Keni Harrison: A Play In 3 Acts

Scene 1 of Act III played out happily in Eugene for Keni Harrison; now it’s on to Scene 2 in Tokyo. (KEVIN MORRIS)

ALL HER FANS KNOW HOW the Keni Harrison drama goes. For the sake of those who only watch track during the Olympics, the Tokyo broadcast will probably boil her saga down to a riveting 3-act narrative:

•Act I: Harrison, the favorite to win the 100H at the ’16 Olympic Trials after setting an American Record of 12.24 at Prefontaine some 6 weeks earlier, struggles to finish a non-qualifying 6th.

•Act II: Just 2 weeks later Harrison shows what might have been in Rio by delivering a World Record 12.20 at the London Diamond League.

•The Intermission: It takes an interminable 5 years, giving viewers plenty of time to grab refreshments while offstage Harrison takes silver at the ’19 Worlds amidst a string of 4-straight No. 1 World Rankings.

•Act III: Fast forward to today and this promises to be an edge-of-your-seats thriller. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that should Harrison make the final in Tokyo, she will likely face off against, amongst others, world leader and fellow Kentucky alum Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, representing Puerto Rico.

Is the 28-year-old Harrison primed for her Olympic debut? She says she is more than ready. “I was really grateful that I was able to make my first Olympic team and basically erase the 2016 Olympic Trials,” she says. “From there, [our] plan was come back to Austin and train really hard for the next 3 weeks, make sure that I’m going to be able to peak at Tokyo.

“I think the goal is to go there and make sure that I’m the fittest that I can be. And so that’s why we kind of didn’t want to go overseas to compete, just because of all the travel. Going into Tokyo, I’m feeling really great and I’m just so excited to be going there.”

The process has been a partnership between Harrison and her longtime coach, Texas head Edrick Floréal. The two couldn’t be better matched. “Me and Coach Flo have the same personality,” she quips.

“We both like to work hard; we both like to perfect our craft. Just the fact that he’s so nitpicky about my technique, I think that’s why I am so successful because we drill so much with my lead leg, trail leg and making sure everything is where it needs to be.

“With Coach Flo, he’s never satisfied, so neither am I. I’m always trying to find ways to listen to him and make sure that I’m putting in everything that I need to do, so that I do stay successful.”

She adds, “It’s hard work. You can’t cut corners to be the best.”

Her still-standing WR, she acknowledges, was born out of the ashes of the ’16 Trials: “It did take a disappointment to pull that World Record out.” The lesson she learned was never to quit on herself. “Things might not happen the way that you want, but you did put the work in and you will see the payoff of that.”

Now she faces Olympic competition, something she has visualized for years. But only recently has she had to visualize running the perfect race in an empty stadium:

“When you’re lined up with the best in the world, you’re not worried about the stands, you’re not worried about the people there, you’re just worried about going out and competing to the best of your ability.”

Any disappointment with the situation may come after the racing is done, she says, when athletes might “be bummed when you’re done competing and you want to celebrate with your family and friends. I think that’s probably going to be the hardest part. But at the end of the day, they’re going to have as many cameras as possible and [your loved ones] are going to be watching you in your moment.”

To get ready for her moment, Harrison says, “I’m talking to my sports psych and making sure that I stay calm and basically go into it just how I do every meet. The goal is to win, and when I go in with that mindset, it kind of prepares me, just visualizing a perfect race for me from start to finish and just training hard.

“I don’t think I have anything to prove,” she adds. “I’ve already run the fastest time ever and that speaks for itself. Over the years, seeing the growth that I’ve made in the sport and being able to get better and better at championships also speaks for itself.”

Her performances at the Trials spoke well for her mindset. In three rounds over two days, she reeled out a consistent 12.49/12.50/12.47. Only two women have run faster this year, Camacho-Quinn at 12.32, and OT 6th-placer Tonea Marshall (12.44).

“Going into the Trials, [our] plan was to attack every single round,” Harrison reveals. “I definitely wanted to set the pace in every round. I effectively had a rhythm set up in my head that we wanted to basically mimic so that when we got to the final, I was going to be able to put myself in a good position which was to win.”

That she did. This is no longer the fresh-out-of-college kid who came into ’16 wanting to test herself against the world. Now she brings with her an experience sharpened in many clashes against the world’s top hurdlers.

“I’m really confident going into the Olympics,” she concludes. “I’m ready to challenge myself. But I don’t think of it as, ‘I’m the World Record holder and I need to go out there and win.’ Of course, that’s the goal, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I know my ability, and I know if I bring my A-game, I’m pretty confident.”