Clayton’s Keni Harrison bounces back with world record hurdle run

Clayton native Keni Harrison pushes for the finish line in the women’s 100-meter hurdle final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials earlier this month in Eugene, Oregon. She finished sixth.
Clayton native Keni Harrison pushes for the finish line in the women’s 100-meter hurdle final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials earlier this month in Eugene, Oregon. She finished sixth. Bill Ofenloch

Keni Harrison spoiled the big surprise she had for her family late Friday night in London. The one good thing about missing out on the Olympics was that it opened up a week in mid-August where she could do something she’s wanted to do for a while: visit her parents and 10 siblings back home in Johnston County.

She wanted to keep that fact a secret, but when you break a 28-year-old record and you start getting questions about your future plans in the early a.m. hours on a hastily arranged teleconference call with reporters back home, things slip out.

Harrison, in her first competition since a disappointing finish out of the top three (and an Olympic team spot) U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials, ran faster than any female has ever run in the 100-meter hurdles Friday night in the Diamond League track meet in London. Her time of 12.2 seconds was one-one-hundredth of a second better than the mark run by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria in August of 1988.

“I’ll be going back to my hometown in North Carolina to be with family, and lift and train there,” Harrison said on the aforementioned conference call. “Taking a bit of time off will be good, but I’ll be around family, so I’ll be happy for that.

“It was supposed to be a surprise, I guess that’s gone now.”

Harrison also made much of her disappointment with the result at the Trials disappear with her run on Friday night. After running 12.4 in the preliminary round, she knew good things might be ahead.

“I finally got my confidence back. I told myself that I can do this and my coach (Edrick Floréal) told me to lean [at the line],” Harrison said. “My practices after Trials were great, so going into the race, I had so much vengeance and so many emotions inside of me. I’m just blessed to go out there and give it all I have. To see that time, I was really happy.”

A camera caught Harrison’s reaction after the race when she turned toward the timing scoreboard and saw the 12.2. The expression on her face quickly became one of the most shared GIFs on social media. It was one that could only come after incredible happiness after the most bitter of disappointments.

Many thoughts went through the Clayton High School grad’s mind after her sixth place finish and slow by her standards time of 12.62 seconds.

Her thoughts were all over the place after the Trials. The thought of skipping the rest of the season briefly went through her mind, but most of all she focused on figuring out what when wrong.

“After the race at Trials, we went back to see where we went wrong,” Harrison said. “It was just mentally, the pressure got to me. To make myself feel better, I told myself to just make the team instead of the same mindset I’ve had all year, which is to dominate.

“I didn’t think like that at Trials. It was really disappointing that the pressure got to me and so after that, I was really heartbroken. I wanted to give up so bad, but I knew [competing] was the only way I would feel better. Go back to training and go after the world record.”

Thirteen days after that most disappointing run, she reached her ultimate goal — setting a world record.

“Going into the race, I was nervous. I tried to push all the doubt out of my mind. In the blocks, I just kept saying, ‘give it all you have’ and ‘you’re the best.’ I said it over and over again. When the gun went off, I ran 12.4. I knew I had this. In finals, I ran even faster.”

She did, laying down the 12.20.

But with no other way on the U.S. Olympic team, she’ll still miss out on the 2016 Games.

“It is what it is. You have to get top 3 at Trials and I knew that,” Harrison said. “That’s what makes making the American team so special. You have to be able to run against the best and get top 3. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get top 3, but once I try out again in a few years, I know getting top 3 will be the best feeling in the world.

“Just knowing I conquered so much to get there, and seeing everyone’s faces if they don’t get it, I’ll know both sides. [Top 3] is the rule and I’m okay with it.”

So instead of the world’s biggest stage, Harrison will get a break in mid-August. She said she’ll cheer on Team USA, with her family, knowing there’s always another race awaiting for one of the world’s best in her prime. Harrison and her agent, Emmanuel Hudson, talked about even bigger plans starting next year — adding the 400-meter hurdles to her schedule. The last time she ran the 400 hurdles she clocked in a 54.09, a time that would have put her on the U.S. team for Rio next month if she had run it in the same race.

But those are plans for the future – there are schedules to figure out, trying to make sure the competition days for the 100 and 400 hurdles don’t overlap too much. For now, that bright bubbly smile is just looking forward to time with her big family.

“They’re all really happy and glad I was able to get back up when I was down,” she said of her family’s reaction to the world record. “I think they’re most proud about that.”

D. Clay Best: 919-524-8895, @dclaybest