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Standing out in a crowd: Keni Harrison hurdles to history

6/1/2016
 

By Emily Giambalvo, USATF Communications


On the journey to drop off all the kids at their after-school activities, the Marriott shuttle bus that functioned as a family vehicle caused onlookers to mistake the Harrisons for a daycare.

 

Keni Harrison grew up in a family with 11 children, nine of whom, including Keni, are adopted. With five older and five younger siblings, Keni sits right in the middle.

 

A handful of the kids participated in high school sports. One played soccer in college. Some excelled academically, others artistically. For Keni, it was track and field.

 

“Sports was one thing that I was able to stand out in,” Harrison said.


With the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field slowly inching into view, Harrison has established herself as one of the world’s top hurdlers. This weekend, the Clayton, North Carolina, native broke the American record in the 100-meter hurdles at the Nike Prefontaine Classic finishing in 12.24, only three hundredths of a second away from the fastest time in track & field history.


Now a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater, Harrison still trains under University of Kentucky head coach Edrick Floréal. In April, Harrison’s 12.36 became the best ever season opener in the 100m hurdles. She even said she slowed down near the finish line. The time stood as the world-leading mark this year until she surpassed it with her Prefontaine performance.


The top three 100mH times in the world this year all belong to Harrison. But in terms of competing in Rio de Janeiro, the finish that carries importance is the one at U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field, where the top three athletes will qualify to represent Team USA in Brazil.


“Of course I think about making the Olympic Team,” Harrison said. “Everybody does at this level.”


Nine of the world’s top 12 women’s 100mH athletes this Olympic year are from the United States, which means the group of U.S. athletes “at this level” who are dreaming of the Rio Games is a bit more competitive in Harrison’s event than in others due to the country’s depth.


“With the hurdles being the toughest event in the U.S. to advance to the Olympics, the meet already has enough pressure or enough worth and value to it,” Floréal said. “I try to take some of that stuff away and focus on the basics, technical components and try to keep her calm.”

 

Before track stole Harrison’s complete attention, she was a varsity cheerleader and the fastest player on the soccer field.


“Running was a punishment, and she wanted to do something besides running, so [the high school track coach] said, 'Well, you can jump over hurdles,’” said Keni’s father, Gary Harrison.


The track coach asked Harrison if she would compete in a couple meets in 10th grade. She placed second at the North Carolina state championships with little training.


Once Keni’s natural talent became obvious, her older sister, Casey Wojtaszek, bribed Keni to dedicate all her effort toward the sport.


“I told her that if she would run track full-time instead of doing soccer full-time, I would buy her a pair of spikes,” Wojtaszek said. “She was just running in tennis shoes.”


Later at one of Keni’s meets, Wojtaszek pinpointed Steve McGill as a possible hurdles coach for Keni. Their mom, Karon Harrison, sent McGill an email that said, “'I think she might have a little potential. Do you think you could work with her?”


Karon said McGill still has that email.


Once Harrison began training with McGill, she began to master the fundamentals and continued to improve.


But if someone had mentioned the Olympic Games to Harrison when she first started the sport?

 

“I probably would have looked at them like they were crazy,” Harrison said.

 

At the time, she just hoped she’d perform well enough to earn an NCAA scholarship. Eventually she did that and more. In her senior season at Kentucky, Harrison claimed NCAA and Southeastern Conference titles in both the 60mH and the 100mH.


Floréal thinks Harrison could have earned those titles her junior year, but her transfer to Kentucky from Clemson just before that season required more time for mental preparation.


Upon the completion of her collegiate career, Harrison signed with Adidas. Floréal said she has embraced the responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete and calls her a “hurdle nerd.”


“Always asking questions and wanting to watch videos and understand angles and understand velocity,” Floréal said. “To have an athlete that actually wants to know that is pretty unique.”


Throughout college, Keni’s family members regularly attended her nearby meets. Her coaches were always impressed by the Harrison turnout, Karon said.


Wojtaszek, who jokingly credits herself for beginning Keni’s track career, goes to as many of Keni’s meets as possible. She was just at the Nike Prefontaine Classic and plans to make the trip to Rio if Keni qualifies.


While Harrison’s father will be at Trials as his Father’s Day gift, he said he would be too nervous to watch the Olympic Games in person. That’s for the “braver people,” he said. And plenty of those exist in Harrison’s larger-than-average support crew.


In a family that warranted seven gallons of milk every week, attention had to be allocated. But Harrison found her niche — one that might take her to the Olympic Games.

 

“We all had our one identity,” Harrison said. “Mine was track and field.”




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