Harper wants a repeat, this time in her own shoes
Dawn Harper raced to the finish line in a pair of borrowed spikes at the Olympics four years ago. The 100-meter hurdler wound up wearing those shoes to climb to the top of the winner's podium as well.
A raw 24-year-old from the tough city of East St. Louis, virtually unknown in the track world to anyone outside of her family, teammates and coach, becomes an unexpected gold medalist in her Olympic debut. Yes, they make movies out of stories like that one, though in Harper's case, it hasn't been enough to knock a less-accomplished U.S. teammate off the magazine covers.
`Hmmmm ... At one point it was,'' Harper said Tuesday, when asked about receiving second billing to Lolo Jones, who still has the more recognizable face and name despite her lack of Olympic success. ''I don't want to lie and say it wasn't. But nothing that someone else gets can take away from my journey.''
Jones, who struggled to qualify this year for a return trip to the Olympics, still has more sponsors, gets more airtime and it is her picture, not Harper's, that graced the front of ''Time'' magazine's Olympic issue last month.
Harper has the gold medal and very few regrets.
''It's a difficult spot to be in,'' said Michelle Perry, the retired hurdler, whose loaned her shoes to Harper and lifted her to Olympic gold. ''Once you get to that level, you want to get all the accolades and the other things that come with it. It's like taking the LSAT and passing the bar but then them telling you that you can't become a lawyer. You do everything you're supposed to do, but what's the reward?''
Like the rest of the field in Beijing, Harper was racing for second, a pace or two behind, when Jones, the leader, clipped the ninth hurdle and stumbled toward the finish line. Almost all eyes in the Bird's Nest stayed on Jones, watching the favorite's dreams shatter. Ahead of her, though, another scene was playing out: Harper, unbelieving, looking around, shouting ''What? What? What?''
She saw Australian Sally Pearson celebrating. ''And I'm thinking, `Second is really good,'' Harper said. Then, she saw Priscilla Lopes-Schliep shouting, too. ''And I was like, `Third is amazing,'' Harper said.
Moments later, teammate Damu Cherry told her she had won. Harper couldn't believe it.
''Because I remember thinking, of all the people in this world that want to get to the Olympics, or reach the pinnacle in anything they do, I did that,'' she said. ''I did it the age of 24, with people saying `This is your first Olympics, just enjoy the experience, the next one will be just fine.'''
The trip to the Olympics four years later has, indeed, gone just fine so far - but under much different circumstances.
Instead of sliding through airports and shopping malls unnoticed, Harper stops to take a few pictures and sign some autographs.
Instead of simply hoping to soak in the atmosphere and bank some memories for bigger things to come, Harper has expectations this time. She also has her own shoes. Four years ago, the spikes on the single pair of shoes she owned were wearing down. With no sponsor to provide her with a new set of spikes, she called Perry, who had been the world's top-ranked hurdler through much of the four years preceding the Olympics, but got injured at the start of the 2008 season and didn't get to live out her Olympic dream.
''We kind of understand the struggle that comes with trying to be an Olympic athlete,'' Perry said. ''So many people see the glitz and glamour when they turn on the lights at the Olympics for two weeks every four years. All that's great. But there's a hard road that gets you there. In our camp, you're always told to try to help the next person coming up. There are a lot of athletes that fall through the cracks.''
It could have happened to Harper.
Her journey began in the blue-collar city of East St. Louis where she grew up idolizing one of the city's icons, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the three-time Olympic gold medalist who took an early interest in the young, up-and-coming hurdler.
That interest eventually turned into a scholarship to UCLA - ''A blessing, because my parents could never have afforded that,'' Harper says - where Joyner-Kersee's husband, Bobby, was coaching. Bobby Kersee, of course, was one of the few believers that day in Beijing, even though the spotlight - and the expectations - had all fallen on Jones.
''He said, `Focus on you,''' Harper said.
She did, and moments after Jones fell, Harper leaned in at the line for one of the most unexpected wins of the Olympics.
''I was running off a hope and a dream,'' she concedes.
Fully recovered from knee surgery in 2010, she is trying to become the first woman to go back-to-back at the Olympics in the 100 hurdles - as fickle an event as there is in athletics.
She knows, however, that she can't go in counting on anyone making a mistake this time. And when she talks about the upcoming race, she sounds as if she's ready to get into the starting block now, not next Monday, which is when the heats in her event begin.
''I refuse to go into this race and just not execute. That's the only thing that would really disappoint me,'' she said. ''I know my training is good. And I'm ready.''