Dawn Harper Nelson planking with daughter Harper Renee Nelson.
After Dawn Harper Nelson had her baby, she received messages from fellow hurdlers saying, “Oh, I hope you come back.”
“And I’m like, ‘But do you really?’” Harper Nelson said. “Because then it’s going to be on!”
Well, it’s on!
Harper Nelson announced Monday that she is training for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
See, she never truly bought into the notion that she had to retire before starting a family.
That’s what Harper Nelson said she was doing in September 2018 when she bid farewell to track and field. But the Olympic gold and silver medalist soon wondered if she’d really competed in her last 100-meter hurdles race.
What was actually stopping her?
Harper Nelson worked out during her pregnancy – walking over hurdles into her seventh month – and was back on the track a month after giving birth to a baby girl named Harper Renee Nelson in April 2019.
“I still think I have it and I can kill it,” said Harper Nelson, who was the Olympic champion in 2008, silver medalist in 2012 and also captured world silver (2017) and bronze (2011) medals.
And did anyone really think she was the retiring type?
The effervescent Harper Nelson, a big personality in the sport with her hairstyles and cartwheels, is coming back for herself and for her daughter. She doesn’t want either of them to have regrets.
“Growing up, I’d always heard the way to be a good mom is you stop everything else and you focus on your kid,” Harper Nelson said. “All the women in my life had said when they were moms they stopped their dream. Once I had my daughter, I looked at her and I remember thinking, ‘I still have this yearn to run.’ And I refuse for her to say, when she looked at my career, ‘My mom always said she wanted to keep running, but she stopped because she had me.’”
All In The FamilyDawn Harper Nelson with husband Alonzo Nelson and daughter Harper Renee Nelson.
The East St. Louis native and her husband, Alonzo Nelson, have a great support system at home.
“Everyone is like, ‘Sweetie, if this is what you want to do, we want you to do it full force without any worries,’” Harper Nelson said. “And I really believe that I can be the mom that I feel like I need to be, and I’m supposed to be and want to be and still chase 2020.
“And that’s not what I believed when I said I needed to retire in 2018.”
So her new goal is to mix diapers with Diamond League. Harper Nelson will start her comeback with some indoor meets and then move to the outdoor season. She hopes to prove herself early, and also bank on long-term relationships with meet directors to get a lane in prestigious meets.
She’s undeterred by her age. Harper Nelson celebrated her 35th birthday on May 13 by going to the track for her first real post-baby workout. After all, she was 33 when she won the silver medal at the 2017 world championships. The great Gail Devers was 34 when she won the world silver medal in 2001 and was still winning races at age 40 after having a child.
“I thought, ‘Is it possible to blaze like that?’” Harper Nelson said of Devers.
She’s also unfazed that the 100 hurdles is the most competitive U.S. women’s track and field event. New world champion Nia Ali, a mother of two; world record holder Keni Harrison, who is also the world silver medalist; and 2016 Olympic champ Brianna McNeal are among the seven U.S. hurdlers ranked No. 10 or higher on the 2019 world list.
“It’s been like that my whole career,” said Harper Nelson, who was a professional for a dozen years before her brief retirement. “The only way I’ve ever known is for it to be dog eat dog.”
And Harper Nelson is confident she can be part of “Take Your Toddler to Tokyo” Day next summer.
Baby On BoardDawn Harper Nelson celebrates after the women's 100-meter hurdles final at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
She was actually pregnant while she competed at the end of the 2018 season.
“I say Harper has run three races,” said the proud mom.
However, those races did not go very well. In the Diamond League Final, Harper Nelson placed eighth out of nine competitors, and was seventh in her final race in Zagreb, Croatia.
“Training had been going really well,” Harper Nelson said. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to win and it’s going to be amazing.’ They’re going to be like, ‘Don’t leave the sport!’ And I’m going to be like, ‘I have to.’”
But she found out she was pregnant before leaving for Europe. When Harper Nelson arrived, she didn’t want to eat, felt sluggish at practice and just wanted to sleep.
“Alonzo kept saying to my stomach, ‘Come on Junior, don’t do that to your mom,’” Harper Nelson said. “I was like, ‘He or she is not listening.’ When I crossed the line, I started crying. It was a mix of emotions. It was, ‘It’s over, but oh my gosh, we’re pregnant!’”
Harper was born on April 10 after 41 hours of labor. She weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces.
Her mom said she’d felt her best during her pregnancy while working out. In the back of Harper Nelson’s mind, however, she also knew she couldn’t take nine months off and hope to regain her form as a competitive hurdler.
Once Harper arrived, it wasn’t easy to get back in shape. “I felt like I finally knew what it was like for someone that had never worked out in their lives to start working out,” Harper Nelson said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can ever get my cardio back.’ That’s how hard it was.”
She could also feel her hips shifting as she was trying to sprint. “I don’t know this feeling of not being able to go when I call on my body,” Harper Nelson said. “Mentally that was really, really hard to deal with.”
Full Steam Ahead(L-R) Dawn Harper Nelson, Sally Pearson (Australia) and Pamela Dutkiewicz (Germany) pose with their medals for the women's 100-meter hurdles at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
She went to her chiropractor in Los Angeles, where she used to train, so he could check her out.
“He said, ‘Dawn, this the best your body’s felt in a long time,’” she said. “He could tell that I’ve had time to rest. He said things that had been dinged up have recovered. And he said, ‘Mentally you’re just as hungry as ever.’”
Alonzo, the only boy who could beat Harper Nelson in the eighth grade, has been with his wife every step of the way and coaches her. On many days at the track, he holds Harper in a harness, or she snoozes in her stroller.
“I wanted Dawn to walk away from the sport on her own terms,” said Alonzo, a high school track coach and math teacher. “I was always prepared for whatever decision she made. “So, if she wanted to do it again, let’s go do it again. If she was done with it, let’s go and do something else then.
“I kind of knew she was going to have that itch to run again, and so I just waited her out. In the back of my head I was figuring out how we were going to start training again. Because I know Dawn.”
During her retirement, Harper Nelson delivered a TED Talk called “Hurdling Expectations,” and began hosting Mommy Mondays on Twitter, a light-hearted look at being a mom. “I’m saying this is the face of a mom that’s going through it, too, but we can survive together.”
But she couldn’t get her mind off a comeback. Harper Nelson had taken note of mothers who returned to the highest level of their sport, such as tennis star Serena Williams, and found a mommy mentor in Valerie Adams, the Olympic and world champion shot putter from New Zealand.
“She told me, ‘It’s possible. You can do it. You’re doing it for moms everywhere,’” Harper Nelson said.
She has also exchanged messages with Ali, who brought both her kids onto the track for a victory lap at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, last month. “I just told her I loved her story from beginning to the end,” Harper Nelson said.
Hometown GirlDawn Harper Nelson with husband Alonzo Nelson and daughter Harper Renee Nelson.
She’s excited that her own story will be set at home. She plans to do the bulk of her training near her family in Illinois at tracks in East St. Louis and Belleville.
“East St. Louis, wherever I go, they are just, ‘Oh my God, It’s Dawn!’” Harper Nelson said. “I talked with the mayor and this is like a community effort. They see me on the track and I’m running by, and they’re like, ‘You got this. You got it, Dawn.’ They just appreciate the hard work and the fact I’m bringing positivity to East St. Louis.
“Home was my dream place to train, but it never was a reality. Now having my daughter, this is exactly where I’m going to train.”
The dining room table at home is covered with workouts, diaries, weight programs and nutrition plans that include more of a plant-based diet.
“She was retired, so finally all of us could eat with no guilt,” Alonzo said, “but now we don’t have a guilt-free house anymore. The grocery shopping is a lot more intentional, because mama’s training again.”
Harper Nelson has been going on her long runs with the baby in the stroller, which is more challenging as she goes uphill and into the wind.
“Alonzo said, ‘That sounds good. That’s a little bit of weight training,’” she said.
Harper Nelson will have her toughest workouts on Tuesdays and has made it clear to Alonzo that on Monday night, “Harper is your child. I need to get the best sleep of my life.”
The Crucial TestDawn Harper Nelson celebrates after the women's 100-meter hurdles final at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Aug. 12, 2017 in London.
Harper Nelson was at her old high school track on July 2 when she went over a hurdle for the first time since her pregnancy.
She was terrified.
“It’s one of those times where you need to go over hurdles so you can know – either you’re doing this or you’re not,” Harper Nelson said. “If I go over this hurdle and it hurts, then that could be it for me.”
When she couldn’t put it off any longer, she said, “It was almost like you close your eyes and you just go for it. I just said, ‘Dawn, you’ve done this a million times. Let’s trust your body and let it do what it does.’”
The high school track team was watching as she cleared a hurdle.
“I started jumping up and down and I was screaming and I started high-fiving them,” Harper Nelson said. “I was running around and was like, ‘I’m back baby! I’m back!
“Then you slow down, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re doing this.’ I have such a long road ahead of me.’”
But she is on it, with family, friends, fans and even rivals like her friend Sharika Nelvis, who texts her once a week and has been encouraging her to come back.
Harper Nelson is glad she can finally make it official. “I’m flooded daily in social media, ‘You’ve got to come back.’ ‘I swear, it’s not the same without you.’ Or they’re like, ‘You brought so much to track and field.’”
And now it’s the Dawn of a new day in her career.