US indoor 60m hurdles champion Aleec Harris hasn't always been on the right track, but he is now and he's loving it.
When Aleec Harris says “track and field saved my life” he means it.
Born and raised on the outskirts of Atlanta he recalls enjoying a regular upbringing as a basketball and American football loving kid at elementary and middle schools. Yet after he and his parents relocated into inner city Atlanta, Harris started to wander down the wrong path.
“I kind got swept up in things I shouldn't have,” he admits. “I had some rough teenage years and took my family through some rough times. At high school drugs and gangs were really big. I'd moved from the outskirts of the city and wanted to fit in and I fell victim to peer pressure.”
In his junior year at high school his life was spiralling dangerously out of control. He was flirting with a world filled with narcotics and violence and did things that were “disheartening to my family”.
His father, Del, had enough and gave the 17-year-old Harris an ultimatum. His son had to do an extra curricular activity as a positive distraction. That’s when his saviour came calling.
“I heard track announced over the intercom [at school] and I always remember being fast as a kid,” the 24-year-old recalls. “I had my physical in the morning and then I saw one lone hurdle. I wondered if I could jump over it. I did. The coach saw it and said 'this is what you are going to do'.”
Harris admits dragging himself away from his previous adolescent lifestyle was “hard” and that lots of his good friends from that period of his life have subsequently “passed away”. But what ultimately motivated him to change was doing his family proud.
“I wanted to make my family happy,” he explains. “They had started to lose their belief in me.
“I had reached the point in my life when I had to change. I was at high school and I wanted to do something more. Track and field really saved my life and opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
He saw hope in the sport and worked hard at his craft. He set up a hurdle in his backyard and repeatedly practised his technique. He became a student of the sport, pouring over videos of the world's leading hurdlers in an effort to gain a technical edge.
In his final years at high school he was crowned Georgia state champion for the 110m hurdles. He went on to attended Barton Community College in Kansas and secured the national junior college title in 2010 before a torn ACL picked up playing basketball sidelined him for a year.
He later studied at the University of Southern California and spent a year coached by 2013 World 110m hurdles silver medallist Ryan Wilson.
Last season was when Harris suddenly came to the fore. He begun the year with a 13.65 PB. Going in to the NCAA West preliminary round meeting in Fayetteville in May his coach Caryl Smith Gilbert had told him that he would have to dip below 13.19 if he was to realise his dream of turning pro.
That was a stark and effective jolt: at that very meet he ran "the hardest I've ever ran before" to post a 13.18 PB. The drastic improvement has seen him secure a deal with adidas, much to his delight.
Initially “star struck” when he began taking on the top names on the pro circuit, he recalls undergoing a change of attitude in his final 110m hurdles race of 2014 in Oregon last July. There he trimmed his PB to 13.14 and claimed the key scalps of world record holder Aries Merritt and former world champion Jason Richardson.
“I knew after the run anything was possible as long as I remained focused and worked hard,” says Harris.
Harris at the JDL Fast Track indoor meet in Camel City in January, where he won in 7.58 from Jason Richardson and David Oliver
With that psychological barrier broken, the indoor campaign has proven a smash success. He defeated the 2013 world 110m hurdles champion David Oliver and decathlete genius Ashton Eaton at the Millrose Games, blitzing to a new PB of 7.50 (ranking him as the top American indoors in 2015). He later showed his ability to perform in the heat of championship competition by taking the US indoor title in Boston in 7.51.
This outdoor season he is targeting a top three spot at US nationals to book a place at the Beijing World Championships. A sub 13-second time is another aim.
Today he is simply living the dream and enjoying every moment of a life which, if it hadn't have been for his father, may have taken a different path.
“Being a pro athlete is more than I expected,” says Harris, who regards former world record Colin Jackson and ex-world and Olympic champion Allen Johnson as his two all-time favourite hurdlers.
“I get the chance to see lots of difference places around the world. Basketball and American football may be great, but to star in those sports you don't get to see beyond your country. To see all these great cities around the world has been better than I would have expected.”
And his father, the man who first started him on his athletics journey, is still there to keep him in check.
“He's very proud and my biggest fan,” Harris says. “He's the one who is always supporting me and pushing me to be better and if he sees me slipping, he is the first to tell me.”
Photography: JDL Fast Track