports Spectacular Gala on May 19, 2013 in Century City, Calif.
Harper Nelson did shed a tear before turning in the keys to her Los Angeles home.
“I was like, ‘Wow. I’ve had a great and amazing time in LA,’” she said. “I’ve been away from family and friends for all this time for track and field. This is what it was for and it’s finally really coming to an end.”
She arrived in LA about 15 years ago after earning a full scholarship to UCLA, where she graduated with a degree in psychology. Harper Nelson then stayed to train with coach Bob Kersee.
On Sunday, she’ll move full-time to O’Fallon, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, where she and Alonzo, a high school math teacher and coach, have a home.
She also had a “hard cry that wasn’t fun” in Brussels after hitting three hurdles. “My husband was at the finish line. I went over to him and I was crying and said, ‘It’s over.’ I didn’t want it to end like that. That was tough.’”
But just like her first Diamond League race – Doha in 2010 – when Harper Nelson was determined to compete despite a knee injury, she pushed to the line and was not last.
“I told my mom (after Brussels), ‘Oh I got last,’” Harper Nelson said. “She said, ‘No, baby, you got somebody.’”
Zagreb was her final chance to show what she could do and enjoy the cheers from the crowd, knowing she has made an impact everywhere she’s gone on the international track circuit.
“This race you’re just running for dear mercy,” Harper Nelson said, envisioning the gun going off and her life flashing by her.
It’s been a full career. The U.S. junior champ in 2003, Harper Nelson competed at her first Olympic Trials in 2004, but doesn’t count that one because “I was a baby, a sophomore in college.”
After UCLA, she lived in a converted frat house and worked three jobs to make ends meet. Harper Nelson came back from knee surgery in time for the 2008 Olympic Trials. She clipped a hurdle, but scrapped her way to the line, leaned and tumbled, qualifying third by seven thousandths of a second.
Michelle Perry, a two-time world champion, didn’t make the team due to a hamstring injury. But she was kind enough to loan Harper Nelson a pair of spikes, which she wore in Beijing. “They were the only pair she had that didn’t have her name on them,” Harper Nelson said.
Bird’s Nest Breakthrough
Dawn Harper Nelson celebrates at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 19, 2008 in Beijing.
At the Games, all eyes were on teammate Lolo Jones. When Jones hit the ninth hurdle and lost her momentum, Harper Nelson surged past.
“I didn’t know that I had won,” she said. “When I first crossed the line, it was all chaos.”
Harper Nelson looked to her left and Sally Pearson of Australia was screaming and jumping up and down.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, I think I got silver – silver’s really good!’”
Then she saw Priscilla Lopes-Schliep of Canada start jumping and thought, “Bronze is amazing.”
“Then Damu (Cherry, her teammate) came over, and if you see the video, I collapse in her arms because she says, ‘No you won.’ That’s when you kind of go crazy. I remember thinking to myself, this little girl from East St. Louis… So many people unfortunately don’t get to reach their dreams, and my first try, the pinnacle?”
Harper Nelson, who ran a personal best of 12.54 seconds, said people had told her that no one gets a medal in their first Olympic Games and to just enjoy the experience.
“The whole time I was rolling my eyes at everybody, like, ‘Stop saying that…Let me go and just try first,’” she said.
Late that night, Harper Nelson came back to the Olympic Village and couldn’t get into her room because the door handle was broken. She asked Cherry, who lost the bronze medal by .01, if she could stay with her.
“I said, ‘I feel so bad to ask,’ but she replied ‘Don’t feel bad.’ All night she was crying in bed and I am in the other bed knowing I am Olympic champion, bursting with emotion.”
While Harper Nelson had gone into 2008 “bright-eyed, bushy tailed, looking at Bobby, like, ‘What have we gotten into?,’” in London four years later, “I felt like I was a grown woman walking into the Olympics.”
Harper Nelson lowered her personal best to 12.46 in the semifinals. Before the final, Kersee even told her that she knew exactly what she needed to do in her warmup and didn’t need to ask him. “I just could not comprehend that he trusted me that much and knew that I was ready,” she said.
Harper Nelson clipped the seventh hurdle. “Typically, you find yourself easing off the pedal, because you want to catch your balance,” she said, “and I literally said, ‘We’re going to either crash and burn or we’re winning, because I’m not easing up.’”
Giving Fans What They Want
Dawn Harper Nelson poses with her silver medal at the IAAF World Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
Pearson won with a time of 12.35, with Harper Nelson two-hundredths behind.
“When I saw my time and I got silver, all I kept saying, was, ‘I cannot be mad, because so many people had pumped it up,’” Harper Nelson said. “It was going to be one of the races of the Olympics and I was so blessed to actually live up to that moment. We gave the fans what they wanted. You wanted it to come down to a nail-biting, oh-my-goodness, who got it? type of run instead of somebody messes up and they’re like, ‘That didn’t pan out.’ It was everything they wanted.”
When she went back in London in 2017, however, Harper Nelson was in the uncharacteristic position of underdog.
“I had never been to a championship where people were thinking, ‘Probably not Dawn,’” she said.
She had to find a way to take the pressure off herself. “I told myself, ‘You’ve been here before. Why are you taking away the fun of it when you literally cried and prayed to be here? You wanted to be here so bad and then you’re going to make it a miserable occasion for yourself?’
“When I talked to myself and said that, then it was just like, ‘Wait. Girl, they’re nervous. You know what you’re doing.’”
And now she’s doing something new. She has speaking engagements lined up and her first Ted Talk, probably along the lines of knowing your inner drive.
She’ll bring the same attitude to whatever she does. Harper Nelson said her friend Francena McCorory, the 400-meter runner, said, “Dawn, you are so happy.”
“And I’m like, ‘Girl, you know how hard we work to get these wins. It is not easy.’ When you cross the line you hear the fans screaming and they’re looking at you for the energy, so you just give it back. Fans always send a message, ‘Your energy is so contagious. I love the joy that you show after your races.’
“It’s just true. I mean, who gets to travel the world pretty much on someone else’s dime and race in front of people and have people cheer for you? It’s fun.”
And now, alas, that part of her life is done.