Harper follows in golden footsteps of Joyner-Kersee
Ask Dawn Harper where she’s from and she will say East St. Louis, Ill., a city notorious for its hopeless poverty and tragic blight.
She actually grew up in nearby Belleville, in a secure home with caring parents. But it was in East St. Louis that she came to know the person who taught her she could negotiate any hurdle, not only those laid out on a 100-meter course.
Harper was a youngster when she met Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who had emerged from East St. Louis to be crowned Olympic champion three times and medalist six times but returned to open a community center for children.
Harper, a six-time state hurdles champion, was coached in high school by Nino Fennoy, who had coached Joyner-Kersee. And like Joyner-Kersee, Harper believed that track and field would be her ticket to a good education and rewarding life.
“She was a big influence,” Harper said. “I remember just sitting in the track club and she would sit down and have talks with us and tell us, ‘Go for your dream. Never give up on yourself.’ ”
Harper followed Joyner-Kersee’s path to UCLA, graduating in 2006. She also followed Joyner-Kersee’s lead by choosing the Olympic champion’s husband, Bobby Kersee, to coach her.
And on Tuesday she followed Joyner-Kersee to the top step of an Olympic podium. It’s a destination few believed she would reach, especially after she had arthroscopic knee surgery in February and made the U.S. Olympic team by seven thousandths of a second.
Ignoring her jitters and the gasps generated when leader and seemingly certain winner Lori “Lolo” Jones stumbled over the next-to-last hurdle, Harper won the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles in a personal-best 12.54 seconds. She couldn’t believe it at first, or for hours afterward.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said. “I have the medal and I’m holding it, but it’s so surreal. It’s a blessing.
“It’s going to hit me maybe in the morning and I’m going to cry, thanking God.”
Jones did her crying on the track at the Bird’s Nest on Tuesday, bemoaning the fates that led her to take such an ill-timed misstep. She wasn’t alone in her misfortune.
In the preceding race, the women’s 400, overwhelming favorite Sanya Richards faded from first to third when her right hamstring tightened and consigned her to run as if mired in quicksand.
At least Richards won a medal, finishing in 49.93 seconds, behind Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu (49.62) and Jamaica’s Shericka Williams (49.69). Jones finished seventh.
Sally McLellan of Australia and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep of Canada won the silver and bronze behind Harper, each timed in 12.64 seconds. Damu Cherry of the U.S. was fourth, at 12.65.
“You hit a hurdle about twice a year where it affects your race. It’s a shame it happened in the biggest race of my life,” Jones said.
“It’s hurdles. You have to be over all 10, or you’re not meant to be the champion. Today I was not meant to be the champion.”
Harper won despite recording the seventh-best reaction time in the eight-woman field. For igniting the spark that fueled her steady, strong finish, she can thank Kersee, whom she has known since she was in junior high.
“Dawn was struggling with this moment for a long time,” he said. “Last summer me and her had a knockdown, drag-out argument after the world championships because I thought she could make the world championships team, but she lost focus.
“Jackie talked to her last summer. Then last summer she went through the European season for the first time, and that’s when she broke through and started running 12.60s. She came back this year believing she could make the Olympic team and win an Olympic medal, particularly gold.”
Jeanette Bolden, who doubles as UCLA’s track coach and head coach of the women’s Olympic team, recalled watching Harper push herself to recover from knee surgery while a Bruin.
“It doesn’t matter who people predict supposedly to win if you have faith and confidence in yourself. Dawn’s always had a lot of confidence in herself,” Bolden said. “She’s just had a lot of ups and downs in her career.
“Good things do happen to good people.”
The previous Olympic 100-meter hurdles champion was also a UCLA alumna: Joanna Hayes, Harper’s training partner. They followed in the spike prints of Gail Devers, who had a remarkable career as a Bruin hurdler and sprinter and won three world hurdles titles and two Olympic 100-meter dash gold medals.
All of them have Joyner-Kersee to thank for showing them the way.
Joyner-Kersee didn’t make the trip to Beijing, but she sent an encouraging e-mail. “She told me to stay focused and run your race,” Harper said.
Nothing profound there, but her work had already been done years ago, when she inspired a young girl to follow her dreams and her heart to a destiny that seems more fitting by the second.
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.