In her first season as a professional, Kendra ‘Keni’ Harrison has enjoyed an unbeaten start to 2016 and is ranked fastest in the world in the 60m hurdles. We chart the rise of the latest woman to roll of America's sprint hurdles production line.
Adopted by military parents into a family of 11 children (many of whom were also adopted), Keni Harrison spent a year or so of her early childhood in Bolivia before the family settled in Clayton, North Carolina. As you can probably imagine, life was never quiet at home.
“Growing up there was lots of kids to play with and talk to,” recalls Harrison. “Many of my siblings were arty and others were academic, but sport was the one way I could stand out in the family. Whichever sport I chose to do, I would excel.”
A gymnast and a soccer player in her younger days, Harrison’s pace was used to good effect as a centre forward on the football pitch.
“The ball was often kicked over the heads of the other defenders allowing me to chase down the ball and break away,” she says. Such was her talent that she was offered college scholarships for soccer, but received more attractive offers because of her hurdling abilities.
She competed in a handful of athletics meets at school, but it was only after finishing second in the 300m hurdles at state championships wearing a pair of sneakers that the Clayton High School student decided to take the sport more seriously.
“I later wore distance spikes, but I didn’t mind – I was winning, so I didn’t think too much about it.”
A year after winning a hurdles double (100m/300m) at the 2010 National Junior Olympics, Harrison took up a scholarship to study at Clemson University. She landed in the Tigers’ well-oiled athletic department, training in a crack hurdles group that included Brianna Rollins, who in 2013 became the 100m hurdles world champion.
In 2013 Harrison switched to the University of Kentucky where she came into contact with current coach, Edrick Floreal, a two-time Olympic triple jumper. The pair immediately clicked.
“I like the way Coach Floreal coached,” says Harrison. “He is quiet like me and he loves to talk about the technical aspects to hurdles. He knows his stuff. After the first few practices and in the first few races, I dropped my times.
“He knows that I am a visual learner – I learn best through video and seeing exactly where I’ve gone wrong. He is a really understanding coach and his door is always open.”
An electric start to 2016 has seen Harrison defeat quality fields, such as at the Glasgow leg of the IAAF World Indoor Tour
Harrison describes herself as a “hurdles nerd”. The 23-year-old has become a student of the sport in an effort to master her craft. She’s even known to send late night texts to Floreal in an effort to find solutions to the hurdles puzzle.
“I’m really quick to ask ‘why?’, and Coach Floreal does a great job of not getting mad at me and taking the time out to explain the technical aspects of hurdling.”
Harrison believes Australia’s Olympic champion Sally Pearson sets the benchmark when it comes to technique.
“When Sally hurdles, it is looks like she’s not hurdling,” she says. “It is such a fluent motion. She is not pausing, slowing down or hitting hurdles. Her technique is one of the best.”
As a college junior at the 2014 NCAA Championships, Harrison finished fifth and second in the 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles respectively. On the eve of the following season’s indoor championships in Fayetteville, Coach Floreal made an honest – and subsequently inspirational – speech to his young charge. He labelled her as 'more Clark Kent than Superman' during competitions.
“He said when Superman puts on his cape, he evolves into an insane person and no-one can stop him, but when he takes the cape off then no-one really knows him,” Harrison says. “He said when I get on the line I still have my glasses on. I still need to evolve into a person he knew I could be.”
Inspired by Floreal’s words, Harrison edged Bridgette Owens by 0.01 to win the 60m hurdles. Super(wo)man had found her wings.
Harrison on her false start at worlds: "I wasn’t nervous. It was just unfortunate"
In the summer that followed, while still hurdling over both 100m and 400m, Harrison competed with a new-found confidence. She blitzed to the NCAA 100m hurdles crown in 12.55 and finished second in the 400m hurdles.
Harrison went on to grab second in the sprint hurdles at US Championships to book her ticket to the Beijing world championships. Yet her chances of a storybook ending to the campaign withered in the semi-finals when she was disqualified for committing a fatal false-start.
“I had an awesome warm-up and people thought I was young and nervous, but I wasn’t nervous. It was just unfortunate I false started.”
Heavier, stronger, faster
Refusing to let her world champs experience take a lasting toll, Harrison set about improving in her quest for a medal at this year’s Rio Olympics. She brought on board a nutritionist where the theme has been more is better. Really.
“The nutritionist has not really taken away anything, but added more to my plate,” she says. “I’m now eating a lot more protein with more healthy fats and vegetables. As I’m now pro, I have to fuel my body with the proper foods.”
The new diet has seen her add seven pounds to her slender 5ft 4ins frame. “I’m a lot stronger than last year and I’m able to power clean and squat a lot more,” she adds.
Sprint hurdle hopes
Keen to focus on the indoor campaign over 60m hurdles, it has been decided that the focus of Harrison’s outdoor season should be the sprint hurdles rather than 400m hurdles (she may have a couple of outings over the full-lap distance).
Her season could not have started much better, with three PBs in the 60m hurdles, lowering her best by 0.05 to 7.82 – the fastest any woman has run since 2014. She is undefeated in five races (including heats), with victories in her home city of Lexington, and then on the IAAF World Indoor Tour in Karlsruhe and Glasgow.
Harrison is targeting the US Championships and “hopefully” will have an outing at the Portland world indoors. Only then will she switch her gaze to matters outdoors.
“The rest of my indoor season I hope to see how much faster I can run,” she says. “I hope the indoors will set me up for the outdoors where my number one goal is to make the Olympic team this summer.”