Keni Harrison competes in the Women's 100-Meter Hurdles at the USATF Golden Games on May 9, 2021 in Walnut, Calif.
Keni Harrison had one bad day during an otherwise magnificent 2016 outdoor season. She’s waited five years for the chance to put it behind her.
In 2016, Harrison broke the 28-year-old world record in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.20 seconds and was undefeated except for July 8, when she was second in her semifinal and sixth in the final.
Unfortunately, that day was during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field and Harrison did not qualify for the Olympic Games Rio 2016. With no do-overs, she’s eager for a do-better when the 2021 edition opens on June 18.
“That’s a memory that’s not really going to go away until I go out there and run the way that I want,” said Harrison, who will compete in her last race before the Trials on Sunday at the adidas Boost Boston Games. “So, just having that feeling of not making it, that’s what makes me work hard at training because I’m like, ‘This opportunity is coming again and I’m going to be ready this time.’
“It definitely makes me have a little fire inside.”
That fire was burning two weeks after the 2016 Trials. At a Diamond League meet in London, Harrison took down Bulgarian Yordanka Donkova’s world record of 12.21 seconds.
That was the performance everyone had expected at the Trials after Harrison had flirted with breaking the mark, clocking 12.24 in late May on the same track in Eugene, Oregon.
Looking back, Harrison said she had the wrong mindset – going for Top 3 and a spot on Team USA instead of racing to win. “That’s a mistake that I’m not going to make (this time),” Harrison said. “I’m going there every race - the goal is to win. I can’t go out there trying to get Top 3, because you know it could end badly.”
After Harrison won her heat on July 7 in 12.57 seconds, the next day her time of 12.91 in the semis was her slowest of the year.
In the final later that day, Brianna Rollins crossed the finish line in 12.34 seconds, Kristi Castlin was second in 12.50 and Nia Ali secured the third spot in 12.55. Harrison wasn’t even the top Harrison in the race - Queen Harrison finished in 12.57, followed by Sharika Nelvis at 12.60 and then Keni Harrison at 12.62.
“I don’t know what happened,” Harrison said after the race, fighting to stay composed. “I know these girls are going to do great and they’re going to make America proud.”
They did. in August, Harrison was watching on television as Team USA swept the gold medals in the 100-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 for the first time in history. Rollins won the gold (12.48 seconds), Ali took the silver (12.59) and Castlin captured the bronze (12.61).
“It was something that I wanted to watch,” said Harrison, who was back home in North Carolina during the Olympics. “I think for me I always come back stronger. The motivation is always there in the back of my head to keep pushing myself and to never give up.”
She's still looking for that perfect combination of time and place. Although Harrison is the 2018 world indoor champion in the 60-meter hurdles and the defending national champion in the 100-meter hurdles - winning three straight from 2017 to 2019 - she has yet to win an outdoor world title.
In 2015, Harrison was disqualified in the semifinals in Beijing. She was undefeated going into the 2017 worlds in London and favored for gold after running 12.28 earlier in the season, but wound up fourth while teammate Dawn Harper Nelson took the silver.
Then in 2019 in Doha, Ali surged to the gold with a personal best of 12.34 seconds while Harrison made her first podium, placing second in 12.46.
“I try not to think about the expectations,” Harrison said. “I just know what I can do. And that’s what’s been helping me throughout the last couple of years, going out there and sticking to the plan. I can’t really think of the pressure because that could affect me negatively. It could make my mind kind of weak. I just think, ‘OK, this is the gameplan and this is what I’m going to do’ and then I just go out there and try to do it.”
When the pandemic hit, Harrison said she was fortunate she could get on a track and continue training. With no 100 hurdles races at all in 2020, she was able to work on her sprinting, a luxury she doesn't have during a typical season.
Training with sprinters Jenna Prandini, a 2016 Olympian, and Teahna Daniels under coach Edrick Floreal, “I was able to learn how to run like a sprinter and just really try to perfect my sprinting technique because that’s only going to help me in between the hurdles,” Harrison said. “I don’t like losing at practice, so I just try to give it all I've got and try to hang onto them and I think that has only made me faster.”
She opened the outdoor season in April with a winning time of 12.38 seconds at the Miramar Invitational in Florida.
“Once the competitions started happening, I felt like I kind of just started where I left off,” Harrison said.
However, her newfound speed may have tripped her up at her next meet, the Drake Relays, when she fell – hard – for the first time.
Harrison clipped the first hurdle and then stumbled into the second one, crashing to the track.
“It just happened so quick,” she said, “but going back and looking at the film, it was like I got a great start and I forgot to flex my trail foot. And just like that, ‘OK, now I’m down on the ground.’”
Luckily, Harrison just scraped her arm a bit and it didn’t leave a scar. In training, she put renewed focus on her trail leg drills and reminded herself, “You need to pay more attention and work on your technique and you can’t forget about it.”
She has been undefeated since, with wins at the Texas Invitational and USATF Golden Games, clocking 12.48 seconds in both events to rank No. 2 on the world list behind Jasmine Camacho-Quinn of Puerto Rico (12.32). Harrison has the top time for American competitors, followed by Tonea Marshall at 12.52.
Tobi Amusan of Nigeria, who has run 12.48, Danielle Williams of Jamaica and Nelvis and Christina Clemons of Team USA are among Harrison’s competitors in Boston. The meet is run on the streets by Copley Square.
“Just to come here and run against such a tough field, I’m looking forward to that just to prepare me for the upcoming meets,” Harrison said.
She plans to return to training in Austin, Texas, where she is a volunteer assistant coach for the Texas Longhorns, to work on her strength and stamina in preparation for the three rounds of competition.
When Harrison returns to the newly renovated Hayward Field, it will be for the first time to run the 100 hurdles since 2016.
As she steps into the blocks as the world record holder, she’ll be reminded of that day five years ago.
“I think having the disappointment in 2016 kind of brought the world record out of me,” Harrison said, “but initially the goal was just to go for gold.”
She just needs a good day.