The little girl from East St. Louis first made a name for herself when, as a 14-year-old high school freshman, she broke the state record in the 100-meter hurdles.
For champions, that’s not where dreams end. It’s where they begin.
“The first time I went over the hurdles with my right knee and it was terrible. You can’t imagine anybody doing it worse,’’ said Dawn Harper-Nelson. “The coach then called me over and told me to turn my back to him. he pushed me forward and I went over with my left knee. At that moment I was better than everyone else on the team.
“I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade when I started. The coach told me that with my intelligence and speed that I could be the best in the world.’’
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A six-time All-American at UCLA, Harper-Nelson reached the pinnacle of her dream in 2008 when she took gold in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
More than 20 years after going over that first hurdle, Harper-Nelson, 34, decided to pursue other dreams. Citing a desire to start her family, the 2002 graduate of East St. Louis Senior High School has announced her retirement from track and field competition.
“It’s time. I’m going to miss it but I can honestly say that in my heart of hearts, that I feel the pull more now to be a mother than I feel the pull for track,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “There is a sense of relief. I feel like I’ve accomplished so much. I’ve had such a great career. I feel like many of things that I’ve made up my mind to accomplish I’ve been able to get.”
Harper-Nelson ranks as one of the greatest female hurdlers in track and field history.
In addition to winning the Olympic gold medal in 2008, she earned silver four years later in the London Olympics. She missed out on her second gold by just .02 seconds, but became the first American woman to win the gold medal in one Olympics in the 100-meter hurdles and then earn a medal in a second.
The world’s former No. 1-ranked hurdler, Harper-Nelson also won a silver medal in the 2017 World Championships in London and bronze medal in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011. She also is a four-time winner of the Diamond League championship. No other 100-meter hurdler has won the championship more than once.
The ground rules
The daughter of Henry and Linda Harper, Dawn learned at an early age to get her priorities in order. In the mind of Linda Harper, academics came first.
“I remember my eighth-grade year, the progress reports came home from school and I was getting A’s in everything but science. Anyway, my mom said, ‘You aren’t going back to track practice.’ That’s when I knew the rules — If I didn’t make the grades, then there would be no track,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “I remember the coach came to my house and my mom’s like, ‘She can be as fast as she wants, but if she doesn’t make grades then she won’t get into college.’
“It was right then when I learned that academics and athletics go hand in hand.’’
Harper-Nelson began her high school career in record-setting style. Unbeaten through her freshman season, Harper-Nelson capped a memorable year by breaking the state record in the 100-meter hurdles (14.03 seconds) and also took home the top medal in the 300-meter hurdles event.
She likely was on her way to another pair of state titles when, just prior to the IHSA sectional, she suffered a torn PCL and meniscus in her knee. Even injured, Harper-Nelson won the sectional in both events, then placed second in the 100-meter hurdles at the state meet.
“When we got to state, I remember sitting on the back of the truck and my physical therapist told Dad and Mom that there was no way the knee would hold up through four races,’’ she said. “I cried and I begged to the point where my mother asked (the therapist) if he thought my knee would make it through one event. They said yes and I ran the 100-meter hurdles where I finished second by .002 seconds. I was so mad.’’
After rehabbing the knee with former Olympic weight lifter Derrick Crass, of Belleville, Harper-Nelson won both the 100- and 300-meter championships her final two years. Her time of 13.54 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles remains the state record.
Harper-Nelson’s career was aided by legendary East St. Louis coach Nino Fennoy who, like Linda Harper, believed in hard work both in the classroom and on the track.
“Coach Fennoy was tough on me. He knew that he had the backing at home that would help me in track,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “My mom and Coach Fennoy had a good understanding of each other. My mom is like, ‘I know nothing about track and so if you feel she should be doing this then you have my backing and support.’ ”
When it came time to pick a college, Harper-Nelson considered Iowa and Alabama, in addition to UCLA. She considered Alabama because she liked the coach, but it was tradition that drew her to Southern California. The Bruins produce great hurdlers like Gail Devers and head coach Jeanette Bolden, not to mention fellow East St. Louisan Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
While at UCLA, Harper-Nelson became a six-time All-American and graduated in 2006 with a degree in psychology. But there was the matter of completing that dream.
“I had a two-year plan. I was going to train and workout for two years. If I didn’t make the Olympic team I was going to give up track and field,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “I was working three jobs. My dad wasn’t happy. He said, ‘You go to UCLA, get a degree in psychology and you’re working three jobs?’ I said ‘Dad, I have a two-year plan.’ ’’
Harper-Nelson trained with three of the best hurdlers in the world from 2006 to 2008.
Things started out fine.
“In the group I was training with, you had the defending Olympic champion Joanna Hayes, world champion Michelle Perry, and the girl who had beaten me my whole career, Jenny Powell. They all had contracts, were making good money, had Nike clothes,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “All I had was my UCLA clothes, from adidas. My shoes were wearing out, my spikes were wearing out, my clothes were wearing out.
“The reality of it was that at the end of the day one of us was not going to make the team and that wasn’t even counting the rest of the United States.’’
Another knee injury sent her back to St. Louis for surgery, which was performed by Dr. Richard Lehman. Harper-Nelson went through a quick, but painful, rehabilitation. Once back In Los Angeles, she would sneak into the UCLA track for extra workouts.
She discovered there was more than just the balky knee that required rehabilitation.
“I remember the first 300-meter hurdles after the surgery I ran it in, like, 1 minute 10 seconds. I was so slow,” she said. “I had a mental block about going over the hurdles. I couldn’t do it. I remember Joanna Hayes came over very quietly and said, ‘Lower the hurdle, jog up to it and go over it. I did that and when I did, I cried. I’m like ‘I can run again.’ ”
Harper-Nelson wore a pair of spikes given to her by Michelle Perry at the Olympic trials where she finished third to qualify for her first U.S. team.
“I remember I had this notebook and after I came back from the injury I asked Bobby Kersee if he thought I could do this — come back from the injury. His response was ‘I wouldn’t be working with you if I didn’t think you could.’ ”
Harper-Nelson says she felt confident once she arrived in Beijing but anxious to get on with the competition.
Her mind was on a medal.
“I’m sure they didn’t mean any harm, but some of my Olympic teammates were telling me that nobody wins a medal the first time in the Games and that I should take it all in and enjoy it,” Harper-Nelson said. “I’m sure they were trying to take the pressure off me. But I’m like ‘I’m here to win a medal.’ “
Her coach, Bob Kersee, was just as confident.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘You are going to win a medal. The color of that medal is up to you,’ ” she said.
Harper-Nelson advanced to the 100-meter hurdles final. While warming up for the race she’d trained a lifetime for, Kersee called her to the sideline for an oddly-timed rest.
“I’m thinking he’s lost it — Bobby has finally lost it,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “My competitors are warming up and I’m sitting on the ground at the Olympic Stadium.’’
Less than an hour later, Dawn Harper-Nelson was an Olympic champion.
“I remember the gun goes off and I remember that Dellroeen (Ennis-London) from Jamaica to my left was in front of me and I knew I wasn’t winning and that I needed to get in front of her,” Harper-Nelson said. “When I did, I couldn’t see anybody else and when I got the finish line, I leaned.”
The other runners had faded into a blur around her. Harper-Nelson said she wasn’t sure where she finished in the race.
“Sally Pearson from Australia started screaming and jumping up and down. I’m like, ‘OK, I got a silver medal and that’s really good,’ ” she said. “Then Priscilla (Lopes-Schliep) started to scream and I’m like ‘OK, I still got a medal.’ ’’
It wasn’t until teammate Damu Cherry congratulated Harper-Nelson that she knew that dream had come true.
“She came over and said ‘No Dawn, you won it,’ “ Harper-Nelson said. “At that moment I just collapsed. ‘What do you mean I won?’ This is unreal.’’
A phone call came from Joyner-Kersee, who had opened up her recreation center in East St. Louis so the citizens of the “City of Champions” could watch the crowing of another.
“One photographer snapped a picture of me hugging my dad. You can’t put into words what that was like,’’ Harper-Nelson said.
Still “just good friends” at the time, Alonzo Nelson, who had been with Harper at the Olympic Trials and on several stops around the world, was at Joyner-Kersee’s home when his future wife made history.
A former world class 400-meter runner, who competed on the European circuit in Italy and France, Nelson had known Dawn Harper nearly his entire life. Still, the Olympic moment took him back to his first memory of being with her.
“It was in the eighth grade. Dawn was the only girl running in the hurdles race and I was the only boy to beat her. She didn’t like that very much,’’ Nelson said. “I’m like ‘Who is this girl and why is she so mad?’ ”
After 18 months of courtship, the couple has now been married 5 1/2 years. With his wife retiring from track and field, her husband is still getting used to the idea of having his wife home full time.
“Actually it’s still a little surreal yet. She usually comes home in September anyway,’’ said Nelson, a math teacher and assistant track coach at Belleville West. “I don’t think it will really sink in until after a few days after Thanksgiving. I’m usually taking her to the airport at Thanksgiving. It will be great to have her home.’’
Harper-Nelson will fly to Monaco for a gala event in December and she and Alonzo plan to continue traveling. Linda Harper still lives in the metro-east, but Henry Harper has moved to Iowa.
“It’s a good distance, but we’re planning to take some trips out to see my dad,’’ Harper-Nelson said. “I have some public speaking engagements scheduled and there has been some talk about me getting to go on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ I’m a pretty good dancer.”
And, of course, there’s work to be done on fulfilling that other dream.
“I’ve always known I want to be a mom, so that was never a question. The question was when,” Harper-Nelson said. “I did think about ending it last year, but I wanted to have a year of competing where it could be just fun.
“Now I feel the urge to be someone’s mother.”