Keni Harrison emerges from 11 siblings to brink of Olympic berth

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Even as the middle child in a family with 11 kids, Keni Harrison always stood out.

Only fitting, then, that her family stands out, too. A few of them are hoping they’ll be at the stadium in Rio de Janeiro later this summer – dressed in their familiar neon shirts to cheer on Keni, the American record holder in the 100-meter hurdles, at the Olympics.

The 23-year-old Harrison used sports – first gymnastics, then soccer, then, finally, track – to carve her path in an oversized family that wasn’t originally planned that way.

At first, her mother, Karon, didn’t want kids, yet ended up with one short of a dozen – nine of whom are adopted, including Keni, who will try to secure her spot in Rio next week at Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.

“I know it wasn’t easy raising all of us,” said Keni, who broke the American record last month. “But my parents found a way. They always found a way.”

The Harrison crew grew up in a six-bedroom house in Clayton, North Carolina. Bathroom space was at a premium and meals were typically on the run – many of them eaten out of the back of a hotel shuttle bus the family used to transport all the kids from one activity to another.

Keni was born in Tennessee to a mother she never knew. Karon and Gary had just adopted a daughter, Tasha, when they got a call from the agency about another infant in need of a home. Were they interested?

Next thing they knew, they were on their way home from a camping trip to pick up Keni. She and Tasha are 11 days apart.

The Harrison house has always been filled with noise, screams, love and caring. Casey, 33, is the oldest and Kara, 18, the youngest in a family that includes kids of many nationalities – including two from Bolivia and two of Korean heritage.

“It was always busy, but you don’t think about it,” their mom said. “You had birthday parties out of the back of the car. You always keep snacks in the car. You’re running here and there.”

Both the parents are retired military, with Gary now working for the Transportation Security Administration and Karon as an assistant preschool teacher.

They bought toilet paper in bulk, along with cereal, mac and cheese, fish sticks and milk – lots of milk. The family went through nearly seven gallons a week.

Gary and their grandpa built a large dining room table so they could congregate. One problem: They were rarely home together. Their schedules were just too frenzied; Karon memorized everything and jotted it all down for her husband.

They made plenty of memories. A few embarrassing ones, too.

Like when the family picked pick up Casey after high school cross country practice in a shuttle bus with the word “Marriott” fading on the side but still visible.

“They’d all yell my name and wave,” laughed Casey, an Air Force major living in Anchorage, Alaska. “You sort of pretend you don’t know the people yelling out the window at you.”

It was hard to ignore the talent of Keni, though.

At first, she appeared headed toward a soccer career. She was super-fast, which drew the attention of the track coach who asked her to run in a few meets.

She showed so much potential even with little training and wearing tennis shoes. It didn’t take long until she hit her stride, capturing 100 and 400 hurdles titles at the 2010 USA Junior Olympics. She caught the attention of Clemson, where she went before transferring to Kentucky and going on to twin two individual NCAA titles.

Keni remains a volunteer assistant coach for Kentucky while training under Wildcats coach Edrick Floreal. At the recent NCAA championships in Eugene, she helped out the team before squeezing in her own workouts.

“She’s the kind of kid that doesn’t take anything for granted,” her mom said. “Keni feels she has to live up to a lot of expectations and doesn’t want to disappoint people. She doesn’t realize that everyone will be proud of her no matter how she does.”

Support. This group has that in abundance.

Whenever Keni competes, there’s sure to be family around. Usually in bright attire. That’s the way it was when Casey graduated from the Air Force Academy, her family driving out to Colorado and wearing fluorescent green shirts.

“People were like, `Where is the (family) section?”‘ Casey recounted. “I’m like, `See all those green shirts? It’s right there.”‘

Just thinking about the trials has Keni’s mom on edge, especially since she has to miss it for a previously planned trip. Her husband will be there, though.

It’s a loaded field, too, one that includes 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson, Lolo Jones and Brianna Rollins, the 2013 world outdoor champion. But Harrison is the one to catch after breaking the American record last month at the Nike Prefontaine Classic in a time of 12.24 seconds. It was just 0.03 shy of eclipsing the fastest time in history.

“To everybody else, she’s a superstar,” Casey said. “To us, she’s just Keni.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials broadcast schedule

Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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