Addiction turned out to be his biggest hurdle
Danny Harris ran with such power and certainty that it seemed he could sprint past any obstacle, the wind at his back.
We saw this first in 1984, when an 18-year-old Harris took to the hot Los Angeles Coliseum track and grabbed an Olympic silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles.
“I’m just a kid,” he recalls, “there on the track, 90,000 people in the stands, knowing it is all going to be over in a 47-second race. [During the race] you don’t hear anything. All of those people and it’s quiet in your head until you cross the finish line. Then I heard the crowd again.”
We saw it again in 1987, when Harris stunned the legendary Edwin Moses in Madrid, ending Moses’ 122-race winning streak.
More, much more, was expected: multiple Olympics, quite possibly multiple gold medals. Handsome and charming, three times a national champion at Iowa State, Harris was poised to be one of the faces of American track and field well into the 1990s.
None of this was to be. The power Harris took to the track wasn’t enough to conquer his toughest foe -- an addiction to cocaine that took root shortly after he failed, just barely, to make the 1988 Olympic team. There weren’t any more Olympic medals. The Perris-raised hurdler’s fight with addiction turned into a twisting journey.
Since the early ‘90s, there have been sober years when he has beaten back the foe to run fast and well enough to hold down good jobs, often as a personal trainer. Those stretches have been pockmarked by painful moments when he lost control and gave in to the urge to use.
Still, there is hope in his story. For if bouncing back from humiliation, if battling inner demons straight-on is the best measure of a man, then Danny Harris is making a turn toward the backstretch in fine position.
“When you look back, I’ve actually had more time doing fine than not,” says Harris, looking fit in the midst of a long spell of sobriety. But he does not hide from the fact that the addiction is always there. It took him “to terrible places I would not normally go, put me around people I would not normally hang around. I can’t dwell on that, though. . . . Now I get up every day and look forward. This is more the way Danny Harris was before drugs.”
I first spotted him late last year while I watched a basketball game between homeless and addicted men at a skid row shelter. Harris immediately stood out, a well-muscled man sprinting powerfully up and down the court, leading the team from the Midnight Mission.
Having gone through rehabilitation there, Harris had recently moved out of the shelter, a last-chance oasis surrounded by squalor. He was hesitant about talking with me at first.
Months went by. The 42-year-old gained a better, more solid sense of self, he says. Feeling hopeful, as good as he had in years, he eventually grew comfortable with wading through painful memories, if only to give hope to those engaged in the same war.
His past was both a beautiful dream and an awful nightmare.
Imagine being one of the best hurdlers in the world, as Harris was from 1984 through the early ‘90s -- an icon in Europe, where track is revered.
Imagine growing up without much and then suddenly having a fine home in Orange and a six-figure contract gilded by big-money endorsements -- only to lose all of this, as Harris did in the mid-1990s, when he tested positive for cocaine one last time and was banned from track and field for life.
Imagine reaching Olympic heights in Los Angeles and then finding yourself, years later, living for a spell on Long Beach streets, sometimes bingeing in crack houses, once watching someone get shot.
Imagine finally realizing that unchecked drug abuse would soon claim your life too, and then being willing, once again, to try rehab. There Danny Harris found himself, last year, wading through men who hadn’t bathed in weeks -- some with no hope, some seeking it -- checking into the mission.
He lived at the mission for about four months, sleeping on bunk beds in sprawling rooms with no privacy. He dived into treatment: the counseling, the mandatory work, and the painful, constant self-assessment.
Perhaps most important, he met and grew close to Orlando Ward, one of the mission’s directors and a recovering addict himself. The two shared another bond: The lanky director had been an Orange County high school basketball star before playing at Stanford.
Ward was there to tell Harris that he understood the pitfalls faced by addicts who have been great athletes: the battles against ego and the hard-edged shame that comes with falling from such lofty heights.
“From the start, there was a cloud over Danny,” Ward recalls. “But he was also grounded and knew what he was here for. There will always be more work to be done, but that attitude is how he’s [done so well].”
Harris eventually moved with his girlfriend into a Silver Lake duplex. A sharp quick study, he parlayed a job as a tour director at the mission into work as an assistant on a Hollywood film, “The Soloist,” based on the relationship between Times columnist Steve Lopez and a talented, mentally ill violinist who ended up living on downtown L.A. streets.
These days, he’s assisting the production of a documentary about skid row and also hoping to take another step forward, having recently applied for jobs as a college track coach.
“I’ve gone through a particular kind of hell,” he says, thinking back, shaking his head. “But my story is proof that after the darkness there is a dawn, that there is redemption from our darkest moments.
“I feel good. I can breathe again.”
Here’s hoping he keeps it up, keeps sprinting powerfully past his foe, the wind at his back.
Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.