There aren’t many athletes who can upstage Usain Bolt in all his pomp. Think David Rudisha and his audacious 800m world record on the night of the 200m at the London 2012 Olympics. And … no, that’s about it.
Or it was, until last Friday evening in that very same east London stadium when a slight young hurdler from Tennessee erased one of the longest-standing and seemingly most indelible marks from the record books and wrote her own name into the history of the sport.
Kendra Harrison’s peerless, near-perfect performance in the 100m hurdles final at the Müller Anniversary Games came just 37 minutes before Bolt’s triumphant return from injury in the men’s 200m, the London IAAF Diamond League meeting’s bulb-flashing climax, and exactly two weeks after her nerve-wracked, disastrous sixth-place finish at the US Olympic Trials.
A month earlier, Harrison – known as ‘Keni’ to her friends and followers – had become a favourite not only to make the US team but to win Olympic gold when she ran the second fastest time in history, speeding to a North American record of 12.24 at the Prefontaine Classic, the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, Oregon.
Only Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova had ever gone quicker, and that was way back in 1988, the year she won Olympic gold. Not one of the subsequent greats – not Gail Devers, Sally Pearson or Dawn Harper Nelson – had ever got closer.
But Harrison’s Olympic ambitions came crashing down at the brutal US Trials when, to use her own words, she crumbled under the pressure of intense championship combat. How easy it would have been to give up on the season, her big dream gone in less than 13 seconds.
This former competitive cheerleader was not going to let one loss get her down, however, and she bounced back up immediately to re-set her goals, tweeting: “I’m not letting one bad day define who I am or what I’ve already accomplished. My season isn’t over and I’m going to finish strong.”
At London’s pre-meeting press conference on Thursday she went further: “It was really unfortunate what happened at the trials. After such a great season, I felt pretty confident but my mind was not like it usually was.
“I would have loved to be in the top three but in 2012 I didn’t make the final and I got sixth this year, so it’s progress. You’ve got to compete under pressure and I didn’t do that. I’ve got to learn from it.
“I want to go back now and show everyone why I have the US record. I’m going after the world record and to win the Diamond Race. That’s the motivation for me now. That’s what makes me train hard – to get Diamond Race points and aim at the world record.”
Clearly, Harrison is a fast learner and she soon demonstrated how close she was to the target when she skipped to a 12.40 victory in her heat the following day, a scintillating run that raised anticipation levels before the final less than an hour and a half later.
When the final came she was simply unbeatable. With the 2013 world champion and previous US record-holder, Brianna Rollins, on one side, and double world indoor champion Nia Ali on the other, she could easily have felt the pressure.
But Harrison ran like a woman on a mission, a mission for redemption. She was out of the blocks in a flash and clearly ahead at the first hurdle. By halfway she had a stride’s advantage on Rollins, with Ali and another compatriot, Kristi Castlin, close behind.
“When I ran that time in Eugene, the barriers were coming up really fast, so I have to learn how to deal with that better,” Harrison had mused the day before.
This time, she controlled her speed superbly, skimming over the hurdles and leaning across the line a good three metres ahead of Rollins before jogging to a halt part way round the bend.
She turned to face her opponents, pleased with her impressive victory in what the clock told her was 12.58 – good enough, for sure, but not quite the performance her heat time had hinted at. She hugged Rollins and shook some hands.
And then, suddenly, as she paused to catch her breath, the finish clock figures switched to 12.20, the bright orange initials ‘WR’ flashing up beside them. Her coach Edrick Floreal had told her to lean hard and low, but she’d dipped so far she’d run beneath the beam – 12.58 was Rollins’ uncorrected time before it was confirmed as 12.57.
The stadium announcer got there first: “It’s a world record,” he screamed, and the crowd gasped. Donkova’s mark had at last been beaten. The lean had done it by one hundredth.
At first, Harrison looked puzzled. Then her jaw dropped and Ali threw her arms around Harrison’s shaking shoulders. Overcome, she fell to the track in tears, putting her hands to her face in utter disbelief.
“To hear people call me a world record-holder, it sounds remarkable,” she said. “I wanted to come out here and show the world that I still have it, even though I won't be going to the Olympics. I had to give it all I had.
“Initially I saw 12.5 and I was just happy to come out here and win. I was so happy when it came up and was feeling really blessed. It shows that you have to keep going and be strong. I just ran my best and look what happened.”
Look indeed. The sixth of 11 children, nine of whom, including herself, were adopted, Harrison’s rise through the record books has been almost as swift as her hurdling.
A former multiple collegiate champion at both 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles, she qualified for her first US team at any level only last year but was disqualified for false starting in her semifinal at the IAAF World Championship Beijing 2015.
Few could have predicted then what 2016 would hold in store. Indeed, few would have predicted it from her eighth-place finish at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 earlier this year when she again made mistakes, crashing into the first barrier before finishing eighth in the final.
But under the watchful guidance and endless encouragement of Floreal, Harrison has had an outdoor season to dream of with six sub-12.50 performances including the world record.
“I can’t put into words how I’m feeling right now,” she said on Friday once she’d recovered her composure. “My coach has believed in me since day one. He knew I could do this. The times I was running in practice showed I could do it. All I had to do was put my mind to it.
“I wanted to come out here with a vengeance to show these girls what I have. That 12.40 got my confidence back. I knew I had it in me. I ran as hard as I could today.
“It makes up for the trials a lot. Not making that team, of course I’m still disappointed. But I had to move forward and set new goals. That’s what helped me train hard for this moment.
“After Prefontaine, I knew I still had more in me,” she added. “At Prefontaine I just went out and ran. I had no idea I could run that time.
“This was different. To come out here knowing that I could break the world record was a different mind-set. I definitely gave it all I had. I did what my coach told me and leant across that line.”
Not that Harrison is ready to rest on her laurels. There’s that other goal of winning the Diamond Race to achieve, of converting her 12-point lead over Rollins into a shiny Diamond Trophy to go with the US$50,000 cheque she pocketed for Friday’s record.
And talking of laurels, Harrison will be cheering her US colleagues’ Olympian efforts in Rio, knowing that now she has set the benchmark they’ll all be trying to beat.
“These girls know how hard it is to come out here and perform,” she said. “One day one person is up top and the other person may get the lead. They know this event is really iffy and nobody is on top for long.
“I’ll be cheering them on at the Olympics and I hope they do the best they can. They’re going to the Olympics so I’m pretty sure they’ll be going for the world record.
“But I’ll be competing at the next couple of Diamond League meets so hopefully I can be faster.
“Now, every time I go on the line I know I have a chance to break the record, to make my season even better than it already is.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF