BEIJING OLYMPICS 100H CHAMP Dawn Harper Nelson had set her big comeback for 2020. “I envisioned how it was going to go, you know, the whole announcement,” she says. “And then my first track meet, it was going to be, like, ‘Yay, she’s back!’”
Then the pandemic came to town with other plans.
It hit the veteran hurdler hard. “Literally having to switch my mind to just training and it feels like there’s no reason for it,” she says. “You’re at practice about to die and do this 400 and there’s no results. You get no results anytime. I remember specifically sitting in my living room and just saying, ‘I’m just going to cry right now.’”
For Harper Nelson, who retired in 2018 to have a baby, staying away from the sport simply turned out not to be an option: “Every day I was like, ‘Omigosh, I want to run! I need to be hurdling something.’ I mean, during my whole pregnancy, I would still go and work out. As the baby got bigger and my tummy got bigger, I felt like this huge glob sitting on the couch and the only time I would feel like myself was when I would go to track practice. I felt light on my feet when I was out there.”
Harper-Nelson would drive to the track at her alma mater, East St. Louis High, and line up with athletes half her age: “If they were doing a fast sprint, I remember saying, ‘I can take you out for the first 50m and after that I’m slowing down and I’m jogging.’ Just that feeling of the adrenaline rushing and feeling like my body still is mine. I was like, ‘I can’t, I don’t want to walk away.’”
That’s why the ’08 gold medalist is back in the hurdle wars. At age 36 (37 in May), she can’t imagine herself living away from them. And now she has another reason to dive back in, her daughter Harper, now 19 months old.
“I am someone that’s already very meticulous with how I plan my day, but OMG, with her thrown in the bunch, it has sent everything into overdrive. You can get so caught up doing all these mommy things for 30 minutes and an hour has gone by and you were supposed to prepare for track practice. And you have not. Now I have to write out absolutely everything I need to do the night before.
“But then, she also has made me realize this is something I truly want, the fact that I’m fighting so hard to be on this podium. It is hard to juggle it all. And being with her makes me realize mommy loves track & field because in order for me to split my time from her means that I definitely still have a passion for it. It’s also wonderful because when the weather is beautiful, she comes to practice with me.”
Occasionally there are rough days, even with a baby she describes as “such an easy child.” She explains, “Every blue moon, she’s like, ‘You know what? I think you need an extra challenge in your day.’
“And that’s very challenging. I just have to stop and take a breath because it literally could feel like the world is spinning when she just doesn’t want to cooperate. You’re just like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do it today.’ As in, I just need to not go to practice. And it’s like, you can’t do that. The day has to go on.”
Now coached by her husband, Alonzo Nelson—she met him when they were both running track in the 8th grade—Harper Nelson has reaped some benefits from pandemic training. “Everything was shut down: the track I was using, the gym I was using.” The couple ended up using soccer fields for many of her workouts. “We realized it was actually saving a lot of wear and tear on the body, the pounding and extra aches and pains.”
Next season, the two plan to incorporate turf training again, even if the tracks are open. They also are in the process of building a basement weightroom.
“I remember an article I saw on Gail Devers,” says Harper Nelson. “Obviously, we’ve all heard quality over quantity, but she was saying she didn’t train as many days, but the days she did had to be absolute quality. That’s really where I am right now. Instead of feeling like, ‘When you won the gold, it looked exactly like this,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, that was how many,/em> years ago?’
“I’ve learned so much, and I can really read my body now. That’s a huge benefit to me.”
Sometimes it seems a lifetime ago that Harper Nelson, then a 24-year-old in her second year out of UCLA, blitzed a then-PR of 12.54 to win the gold medal in Beijing’s National Stadium.
The memory remains crystal clear. “Dealing with the knee surgery of [February] 2008 and all the tears, but believing within those tears that I could be on the podium. Before the gun goes off, you have this moment of—literally—all of your dreams are at that white line down there. I remember thinking, ‘You’ve done everything you could possibly do. The last thing you can do is run your heart out for 12 seconds.’
“When the gun goes off there’s this crazy panic: you’re just screaming, you comprehend what you’re doing—but you don’t, because you’re doing everything so quickly. Crossing the line is the validation of all the sacrifices. You’re in shock, you see a lot of people’s hopes and dreams. Everyone goes to the Olympics wishing they could be on the podium, but there are only three.”
She could have called it quits that very day and her career would be an object of envy forever. Instead, she forged on. A World bronze in ’11, an Olympic silver in ’12 (in a PR 12.37), a World silver in ’17, and 9 World Rankings, topped by No. 1s in 2014 & ’15.
“Track & field is so beautiful, but so terrible because every year it’s something else to go after,” she continues. “Every year, you feel the pressure of proving yourself. You can win the Olympics the year before and the next year it’s like, ‘Oh the defending champion, can she win the World Championships, can she defend at the Diamond League race?’ And so you feel, ‘I have to prove myself again.’
“You know what you have, but there is still a part for yourself to prove it to yourself again. I hate to even say that, but that’s something that I feel I’ve been burdened with, this beautiful, terrible thing of wanting to prove yourself.”
After all of these years, she absolutely knows what it takes. “I have to listen to my body. I am very hard on myself. You know, 8, 12 years ago, 5 days [of training] looked like this. This is what it should be, but I know I have a different body. When I have my aches and pains, I want to push through because I know I need to put in 4 days or 5 days. And it’s like, ‘No Dawn, what you have to do is be smart.’ You have to listen to your body. You have to eat right. And when you get the opportunity to step on the track, you have to absolutely kill it.”