In early September Dawn Harper Nelson ran the final race of her decorated career at the intimate venue in Zagreb. Though she was loudly cheered by the partisan Croatian crowd, few in attendance likely fully appreciated that they were witnessing the finale of one of the most successful women’s hurdlers of all time.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” confessed the 34-year-old UCLA alum of her summer-long 6-nation farewell tour, which concluded with a 13.25 for 7th. “I wanted to run a little better—let’s just be honest,” said the barrier great while flashing that award-winning smile. “But I’ve had a great career. I’ve had a great time. Track & field has given me the world—literally. You know I’ve traveled the world. The fans have been amazing; I thank them for everything they’ve given me. The girls have been great to me. I figure we’ll cry back at the hotel. But it’s all smiles here.”
And what a career it has been. Like a good number of American hurdlers, Harper Nelson was always an affable fashion plate whenever she stepped on a competitive track: exquisitely done nails, an exotic hairdo, and always a smile. But when the starter called the athletes to their marks, she was all business, collecting 16 Diamond League victories and 4 national championships. In a career that found her breaking the 13-second barrier for 15 straight years, her PR of 12.37 ranks her =No. 11 on the all-time world list and =No. 6 among Americans.
But the East St. Louis native’s primary focus was never chasing fast times; it was about being a ferocious racer. And she was never better then at global championships. In the Beijing Olympic final—perhaps her most memorable moment—in the frenetic rush for the medals over the final barriers, DHN kept her cool while the athletes around her were losing theirs. And she came up gold. An Olympic silver medalist in ’12, Harper Nelson also earned two World Championships medals: a bronze at Daegu in ’11 and a silver at London in ’17. And she made two other WC finals.
But the feared finalist will also be remembered for her playful side. Beyond the hair and the nails, Harper Nelson was always accessible and engaging with her fans and with the media, signing autographs and patiently responding to questions. Once during a postrace media encounter in a packed interview zone, she was asked lightheartedly if any other woman athlete made a more stylish appearance on the track than she did. “I think not!’ she retorted with a smile. Later in her career, the joyful postrace cartwheel after a particularly outstanding performance became her signature move.
The affection other hurdlers have for Harper Nelson is easily observed. “Oh, I love Dawn,” proclaimed Sharika Nelvis, the victor in Dawn’s final race. “It’s so sad to see her leave because she‘s one of the greatest,” she said in paying respect. “She is such a character. I would do her cartwheel but you know I don’t think she would like that, so I’m not going to take it. I’m going to leave it to her.”
Harper Nelson has thought about the next chapter of her life, and eager to share her plan, she exclaimed,“Well, right now, immediately, babies. Me and my husband want to start our family. As a woman, that’s a decision you have to make. When do you say it’s time? When do you keep going? You know something? I’m 34 and we want to have more than one kid.” And the hurdle great has more than parenthood on the docket. “I would want commentating. We’re pitching Dancing With The Stars,” she revealed with enthusiasm. “I have another website coming out where fans actually talk with you one-on-one about questions on training, mental aspects of the sport. So I’ve got a lot of things in the works.”
She has also thought about her legacy and what she hopes it will be. “I’d like to be remembered this way: ‘If you had to bet, you knew you’d put your money on Dawn because you know I’d get the job done.’ I actually left that imprint on track & field. So that’s what I am.”
Before heading back to the hotel with the other athletes to celebrate her storied career and perhaps to shed a few tears, the retiring superstar fielded one final request that she find a way to stay involved in the sport she loves. “I sure will,” she assured on her way out. And when Dawn Harper Nelson makes a promise, you can bet on it. □