Former Olympic 100m hurdles champion Dawn Harper Nelson says she will make a comeback after one year of retirement.
Harper Nelson won Olympic gold in 2008, overtaking Lolo Jones after her U.S. teammate clipped a hurdle near the end of the race. She also won Olympic silver in 2012, barely losing to Australia’s Sally Pearson in a thrilling final in which she set her personal best of 12.37 seconds.
In world championship finals, Harper Nelson took bronze in 2011 and took silver in 2017, again losing a close finish to Pearson in London’s Olympic Stadium.
Harper Nelson announced early in the 2018 season that she would retire at the end of the year. She knew she was pregnant for the last three races of the year and gave birth to her first child April 10.
But she had doubts all along about leaving the track.
“I wondered, would I miss it?” Harper Nelson told NBC Olympic Talk’s Nick Zaccardi. “Would I still want to do it? Then throughout my pregnancy, I still obviously had that pull. I trained during the whole nine months, but it was for two reasons. One was, it was literally the best I would feel all day, just with the changes in my body and stuff I was going through. The next one was if you just so happen to want to run, you cannot take nine months off. That’s just not an option. So I trained.”
She has remained available for drug testing through the year and talked about post-pregnancy competition with two-time Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams of New Zealand, who was pregnant with her second child while Harper Nelson was pregnant.
But Harper Nelson was discouraged early on in her post-pregnancy training.
“That initial burst of speed to get off the line, it just was lacking,” Harper Nelson said. “I really had a moment where I sat down and kind of cried. I was thinking, do you ever really get that back? Is it possible? You’ve seen other ladies — Nia (Ali), Allyson (Felix), Shelly-Ann (Fraser-Pryce), at world championships, they ran great. But you always find that moment, but is it different for me? Will my body not be the body that wants to come back? We slowly just gradually did things, resistance, mini plyos and gradually got myself back.”
She got encouragement, though, in speaking with her medical advisors: “My physio, he said, ‘Dawn, this is pretty much the best your body has felt in a long time because you allowed your body to rest.'”
Her husband, Alonzo Nelson, will be her coach while she trains on her high school track in East St. Louis, Ill.
Her comeback is likely only for one year: “I really do feel like this would probably be it because we want more kids.”
The competition in the 100m hurdles has only gotten stronger over the years. Harper Nelson’s fastest time of 2018 was 12.75 seconds, trailing 21 hurdlers internationally and seven U.S. athletes. Even when she took silver in the 2017 world championships, her season’s best of 12.63 seconds trailed six U.S. hurdlers. Kendra Harrison set the world record of 12.20 seconds in 2016.
Harper Nelson says she’s up for the challenge.
“In the 100m hurdles, we hold the definition of the hardest team to make,” Harper Nelson said. “From 2008 to now, it’s been different ladies that have lined up. The constant has been me and Sally [Pearson]. No one gives you anything. Everyone is out here hungry. It’s literally been the life that I’ve lived for the 12 years of my career. … All I’ve known is you put up or shut up. So I’m definitely OK with that. I really don’t want it any other way.”
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