Keni Harrison, a lesson in resilience

In our obsession with medal tables and Olympic titles, it is easy to forget the achievement in just getting to a Games. Being at the Olympics needs to be earned and sometimes being the fastest who ever lived isn’t credit enough. Few will know that more than hurdler Kendra “Keni” Harrison.

America’s next great hurdling hope

In 2016 Keni Harrison came into the year as America’s second best 100m hurdler. No mean achievment in light of the nation’s powerhouse status in global sprinting but no precursor of what was to come. After an indoor season in which she threatened a breakthrough, the Tenessee native moved outdoors and proceeded to turn the event on its head.

A season opener in Georgia saw her run 12.36, the fifth fastest American of all time. By the end of the May there were only two in world history who had ever run quicker. Her 12.24 was the fastest in the world for 28 years and a startling emergence for America’s next great hope. After winning the Pre Classic, she followed it with two further Diamond League wins. By the time of the trials she hadn’t lost outdoors all season. Each time against some of the best in the world.

“Just make the team”

Returning to Eugene, the same track where she had come within touching distance of the world record, the question on everyone’s lips? Just how fast would Harrison run?

The American’s goal was far different. “Just make the team” she later recalled in an interview with Ato Bolden. Things got off to a good start, running 12.57 to streak away from the Bejiing Olympic Champion Dawn Harper-Nelson in her heat. In her semi she did enough, coming second to qualify for the final. Under thirteen seconds lay between Harrison and the Olympic Games.

In the final, drawn in lane two, Harrison gets off to her customary explosive start. She finds herself second at the first hurdle. There she stays for the first six before four alongside her rise for the seventh in front. Harrison recalls the moment she knew she wasn’t going to make the team. “Just get me out of this race.” Three seconds later it was over and so was her Olympic dream.

Revenge served warm

Three weeks passed and Harrison headed to London. The top three in Eugene lined up against her once more. Just a matter of weeks till those same three would make up the podium in Rio. Barely twelve seconds later, those three were in her wake as she crossed the line. Harrison had run 12.20 and had broken one of athletic’s oldest world records.

The world’s greatest, the fastest hurdler that had ever lived, in the form of her life would be watching her compatriots from home. Such an experience may make one bitter. Lamenting a system that doesnt lead to the world’s finest competing in its greatest competition. The USA’s three past the post system has always been a point of, at minimum, discussion. But it is to Keni Harrison’s credit that she has neither bitterness, nor anger just disappointment.

I think it’s fair. You’ve got to be able to perform when it counts.

Keni Harrison to Ato Bolden in 2016.

Such heartbreak can be scalding and when it is one that isn’t in isolation it becomes hard to not consider a pattern. When the going gets tough and it is all on the line do I really have what it takes? To say such thoughts can’t have passed Harrison’s mind would value perceived resilience over reality. When you are that good, how can anyone beat you but yourself?

The Olympic trials were one of a number of setbacks for Harrison. An individual whose talent has stretched to the 400m hurdles and has rarely been in question in either event. As a collegiate, representing Kentucky she entered the NCAA as the fastest in the field over 400 hurdles. She would finish second, some way below her best. In 2015, her first appearance at a major champs, she false started thus exiting the World Championships in the first round.

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Harrison admits she struggled to deal with the change from being what she describes as an “alright hurdler” to the number one, putting pressure on herself and having difficulty learning to deal with the new found press interest. Throughout her career she has had to deal with fresh challenges.

The first of these she overcame. Returning to the trials one year later she would win in Sacromento to book her World Championship place. Backing it up with Diamond League wins in London and Monaco and running 12.28 to win in Székesfehérvár once more she would head to a competition as hot favourite.

In London she would would win her heat, advance from the semis but finish fourth in the final. Sally Pearson’s winning time was one Harrison had bettered seven times that season. But once more like Eugene twelve months prior she was stoic. Preferring to take pride in a first global final Harrison vowed she would come back stronger. Fighting talk but words laced with disappointment.

A barrier broken

Harrison’s journey is one of unwavering stubborn resilience. One that doesn’t count itself by medals won but of times where she has refused to give up. Each time she towed the line, more often than not the favourite and each time she came back. She tried again. Fundamentally Keni Harrison never lost the belief that she can do better.

In 2018 she did. Harrison’s last appearance in a World Indoor final had seen her reach the final as the second fastest in the field. She hit a hurdle and finished eighth. But in Birmingham she took to her blocks once more, dipped for the line and broke the Championship record. The best in the world was the World Indoor Champion. A block, if there was one had been emphatically smashed.

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18 months later she puts her hands to the line once more. This time only the third fastest that year she took silver for her first outdoor medal. Her clap on the back of her compatriot and winner Nia Ali, a genuine congratulations to a competitor who had deprived her of what some may perceive her greatest moment. But Harrison had achieved where previously she hadn’t. She had been the best she could be on that day and in that it was clear to see the satisfaction.

Olympic redemption

Finally here she is in Tokyo, business unfinished. No longer the favourite, now the challenger. In her semifinal, if ever there was a time to let the occassion get to her it was then. Technical issues in the blocks from the organisers, a yellow card for Tiffany Porter. Drawn out minutes of contemplation. And yet as the time passed, as the glitches kept coming there seemed a calmness to Harrison. A deathly stare down the track a deep breath and a languid kneeling to the blocks. 12.51 seconds later she had hurdled her way to an Olympic final, running within three tenths of a second of her season best and has given herself the chance.

When Keni Harrison once more takes to her blocks, bidding for Olympic glory, she will know one thing. Such a place is never given, always earned. Jasmine Camacho-Quinn will head into tomorrow’s final as the Olympic record holder, knowing it is her race to lose. Keni Harrison will beleive it is hers to win.

Tokyo previews – Women’s 100m Hurdles

A first athletics gold for Puerto Rico through Jasmine Camacho-Quinn or will Kendra Harrison seal Olympic redemption (she failed to qualify for the USA in 2016 despite being the fastest in the world) for the USA? There’s plenty more…

Featured image “File:Kendra Harrison Jenaragon95.jpg” by jenaragon94 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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