US sprint hurdler Keni Harrison (© Getty Images)
Keni Harrison – “I prefer Keni but I’ll respond to Kendra” – has made a big impact over the 60m hurdles this winter and is now already being talked about as a medal contender, and perhaps the pre-event favourite, for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 next month, despite her avowed international inexperience.
Her early season world-leading mark of 7.83 at the Rod McCravy Memorial in her adopted home town of Lexington in Kentucky certainly caused eyebrows to be raised but, partly because she had been disqualified in her semi-final at the World Championships last summer, there was still a lot of scepticism in Europe about how she would fare when the pressure was on.
It’s fair to say that she was under a lot of scrutiny on Saturday night in the German city of Karlsruhe, at the opening meeting of this year’s IAAF World Indoor Tour.
However, she came through the test with aplomb, running a world-leading 7.82 in her heat before dominating her final from the second hurdle and coming home in 7.86.
It’s worth remembering that no one else in the world has run faster than 7.94 so far this winter.
“Running 7.83 in Lexington was good but it was important to run 7.82 (and 7.86) here, in a big meet," she said. "I’m pretty pleased and very excited.
“Being in Europe is different to being at home. For a start the food is different to what I’m used to, it’s something I’ve got to get used to but I’ll manage.
“I felt pretty good here (in Karslruhe), it was the first time running without my coach (Edrick Floreal, who is also the University of Kentucky head coach, the college she competed for from 2013 until last summer) so I was a bit nervous but I also felt confident," she added. "This was my first overseas meet as a professional athlete so I was just happy to win."
Bouncing back after Beijing
“Ha, ha! Well, this was a lot better than Beijing,” she laughed, remembering the outcome of her semi-final in the Chinese capital when she false-started after being also heralded as a possible medallist after finishing second to 2008 Olympic champion Dawn Harper Nelson at the US Championships.
“That was a DQ; this was a SB, er WL,” she added, lapsing into the shorthand used on the results sheets of the sport to describe disqualifications, season’s best and world leads.
“That (the 2015 World Championships) was disappointing; I know I am a much better athlete than what I showed in Beijing. I had been training really hard so that when I come to big meets it’s my responsibility to execute. I didn’t do that in Beijing.”
Sharp-eyed followers of Harrison’s progress will notice that she used the word ‘confident’ and that, by her own admission, has been a problem in the past.
In an insightful article in her local paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, last May the writer explored the question of her self-esteem in big meetings after coming up short when it counted on various occasions in previous years.
"Mentally, no matter if I was ranked 1 or 10, it was still the same," Harrison admitted eight months ago. "(I would think) 'There's a chance I could die (run out of gas). There's a chance I may hit a hurdle.' Or 'What's going to happen when I do start winning? How am I going to run with that much pressure on me?'"
However, Floreal went a long way to helping Harrison answer those questions at the start of last summer and it quickly showed in her racing.
At one point, she put together nine successive wins in the 100m hurdles, and posted some impressive performances in the 400m hurdles as well, her winning streak in the shorter event only coming to an end in the US Championships semi-finals.
In the final, against much more highly touted hurdlers, the 2015 US collegiate champion finished second to secure her first major championship appearance.
Now, having done some mental repair work after Beijing, she’s back in her stride again and after Karlsruhe is looking forward to the rest of the IAAF World Indoor Tour.
“I’m committed to the (IAAF World) Indoor Tour, I think it’s a good thing," she said. "I’ll do Boston and then Glasgow, the US Championships and then the Worlds, hopefully.”
Harrison is aware that wins in Boston and Glasgow would mean that she would be guaranteed to be the overall winner of her event on the tour.
In addition to the USD $20,000 first place cheque, she would also be guaranteed a ‘wild card’ to the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 but she wants to earn her place by right.
“The US Championships are going to be super-competitive and I’m just excited to be racing girls of that calibre.”
Lolo Jones’ US indoor 60m hurdles record of 7.72 from 2010 is still a full tenth of a second faster than Harrison has ever run but if the Clayton, North Carolina, native can put everything together, it’s a mark that onlookers in Karlsruhe felt can be threatened.
“My start is still something that I’m looking at but I don’t really want to worry about it. I really want to be able to pull away after that, if I get a good start, so be it, but it’s not a worry.
“This winter I decided to focus on the indoors and I’ve done a lot of speed work, you need to do that for the 60m hurdles and that’s been my number one focus," added Harrison.
“I did a lot more speed work in my practices, I can say that I’m a lot faster than last year."
Phil Minshull for the IAAF