Feature12 Jul 2014

Dawn of a new era for Harper Nelson


Dawn Harper on her way to winning the 100m hurdles in Stockholm (© Deca Text & Bild)

After finishing out of the medals at last year’s IAAF World Championships, US 100m hurdler Dawn Harper Nelson is on the comeback trail aided by a new weightlifting regime and an eye-catching Mohawk hairstyle.

“It’s gotta be the hair!” the effervescent 30-year-old tweeted after winning her third US title in Sacramento last month in a time of 12.55.

“I think people are loving the Mohawk. I think I might keep it for a little while longer.”

Harper Nelson, 30, who won the 2008 Olympic gold medal and finished second at the 2012 Olympics, made a flying start to her IAAF Diamond League season in June, finishing 0.01 behind fellow US sprint hurdlers Brianna Rollins and Queen Harrison respectively in New York and Rome.

She followed up with a decisive victory on a cool windy night in Paris just over a week ago, clocking 12.44 to top the 2014 world lists.

“After losing two Diamond Leagues by 0.01 I reckon I have got that back now,” she said. “Despite feeling heavy legs after the US champs I managed one of my best-ever times. I would credit all that to my weightlifting coach. I improved a lot and, despite this not being a championship year, I am putting pressure on myself to run fast. In good weather and when I am feeling fresh I think I can attack my personal best this year.”

She was not running in Glasgow on Saturday but lies second with eight points in the Diamond Race, three adrift of leader Queen Harrison, and there are still another three races to be run this season.

Harper Nelson clocked her personal best of 12.37 – which currently places her equal eighth on the world all-time list and equal third on the US list – when finishing second to Australia’s Sally Pearson at the 2012 London Olympics.

Joyner-Kersee inspiration

She has come up the hard way from a tough East St. Louis neighbourhood.

An early inspiration was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, another East St. Louis native and the world’s greatest female all-round athlete who started her international competition medal collection when she won a silver medal in the heptathlon at the 1984 Olympic Games just a few months after Harper-Nelson was born.

Nowadays, Harper Nelson is coached by Joyner-Kersee’s husband Bob Kersee.

“She came to me and said 'I believe you have something special',” Harper-Nelson said last year. “If you hold on to that and believe in yourself, the sky is the limit. And I said, ‘is she talking to me?’. This is Jackie-Joyner Kersee who is saying this to me?

“Through the years we have talked on the phone. I have called her through the ups and the downs, she has called to check on me saying, ‘Bobby says you’re looking good in practice, keep it up’. And now, when I go home, for them to scream my name in the same sentence as Jackie Joyner-Kersee blows my mind.”

In her first year at high school, Harper Nelson defeated the defending champion at a state meeting and broke the meeting record.

She won a full scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles, where she began to be mentored by Kersee. “I didn’t have money to pay him and I worked three jobs and he still coached me,” she said. “He believed in me and told me every day ‘I believe you have the gift’.”

Injuries had already troubled Harper Nelson in a technically and physically demanding event. She had knee surgery at the age of 15 and again before the US trials in 2008.

Spotlight not on her story

The Beijing 100m hurdles final turned out to be one of the most dramatic and controversial races at the Games.

US media attention had focused on the glamorous Lolo Jones, who infamously crashed into the ninth flight when clearly leading the race, allowing Harper-Nelson to snatch the gold medal.

Harper Nelson had squeezed into the US team by .007 of a second while finishing third at their trials. She had no sponsor and ran in shoes lent to her by an injured team mate, Michelle Perry.

To her frustration, the media spotlight still seemed to shine on Jones after the race was over, rather than the new champion.

“I feel I had a pretty good story to tell,” Harper Nelson said afterwards. “Knee surgery before the Olympic trials in 2008, working three jobs, living in a frat house, trying to make it work. I’d say I was pretty interesting. I just felt I had worked really hard to represent my country in the best way possible and to come away with the gold medal...and it was just like ‘we’re going to push your story aside’. That hurt, it did. It hurt my feelings.”

Life now looks a lot better for Harper Nelson, who married fellow hurdler Alonzo Nelson last year.

“It’s definitely the best start to any season I have had,” she said before the Paris meeting. “I think the big thing is my start this year. I had a really good start at the nationals and that’s what I really have to add to my races in order to drop the times.”  

John Mehaffey for the IAAF