Dawn Harper-Nelson is currently America’s second-fastest athlete competing in the 100m hurdles and over the past few years has been ranked second and sometimes first in the world. Currently Brianna Rollins is America’s fastest, owning the best active time in the world with her American record of 12:26 from 2013.
Their main international rival is Australia’s Sally Pearson, who won gold in both the 2011 Daegu IAAF World Track and Field Championships and the 2012 London Olympic Games. Pearson owns the world’s second-fastest time for active athletes, having run 12.28 in Daegu. Harper-Nelson is a close third with her best of 12.37 from the London Olympics – she is the fourth fastest American all-time.
Time-based performances aside, between the three athletes, it is difficult to rank one higher than the other as Harper-Nelson earned gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and silver at the 2012 London Olympics and bronze in Daegu.
Originally from East St. Louis, Missouri, she was discovered in grade 8 by Coach Gerald Nave, from there she committed to the hurdles and has run the event ever since, having carried on through high school, then earning a full-ride scholarship to UCLA, where she earned a degree in psychology. She plans to run her third Olympic Games in Rio.
She is a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and an ambassador for the United Way of Greater St. Louis. She also supports the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation.
Christopher Kelsall: Were your parents athletic?
Dawn Harper-Nelson: Yes. My father played baseball in high school. He was very good and probably could have gone professional, but his bad attitude got in the way. Mom was an athlete too but very shy, probably too shy for high level competition.
CK: Your father had a bad attitude?
DHN: Yes he did. Everyone always knew he was the best on the team, including him. He would miss practises and show up late or when he felt like it. And his coaches would let him get away with it, because he was so good. He was cocky and thought, why should I practise with you, I already know how to do all those drills. He admits it.
As a child I was not that cocky, a lot of the guys in school would demonstrate that type of behavior too. But I trained and raced always thinking that someone could always beat me. So my father discovered that I am very different in that regard.
CK: Your family has a history with diabetes. You are a spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association. How does it influence your lifestyle, especially considering you are a top-performing athlete?
DHN: I will say it always influences my life. Diabetes is a little more common as people age, so as I get older I have to remember to eat well. My lifestyle must be healthy. It would be foolish of me to think that it doesn’t affect me. No sweets in the house.
DHN: Haagen-Dazs is my weakness. I love Hagen-Daz. If there is Haagen-Dazs in the house, I cannot have just a little. I will fool myself into having a little on a Saturday night, but I won’t, I will eat the whole thing [laughs]. So I usually do not have it in the house.
CK: You ran hurdles from a young age, then high school and then were recruited and continued at UCLA as a hurdler. Had you given a serious try at non-hurdle events?
DHN: Well when I first started out I was a flat sprinter in the 100m and 200m. It was Coach Gerald Nave who discovered my hurdling ability. At first, I was leading with the right leg and after some practise and with him pushing me and eventually trying out the left lead we discovered that I have a real natural talent; a niche talent.
CK: How much of your success do you owe to the likes of Gerald Nave and Nino Fennoy?
DHN: Point blank, they are my foundation. Without a foundation you topple over. They saw something in me, in my natural ability to hurdle. When I see them now, the people who helped me discover my ability and formed my foundation as an athlete; I see where my life changed. It’s like going home as they helped give me my future.
CK: You have travelled the world competing. What is your favourite place to visit and favourite for competition?
DHN: I would say my favourite place to compete is Zurich, Switzerland, because the fans are on it. When I say they are on it, I mean they know their stuff. I just love the fans there. You can hear the fans outside the stadium, screaming. It is such a great atmosphere.
I like to visit Rome. It’s beautiful. You are walking around and it is so beautiful and the history, it is amazing there. I walk around thinking about how old the city is and the culture and the history. It is a very beautiful city.
CK: You are typically ranked number one or two in the world for your event. At this level, are the differences between performances less to do with fitness – because in an Olympic final everyone is fit – and more to do with execution of the skill and perhaps in the fine nuances of timing your peak?
DHN: Yes, but what I think it also comes down to is when we step on to that start line it becomes very much a mental thing. Focus. Focus on the lane, focus on execution, be in the moment, and believe that I am going to win. I know that I am going to do what I am here to do and that is to deliver and go for the win. It is important to believe that I will win. It is also a mental thing.
CK: Why do you think it is that the top five times have stood since the late 1980s and early 1990s? I mean roughly two-thirds of the top 30 times are from that era.
DHN: Clearly at that time they found a sweet spot around the hurdles and they just went after it. Today, amongst the top hurdlers there is a collective desire to go after those records. It is about time we break them.
CK: Frankly, they appear drug-aided.
DHN: We hurdlers do not like the apparent cloud that hangs over the sport and those records. It is not a good look for the sport. I love the hurdles and the purity of the event. The current hard-working athletes know we want to take down those records. We believe in ourselves and for sure there is that desire to get those records brought down. I know records are meant to be broken and I know it is time now to do it.
CK: If you had to choose, what win would you prefer, an Olympic gold, (which you already know the feeling of) – regardless of the time – or a world record or if the top times are drug-aided and out-of-reach, a world-leading time?
DHN: Not a world leading time. Currently it is not that fast a time. I can run faster than that. Why not my dream, baby? Let’s just blow them all away and get a world record and a gold medal at the same time, in the same race?
CK: Done. You have said that you don’t think that drug cheating is the primary factor in decreased attendance at Diamond League meets. What do you think are the primary issues affecting the sport?
DHN: I will say I think it is a lot to do with the promoting of the sport. Better time slots for TV are needed. Promotion, why not have commercials promoting upcoming televised events?
Football, baseball and basketball all have the heavy promotion; we don’t have that. It is like if you are not already inside the sport, you will not know about upcoming events.
Oregon is a good example of how promoting the sport properly, gets the fans interested. I get off the plane in Oregon and I think that I am in a different world; Oregon knows how to market running events.
CK: So promoting the sport on TV, telling viewers that the event is exciting then viewers will begin to believe that as they do with the other sports?
DHN: Yes! Everyone can relate to the sport because they have tried it in school, college or they jog or take it up when they are older. I haven’t run into a person yet who hasn’t said, ‘I tried the sport in high school or elementary school,’ or at some point in their life. They can understand it. They can relate to it. The problem is in the lack of good promotion and marketing of our sport and this needs to change.
CK: Do you feel that your early season injuries before your 2008 Olympics and 2011 World’s where you medalled and your injury-free Worlds where you didn’t medal, have anything to do with having a forced shorter season and perhaps finding a sharper peak or perhaps being more fresh for the global championships? Is there a connection?
DHN: Well not really because if you look at the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Sally and I both broke the previous Olympic record during the event, so I was sharp and ready and was injury-free leading up. I think with an injury and a shorter season leading up to a global championship event, there is much more focus on the details and the discipline and the diet. You have to be much more focused and concentrated in your training. So I think that might bring around a good timely peak.
CK: How come your husband Alonzo doesn’t appear to have “Harper” in his last name, but you have Nelson?
DHN: [laughs] I married him! I absolutely love my husband. I am just little old Dawn happy to be his little old wife. I took on his name. A man doesn’t typically change his name to the woman who he married. I could have kept my name, but decided to add his to mine.
CK: Do you plan to use your psychology degree in a post-athletic career?
DHN: I definitely do. I want to be a sport psychologist when my athletic career is over. I will want to get my master’s degree and perhaps PhD.
I think I give off that approachable demeanor now. Athletes will often want to talk to me. They will approach me at the track and we will chat. Of course I understand them, being in the same sport or at the same level. It is something that comes natural to me. I find myself that person who is often counselling others, the go-to person. Like I said, I give off that approachable demeanor, except on race day where I just get into the zone and focus on my own situation. You know, eye contact drops a little. But other than on race day, I am very approachable. So sport psychology is what I want to do for a living after my athletic career is over.
CK: Sticking with the psychological paradigm, athletes will often drown out their thoughts in the call room; put headphones on and “cope” throughout the pre-race process. How do you focus on those moments? Picture yourself in the final call room in Beijing, what were you doing moments before the competition?
DHN: In 2008, in the call room, I did not have my head phones on. When it was near game time, I dealt with my own thoughts where I reflected on all the good things that I have done in training. I didn’t doubt myself. I knew that I was ready and that I would have to go out there and race and have no regrets, put it out there. In the call room I was telling myself that I am the best one out there. You know, you have to believe.
(Coach) Bobby Kersee was telling me that I am the best one out there, I had to believe that. It is really important to be okay with my own thoughts. I totally understand why some people need to drown their thoughts out because you can really take yourself out of the moment if you are not careful.
I don’t judge and totally understand why others cope in their own way, but in that moment I am so focused and was thinking positive thoughts. Praying before a race for me is not asking for anything specific, but is about executing during the race. I ask, let me run my race. Sure, protect my fellow competitors, bless you all, no harm meant, but I am going to the left. I am here for one reason only and that is to win.
CK: How about now?
DHN: I am not more relaxed now, but I am able to deal with it differently as I can tell myself that I have been there before. Beijing was the first time.
Back to Beijing, I didn’t have my usual warm-up, that change can really affect an athlete mentally. But Bobby said, ‘sit down, you are ready to go, just sit down, I can tell you are ready.’ Even though it was not my usual warm-up, he knew. When Bobby Kersee tells you that you are ready, you are. I believed and I won.
But it was a crazy moment, because of not having my usual warm-up, because Bobby told me that I was already ready, which was different, then this song comes on when we were on our way out. The song Superstar by Lupe Fiasco, with those lyrics, wow it seemed like a movie or a dream with all those people and the atmosphere. I was asking myself, what is this a movie? This is surreal. And those lyrics…
If you are what you say you are
then have no fear
the camera is here
and the microphones…
That was surreal.
CK: Once in the race itself, what is in the mental details that dictate the execution of the skills that you practised so many times?
DHN: In the race I have moments where I think about the technical parts. I queue certain things to trigger proper movements, for example getting the lead leg down fast, trail leg over smoother. Be focused. Always reminding myself, quicker, harder, faster. Key thing that I have said for years, I know it sounds simple: ‘You gotta go to work.’ I say, ‘Go to work, or it’s over,’ It’s that simple.
CK: So that simple queue must trigger details that you have practised correctly a million times before.
DHN: Exactly. But I also focus on the moment. I can tell myself, ‘sure it is fine to have the trailing leg come over nicely, but that means nothing if I don’t have the lead leg down quickly and I always tell myself, quicker…quicker…quicker.’
CK: What are your early-season goals coming up this spring?
DHN: End of April there is the Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar. This is the same day that my niece is due, which is exciting. On this day I want to have the best opener ever. Winning and earning the win, getting gold, going with gusto for the win. Believing and knowing that I will win.
CK: Sub-12.50 to start?
DHN: [Laughs] that would be nice!