Dawn Harper is in disbelief after winning the Olympic 100m hurdles title (© Getty Images)
The secret is out about Dawn Harper in the women’s 100m hurdles.
Harper’s victory in a PB 12.54 in the Beijing Olympics has been called a surprise and an upset. The American, though, has a different outlook.
“I was an underdog,” Harper said. “I wasn’t well known. I was a secret."
Harper’s victory on that balmy August evening in the Bird’s Nest catapulted her into the centre stage. It’s a position that Harper, 24, is bracing herself for as she prepares for the 2009 campaign.
“I can see more pressure now and everybody expecting big things,” Harper said. “Nobody expected big things from you and now they are gunning for you. I am okay with losing a race but are taking it big and saying 'I finally got her.' They think you are invincible."
Overcoming Knee Surgery
Harper appeared anything but unbeatable after her training in 2008 was interrupted by knee surgery on her right trail leg on 29 Feb. to remove a bone chip.
It was the second knee surgery for Harper, who also had an operation on her left knee in 2000 to repair her meniscus and a torn PCL.
Harper’s latest surgery sidelined her through March and April and left her only six weeks to train for the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene. In the Trials, Harper gained the third and final spot on the U.S. team by seven thousandths of a second on a lean that left her sprawling across the track.
“Making the team really signified that everything I had been doing wasn’t in vain,” Harper said about the U.S. Trials. “If people only knew that my season was about to be over and I was limping a month and a half before the biggest race of my lifetime. Who knows what I would have run (in 2008) if I were healthy?"
All-Star Training Partners
Harper’s coach Bobby Kersee and her training partners that include Michelle Perry, Joanna Hayes and Ginnie Powell were well aware of Harper’s potential.
Although Kersee often separates his hurdlers for individual workouts to allow them to focus on their race and mechanics, Harper said the group workouts gave her a gauge of what was to unfold in Beijing.
“Every day in practice is like a race,” Harper said. “Everybody is ready to compete. I knew I was very capable if I could just put it all together in a race.’’
Harper is the latest UCLA athlete to win a major championship in the 100m Hurdles coached by Kersee joining three-time World Champion Gail Devers, double World Champion Michelle Perry and 2004 Olympic champion Joanna Hayes.
Powell, the collegiate record holder in the 100m hurdles who ran against Harper at cross town rival USC, anticipated big things from Harper in the Olympic final after watching her advance through the rounds in Beijing.
“The way she was competing, I knew that she could finish top two,” Powell said. “It didn’t surprise me that she won knowing the training and motivation that she had."
During the Olympics, Harper received advice both from Hayes and Perry along with Kersee’s wife and former Olympic Heptathlon champion and World record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Hayes briefed Harper on what to expect competing in the Olympics. Perry advised her to maintain her composure to run her own race.
Joyner-Kersee said to simply take one race at a time. Joyner-Kersee, who like Harper hails from East St. Louis, Ill., was one of the main factors in Harper’s decision to move to Los Angeles to attend UCLA.
“I felt as much pressure in practice as in the Olympics,” Harper said. “I didn’t have to do anything spectacular. I just had to do what got me there and what I was doing every day in track practice and I would be fine."
Harper received more than just inspiration from Perry in 2008. Harper ran in a pair of spikes donated to her from Perry throughout the season and the Olympic Games.
Harper had been training and competing in spikes that she had worn since completing her collegiate eligibility at UCLA in 2006 where she finished fourth in NCAA championships.
She concedes it was a humbling experience lining up in the starting blocks in practice with her tattered spikes alongside her teammates that also include Allyson Felix, Shawn Crawford and Kerron Clement with professional contracts and their personalized monogrammed spikes.
Perry gave Harper her lone pair of spikes that did not have her name inscribed on them.
“For me, it was intimidating and motivating to come to practice to not be sponsored and see everybody with new stuff," said Harper, who was 18th in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. “I was just waiting for my time to come."
Harper’s moment arrived in Beijing when she emerged the victor after compatriot Lolo Jones smashed into the ninth hurdle while leading two lanes to the inside of Harper.
It took several agonizing moments before the scoreboard flashed the final results and Harper was declared the winner. Harper pointed at herself in astonishment, a gesture that she said had a higher meaning.
“Second is good and third is good, but God chose me to finish first,” Harper said. “I was questioning 'Why me?' Making the team told me that God was listening and when I won the Olympics it showed me God can do anything, if you put your faith into it."
Harper’s father Henry Harper and her husband Craig Everhart, who were both in the crowd on that glorious evening in Beijing helped Dawn’s spirits up throughout the season.
Everhart, a former quartermiler at UCLA, has helped ease the transition to post-collegiate athletics for Harper, who had not finished higher than seventh in the U.S. Championships nor run faster than 12.67 before 2008.
“As athletes, when one of us comes home tired after a hard workout we understand when we don’t feel like running an errand,” Harper said. “It does make it easier when I can look at him and tell him what’s wrong. We both want the same thing to break records and set PRs."
Preparing for 2009 and Beyond
Harper took eight weeks off of training before resuming training in November. Much of her break was devoted to public appearances, speaking engagements and visits to local schools.
“I am going to take my time coming back,” Harper said. “I may be a little shaky. I understand that there are going to be people who will put pressure on me to run a race. Our plans are to stay focused on us.”
Harper will likely skip the indoor season in preparation for the World Championships in Berlin in August. She has bigger aspirations than just medals. She hopes to someday challenge the World record.
“I don’t feel that I have come too close to running my best race,” Harper said. “It’s not hard to keep going. I am not stopping until I reach my full potential. This year showed me what I could do. The sky’s the limit if I stay healthy."
Kirby Lee for the IAAF