Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Olympic Royalty Visits Flo

By Devese Ursery

With greats like Homer Bush (New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and the Florida Marlins), Brian Cox (Super Bowl XXXVI champion), Jimmy Connors (tennis champion), Al Joyner (Olympic gold medalist in track) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (six-time Olympic medalist and the greatest female athlete of all-time) to name a few, East St. Louis isn’t called “The City of Champions” for nothing.  Now Dawn Harper joins that illustrious list of winners.

Dawn Harper

            Olympic medalist Dawn Harper graced the campus of Florissant Valley with her presence on November 8, and flashed her Olympic bling. The humbled track star from the "ILL-Side" was here at the radio station (KCFV 89.5 FM) to discuss her Olympic experiences, life as a youngster in East St. Louis and future endeavors. Growing up on 89th Street, in the Edgemont section of East St. Louis, Harper stayed out of trouble by focusing on academics and athletics. Education was a must in the Harper household that consisted of parents Henry and Linda, two sisters, Keya and Shivani, and one brother, Bryton. Harper looked up to her mother who was an inspiration and idol to her. Mama Harper would trek to every meet, whether it was home or away to show her unrelenting support. With a healthy, positive and strong support system as her foundation, and a willingness to compete, Harper was destined for gold.
photo by Joe Johnson/ Forum
            Harper had to overcome all of the doubters and naysayers. She also had to overcome several knee injuries and people thinking that she wasn’t good enough or fast enough or even smart enough to finish college. At a young age, Harper met the great Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the community center that bears Joyner-Kersee’s name (The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center or JJK Center is located on 25th and Caseyville in East St. Louis) and from that encounter Joyner-Kersee left a lasting impression on Harper.
            Harper’s rise to stardom began at East St. Louis Senior High School, home of the Flyers, and like her school’s nickname she “flew out of the blocks.” While in high school, coached by the great Nino Finnoy, Harper won state titles in the 100m and 300m hurdles her freshman, junior and senior years, one of only two people to accomplish that feat. By the time she graduated from “The Side”, she was a six-time Illinois State Champ. With Jackie Joyner-Kersee as her mentor, the all-time best female athlete and Olympiad ever to puncture a track field with a pair spikes, the sky is the limit. Joyner-Kersee was the perfect choice for a mentor because they have so much in common. They both are natives of “East Boogie” and they both were track stars at their respected high schools, as well as at UCLA, where they both attended college. Harper is not just a good-looking jock with elite athleticism; she has the brain to match, graduating with a degree in psychology.
            For Dawn Harper, becoming a Bruin was a lifelong dream, and when UCLA’s Women’s Track and Field Head Coach, Jeanette Bolden traveled from Los Angeles to the ghettos of “East Saint” to personally recruit her, it was a dream come true. She received a full athletic scholarship to the best 100m hurdle program in the country. This was the same program that launched the careers of Jackie Joyner-Kersee and two-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers. Harper’s collegiate career was chock full of accomplishments. In 2003, she was the U.S. Junior National Champion and the Pan-American Games Champion, in the 100m hurdle event. She received All-American honors twice at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships after finishing eighth in 100m hurdles and taking second in the 4x100m relay. In 2006, she was chosen to be the women’s track and field team captain. By graduation, she was a seven-time UCLA All-American. After graduation, in June 2006, she continued her career in track as a professional athlete.
            Since graduating from UCLA in 2006, Harper has been training in Los Angeles under Bob Kersee, Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s husband. By July 2008, Harper qualified for the USA Olympic Team by placing third in the 100m hurdles. She made the team by .007 seconds. In Track and Field the average age of an Olympian is 28. Harper became an Olympian at the age of 24. She reached the apex of her sport in 2008, when she won Olympic gold in the 100m high hurdles in China by beating Lolo Jones, the favorite of the competition. She claimed gold by posting a personal best time of 12.54 seconds. In 2011, she won bronze at the World Outdoor Championships with a time of 12.47 seconds. Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, Harper took first at both the Diamond League Meet in Rome and the IAAF World Challenge Meet in Daegu. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Harper ran a personal best of 12.37 seconds to capture the silver medal, only to the miss the gold by .02 seconds to Australian Sally Pearson.
            As a professional track athlete, sponsored by Nike, one of Harper’s proudest achievements is having the ability to bring her family with her all over the world to watch her compete. Another proud moment was when she was honored in her hometown with a parade. “I really appreciated the love and support from my city. I got so many calls and emails and hits on my Facebook page telling me that no matter what we love and support you, for what you’ve done so far. So anything else that I did was icing on the cake. So to win, it kind of made everybody go over the top,” said Harper. She added, “I am proud to be from East St. Louis and I claim it every chance I get. Being able to cross the finish line and still claim my city means everything to me. You hear people that made it, so-to-speak claim that they are from Belleville, Edwardsville, Fairview Heights or somewhere like that, knowing that they are from East St. Louis, but are ashamed of where they come from, thinking it’s bad for their image. Anytime I get to say it, I say it loud and proud,I love my city.”
            The city of East St. Louis is full of pride and strength and if you know anything about the “City of Champions” they stand up and fight. It’s hard to keep them down because it is a city that doesn’t give up. Harper also adds, “It’s hard to discount East St. Louis, you can’t because we always send our best. If it’s sports or anything, for that matter, you know we are in the building. And nobody can deny it; you have to respect my city.”
            After her track career, Harper wants to be a mom and raise a family. Family is very important in her life. “From a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a wife and a mom,” said Harper. She also plans on going back to school to get her Ph.D in sports psychology, aspiring to work with NFL or NBA teams and travel with them as the team psychologist because she feels that she can relate to being scrutinized and having to deal with her own mental make-up. She also plans on taking on some cameo roles, in T.V. or film if and when the opportunities are presented to her.
            Dawn Harper is a humble, God-fearing woman who puts her family first. She has proven that she can do whatever she puts her mind to, and overcome any obstacle with the strength and integrity to come out shining like Olympic gold. Dawn Harper can be reached at d.harp.inc@gmail.com or on Facebook at IAMDAWNHARPER.COM.    

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