Dawn Harper Nelson with daughter Harper (© Dawn Harper Nelson)
Before I walked away from the sport in September 2018, I had one big question in my head: how badly am I going to miss it?
That question made me nervous. I knew I was ready to have a child, but could I walk away completely? In my mind, it was the only option. I had always told myself in order to be the mom I wanted to be, I had to move on.
Growing up, I’d always heard from others that once you have a child, life is no longer about you. It’s all about the baby.
So many friends had mothers who told them, ‘Once I had you, I had to stop all my dreams.’ I really didn’t want my daughter to grow up feeling that way, that I had to hang up my spikes because of her. I didn’t want her birth to signify the death of Mommy’s dream.
That’s why, over the past few months, I made the decision to come back.
I trained throughout the majority of my pregnancy. I’d go back to my old high school and ask the coach what the group were doing, then I’d jump in for a few reps. I’d do 20 or 30 minutes on the elliptical, or run 100-yard reps on the football field.
After my daughter was born on April 10 this year, I took a month off training and, man, it was tough to start back. My legs, my lungs – I thought I’m never going to get back in shape again.
I remember getting up after my first day of training and asking myself, ‘How did I ever get that good?’ But over time, I was able to get myself fit again. I just kept telling myself there’s a starting date for everything and this was where I am now.
It helps that my daughter is such a good sleeper. The first few months were hard but now she goes to bed at 7pm every night and wakes up at 9am. She’s awesome, and I’m blessed to have a baby who sleeps that much because I can get my rest.
Through it all, I’ve never taken my eyes off the sport. I’d watch indoor and outdoor races and I’d get so tense and my heart would start racing. That reinforced to me that I really wanted to be out there. I missed it so much.
Watching the World Championships in Doha also gave me huge encouragement, seeing mothers like Nia Ali, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and so many others light it up. By then I had already made my mind up and started my training, but to see them do what they did gave me that last push.
Since late last year I’ve been in regular contact with Valerie Adams about all things motherhood. We were able to sit down at the Athletics Awards in Monaco last year and I asked her so many questions there: What did you feel like for this? What did you do for this? What was your time frame for getting back lifting weights?
She was so supportive and told me, ‘Just do your own thing, go your own path and don’t let someone else tell you it has to look this way.’ She has two babies and is coming back to the sport again. If she can do that with two, then I can do this with one.
These days, there isn’t much difference with my body but in the months after giving birth it was the opposite. It was all so foreign to me. The hormones your body produces for your muscles to relax before you have your baby meant my hips were extremely loose. When I came back to the track, I’d do a faster stride and when I pushed off the line, there was no pop. For a sprinter that was so weird.
My body just said, ‘Nope, we’re going to go this slow and that’s it.’
I went to my chiropractor and he told me it could take months, maybe even a year, for my hips to go back to what they were and become stable again. I had lots of exercises to do, but now I feel like I’m back, and I’ve even gone over some hurdles. My body feels good.
Mentally, I also feel stronger. That took time because when you’re dealing with pregnancy you stop thinking the way you used to, where you’re willing to hurt in every workout.
I remember one specific workout after I came back that showed me I still had what it took in the mind. It was a series of 250-metre reps and before the last one I was sitting on the track, exhausted, with my legs burning.
I just thought, ‘To stand up here is going to be amazing, to actually hit this time and run faster is going to be a miracle.’
But then I told myself to put up or shut up. I got up and my husband asked me, ‘Do you want me to run this with you to help you get the time?’ I told him, ‘No, if I can’t do this on my own then I’m hanging it up, walking away.’
I went and ran amazing and right after I crossed the line, I was rolling on the track asking myself, ‘Why, Jesus, why?’ But it was such a good feeling to know I could take myself mentally and physically to that place again.
Over the years, I based myself in LA for training but since having my daughter I knew that had to change – I was just not open to being away from her for months on end. I decided to base myself at home in East St. Louis, with the occasional short trip to LA.
I’ll be so proud to do what I do from a home base. The city gives me such support and I always felt after a few weeks around my friends and family that I was ready to go out and face the world.
The other big plus about training here is that I’ll be working out at my old school, East St. Louis Senior High. The kids will be able to see me training, through my ups and downs, through rolling around on the track and killing every workout or the workout killing me. It’s going to be good for them to see someone who’s from where they’re from going after their dream. I started off in their position and now it’s come full circle and I’m doing it back at home.
Since I told people I’m coming back, I’ve had some surprised reactions. After all there’s no harder team to make than the US Olympic team in the 100m hurdles. But people forget that when I first started as a professional, my training partners were Joanna Hayes and Michelle Perry. Before I could go out and face the world I had to get past them – an Olympic champion and world champion – every day at practice.
It’s always been hard, and that’s why I love the challenge. There are new girls on the start line now, but I’m still really excited to bring my experience, my love, my passion into this journey. I’ll be praying that I can be victorious in 2020.