Keni Harrison set the World record for the 100 meter hurdles in London in July, with her excellent 12.20, breaking a 28 year old world record. That was one month after she did not make the US Olympic team, finishing sixth in the 100 meter hurdles.
This is David Hunter’s article on Keni. She remains resolute in thinking that the US Trials system is the best. I wanted our readers to understand that making the US team is never a given. And now, as we enjoy seven more days of track & field in Rio, we need to remember that, in every Trials I can remember, someone, normally several “definites”, have not made the trip to the Olympics.
Keni Harrison Roars Back!
World Record Diamond League Win Salves Trials Wound
August 7th, 2016
There’s an old saying in track: You’re only as good as your last race. And last month professional 100 meter hurdler Kendra Harrison arrived at the Olympic Trials riding a string of exceptional races. Coming in with the top 4 world-leading times in her back pocket and a jaw-dropping victory at the Prefontaine Classic where her 12.23 clocking took down Brianna Rollins American record, Keni Harrison arrived in Eugene as the high hurdles odds-on favorite. But they don’t hand out berths on the U.S. Olympic team based an athlete’s credentials coming into the Trials. That – if I may borrow yet another shopworn track expression – is why they run the races.
Harrison’s progression through the early rounds of the 100H did not evidence the domination she had displayed throughout the outdoor season. “I felt alright,” stated Harrison on her first round win. “I mean I ran 12.5 and I didn’t really feel like myself. It was 12.5 and I just thought everything was fine. It was a good start.” With the semi-finals run the following day during a hard rain, the American record holder played it safe and ran 12.91 to finish second behind Queen Harrison to advance to the finals. Harrison recalls what Coach Edrick FlorÃ©al had said to her afterwards. “He said ‘You know what? Forget about the 12.9. It’s OK. You made the final. So let’s try again.'”
But the final was no better. “I got out and I saw the position that I was in. And I was not winning,” notes the young hurdler who was trailing early on. “And I just didn’t turn on the second speed that I have in a race. And that’s usually where I have it.” Never competitive, Harrison finished 6th in 12.62. “My coach said, ‘I was just waiting for you to turn it on and you never turned it on.’ I know he was disappointed in me.”
After the final, Harrison – mobbed by the media – was composed but clearly stunned by her final performance that left her off the Olympic team. “I don’t think it really hit me that I didn’t make the team. And I was in shock that I got 6th. I hadn’t run that time [12.62 in the final] all year. I was just really confused at the time,” Harrison explains. “I am happy for the girls that made the team. And I knew this is something that I can learn from. There was so much going through my mind and I just told myself to keep my head up. I had to figure out what went wrong.”
“Later on that night, I sat down with my coach and we talked about what happened, what was going through my mind, where we went wrong,” offers Harrison. “And that’s when it hit me that I didn’t make the team. I think at that time I was just really shocked.” But Coach FlorÃ©al knew he had to get his athlete back up on that pony. “He told me, ‘We win some. We lose some. We’re still a team. Now what we’ve got to do is to get back up.’ And that’s what we did.”
With FlorÃ©al’s encouragement, the young hurdler re-focused and turned her sites on London’s upcoming Diamond League meet and a chance at redemption. After a semi-final race in 12.40, Harrison – her confidence restored – was prepared to cut loose in the final. Sparked by an excellent start, Harrison sped cleanly over the hurdles to win going away – even throwing in a dramatic finish line lean for good measure. After some timing confusion – caused by Harrison’s pronounced dip which failed to catch the timing beam – the winning time was corrected to display a winning mark of 12.20. The clocking shaved .01 seconds off the long-standing world record set by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988 – 5 years before the new record holder was born. The three USA Olympians in the race – Brianna Rollins, Kristi Castlin, and Nia Ali – finished second, third, and fourth.
“Of course, the goal was to break a world record and win the Diamond League,” explains a rejuvenated Harrison on the revised seasonal objectives she reshaped with FlorÃ©al after the Trials disappointment. “So I am going to do whatever it takes to win every race from here on out and give it all I have. Hopefully I’ll be able to break my record again in the next three meets coming up [Diamond League gatherings in Lausanne, Paris, and Zurich]. That’s the goal.”
Her superlative effort in London powered Harrison to accomplish what no hurdler could do for over a quarter of a century: take down Donkova’s 28 year old world standard. Could she really trim more off the global record this summer? “Yeah, I was filled with so much emotion in that [London] race. And my mind wasn’t on breaking the world record. It was about coming out and running the way I know I can,” explains Harrison who has built a commanding – but not insurmountable – Diamond League lead, 12 points lead over Brianna Rollins and 27 points better than Nia Ali. “And now that I’ve done that and proved the point: I’m back. And in the next meet, it’s like ‘OK, let’s get after this world record. Let’s get this Diamond League win.’ It’s going to be a lot easier just focusing on the world record.”
Following her false start exit in last year’s Beijing semi-final and her last place finish after horrid hurdle clubbing in the this spring’s world indoor final, Harrison knows she must show she can handle the pressure of global gatherings and race to her capability on the world’s biggest stages. “I was young in Beijing and not a lot of the people right out of college did well at that meet. That was something I had to learn from. It wasn’t really nerves. I feel like I was fine in that race. I just reacted fast. That’s what my coach and I have been working on,” notes Harrison who sees channeling her emotions as a learning process. “And at indoor worlds, I had the best start of my life. And in London, I had a great start. And since I did mess up at indoor worlds I knew I could be able to run that fast and not hit the hurdles. And that’s what I did in London. And now I am able to get out and lead from the first hurdle. So I feel like it may be a big meet that I am messing up, but eventually I am not going to mess up in big meets anymore,” she explains. “And I am really learning from these mistakes early in my career. To be a first year professional and to have the world record, that just speaks a lot. And I was only able to do that because of what has happened to me. I feel like I am still confident and I’m still trying to figure stuff out. It’s making me a better athlete. You’ve got to learn from them [mistakes]. Everyone is not perfect. Hopefully, later on in my career, I’m going to be able to out there and perform the way I know how and take things I have learned in previous years to make me a better athlete.” The young hurdler is taking a page out of the Dalai Lama’s playbook: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”
While it would be understandable if she felt otherwise, Harrison – now after a month of reflection – does not believe the USA’s top three Trials selection process needs tinkering. “I think we have the fairest way of doing it. If you’re not “on” that day, then so be it,” declares Harrison who dismisses the notion advanced by some that the USA – like Jamaica and this summer’s Bolt injury situation – should have an alternative pathway to an Olympic team berth for an exceptional athlete who fails at the Trials, “I think that’s what makes the U.S. Trials so unique and so special when you do make the team – because you know you were there and you ran your fastest and you were among the top 3 Americans on that day. I can’t complain about it. I don’t feel it is fair that some of the countries have athletes that dominate all year and then don’t run their trials. Trials are the fairest way we can do it.”
With the exception of the Trials fiasco, Harrison’s vast improvement and domination of the 100 meter hurdles this year has been so complete, it is easy to overlook her collegiate achievement and untapped potential in the 400 meter hurdles. As a Kentucky senior in 2015, Harrison finished second in the NCAA 400H final to Texas A&M long hurdle phenom Shamier Little. “And I ran that final just about 30 minutes after I won the short hurdles title,” exclaims the former Wildcat.
At year’s end, Harrison’s PR clocking of 54.09 was #3 on the U.S. list and #4 on the world list.
Harrison’s considerable skills in both the short and the long hurdle events prompt speculation as to which hurdle contest would ultimately be her better event. “I feel like I am pretty even in both,” reveals Harrison. “I’ve never spent an entire year just focusing on the 400 hurdles. So I think I’ll do that next year. This year I focused on the 100 hurdles and I improved so much.” Probing her skills in the 400H is definitely in the conversation as Harrison and coach FlorÃ©al begin to assemble her plan for 2017 and next year’s World Championship gathering in London. “I am not 100 percent sure,” when asked about the possibility of her focusing on the 400H in the early portion of 2017’s outdoor season followed by an attempted hurdle double in the national championship in an effort to qualify for both barrier events in London. “Me and my coach are definitely thinking about going down that route. I want to show the world that I can do more than just the short hurdles,” Harrison explains. “To be able to pull that off would be really unique. I may give it a shot.”
If Harrison would elect to focus on the long hurdles next spring and should she experience progression anything like her 2016 improvement in the short hurdles, the young hurdler could find herself knocking on the door of the American record [Lashinda Demus: 52.47] or even the world record [Yuliya Pechenkina: 52.34]
When asked if she knew if the world record in both hurdle events had ever been held simultaneously by the same woman, Kendra Harrison crisply responded with a confidence that suggested she had researched the very point. Quickly and with conviction, she replied, “It’s never been done.” Yet.