Hurdler Keni Harrison “Ecstatic” With Tokyo Silver Five Years After Missing Rio Games
by Karen Rosen
Keni Harrison reacts after winning the silver medal in the women's 100-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 2, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO – Keni Harrison thought the wait was over. After five long years being haunted by her missed opportunity in 2016, she was finally competing in the Olympic Games in the 100-meter hurdles.
But after crossing the finish line Monday, Harrison had to wait a bit longer - and this delay seemed interminable. Was she second? Or was she third?
It was obvious that Jasmine Camacho-Quinn of Puerto Rico was the gold medalist. But while the small scoreboard next to the track had Harrison second, the giant Olympic Stadium scoreboard ranked her third behind Megan Tapper of Jamaica with the word PHOTO, as in photo finish, next to their names.
“I was like, ‘OK well, at least I’m top three,” said Harrison. “At least I got a medal. Be happy.”
Luckily, her best friend was there at the edge of the track to ease her mind. Jenna Prandini had just run in the heats of the 200-meter dash, qualifying for the semifinals.
“You got second,” Prandini assured her.
“It made me feel a little bit happier,” Harrison said. “Again, I’m just ecstatic whatever color I got. The goal is just to come here and do the best you can and I feel like I did that.”
Camacho-Quinn’s winning time was 12.37 seconds, while Harrison came in at 12.52 and Tapper at 12.55. Gabbi Cunningham of Team USA was seventh at 13.01.
“Man, the feeling is amazing,” Harrison said. “Of course everyone wants the gold, but I’ve got myself back out here on this world stage and I’m getting better and better.”
Harrison’s silver medal closed the chapter on what happened in 2016, when she came into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field as the favorite and inexplicably wound up sixth. Two weeks later, Harrison broke the 28-year-old world record in the 100 hurdles with a time of 12.20 seconds, but she had to watch on television as Team USA swept the medals at the Rio Olympics. Brianna Rollins took the gold, Nia Ali the silver and Kristi Castlin the bronze.
“I think missing out on Rio, it’s always in the back of my head when I’m training,” Harrison said. “That’s what continues to make me work hard, just remembering that moment of getting sixth at the U.S. Trials.”
She had to pick herself up and rebuild her confidence. Undefeated going into the 2017 worlds in London, Harrison was fourth – an improvement over her disqualification in the world semifinals two years earlier - while teammate Dawn Harper Nelson won the silver. Harrison took the gold in the 60-meter hurdles at the 2018 indoor world championships, then captured her first major medal on the outdoor world stage, the silver at the 2019 world championships behind Ali.
“I don’t think it was shocking that I came here and am able to get a medal,” Harrison said. “It’s just one of those things you dream about every single night. I knew that I was definitely capable.”
Team USA has now won a medal in the 100 hurdles in six straight Olympic Games and eight of the last 10. LaVonna Martin, who is married to Harrison’s coach Edrick Floreal, won the silver in 1992.
Harrison, 28, and Camacho-Quinn, 24, both competed for the University of Kentucky, and both were NCAA champions. Harrison, from Clayton, North Carolina, was already a pro when Camacho-Quinn, who was raised in Ladson, South Carolina, arrived to be coached by Floreal.
“Today just kind of felt like old times, like we were back training again,” Harrison said, “so I knew that she was going to bring her A game and I had to bring mine.”
They were running almost even when the taller, more powerful Camacho-Quinn - whose older brother Robert Quinn is a linebacker for the Chicago Bears - pulled ahead.
Both averted disaster late in the race. “She was like, ‘I think I almost fell,’” Harrison said, “and I was like, ‘Well, I hit the hurdle right after you did.’ I think we were just so focused on that finish line that we kind of forgot that we need to finish the actual hurdle that was in front of us. But we’re both injury-free and we got medals.”
Camacho-Quinn also exorcised some demons from 2016, when she made the Olympic team at age 19, but was disqualified in the semifinals. She clipped the eighth hurdle, hit the ninth and then crashed into the 10th. She was so devastated she went into hiding at Kentucky.
“It stays with me all the time because I’m constantly reminded,” Camacho-Quinn said, “like somebody’s always messaging me and will be like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry for what happened.’ I’m like, ‘I need y’all to let that go, please.’ Yesterday, before the semis, I kind of had a breakdown because I was like, ‘I don’t want the same thing to happen again.”
Instead, Camacho-Quinn, who had been the world-leader all season, set an Olympic record of 12.26 seconds in the semifinal. But she didn’t get Harrison’s world mark.
“Of course, inside of me, I’m like, ‘Yay!’” Harrison said, “but it’s a record and records are made to be broken. The way that she’s going, who knows?”
Camacho-Quinn said she didn’t know she could compete for Puerto Rico until her college coach told her when she was a freshman.
Her mother is from Puerto Rico while her father is Black American.
“I’m representing not only myself, but my mother and my family,” she said.
Camacho-Quinn is only the second Olympic gold medalist for Puerto Rico, which has its own Olympic committee despite being a U.S. territory. Monica Puig won the Olympic tennis title in 2016.
Camacho-Quinn said being around Harrison when both trained at Kentucky was an advantage.
“I feel like we both pushed each other, honestly,” Camacho-Quinn said. “We knew each other’s talent, so lining up together for years I think that kind of got us to this point.”
While Camacho-Quinn now trains alone, Harrison took the opportunity to move to Austin, Texas, when Floreal became the Texas Longhorns coach.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Harrison said. “I run really well underneath him; he knows my personality, he knows exactly what I need and he stood by my side even when things didn’t go well. So, I will never leave Flo.”
The move also enabled her to meet Prandini, who moved to Texas to join the training group, which also includes sprinter Teahna Daniels and long jumper Tara Davis.
“I mean, how many people can say that they’re at the Olympics with their best friend?” Harrison asked. “Not a lot, and for us to have gotten to this stage - the U.S. is so strong in every single event. I’m so glad she was there to see my race and I can’t wait for her semis and her finals tomorrow, and let her go out there and get a medal herself.”
The best friends are also next-door neighbors. When the house next to Harrison became empty, she told Prandini, who immediately bought it.
“Then we cut the fence in the back, so now we have one big back yard and she cooks dinner for me every night because I don’t cook,” Harrison said. “We ride to practice together every single day. It couldn’t be a better set up actually.”
To do her part, Harrison does sometimes contribute groceries. “She grills some really good food - steak, chicken,” Harrison said. “We’re both pretty healthy eaters, so it’s just nice having someone who’s on your diet plan and someone who has your same ambitions. It just makes accomplishing your goals easier.”
The day didn’t turn out so well for another Harrison, JuVaughn Harrison, who is no relation to Keni.
After placing seventh in the men’s high jump on Sunday night, he was fifth in the men’s long jump Monday. No other athlete attempted that double at the Tokyo Olympics, and he was the first Team USA athlete to compete in both events since Jim Thorpe in 1912.
Harrison barely squeaked into the top eight to earn three more jumps. He jumped 8.15 on his fifth attempt to move into third place. The medal position didn’t last, however, and he missed the board on his sixth jump, shaking his head as he got out of the sand.
“It was a little rough,” said the NCAA champion from LSU. “I didn’t really compete the way I wanted to. My run didn’t really come together the way I wanted to. We got a little close and then it fell apart again at the end.”
However, Harrison said he was happy to compete in two finals at the Games. “I’ve got to turn around and do better next year at worlds (in Eugene, Oregon),” he said. “I think it was just a lot of back to back, a long season.”
But Harrison added, “No excuses.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.
Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.