When Dawn Harper captured the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at last summer's Olympics, many considered it a shock.
Yet she knew she could pull it off.
"I felt I was always capable if I focused on myself," the champion said in an interview posted on the USA Track & Field Web site after her Beijing triumph. "But for others, yes (it was a surprise)."
What's truly surprising is the fact she had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery just months before the August Games. That left her unable to practice for two months.
And when she realized she'd won?
"I honestly was thinking, 'God is good,'" Harper told IBD. "Knowing all that I had been through with the knee surgery that year and knowing so many people were counting me out, I was just thinking ... 'By God, I can do anything.'"
The surgery was jarring. She had trained hard, yet now was off the track with Beijing looming.
Harper recuperated slowly. She wasn't up to doing pool-running, a low-intensity activity often favored by injured athletes to stay in shape. Still, soon she began walking on the track.
"I remember the first night me and my husband walked two laps in the grass, I was so excited," she said.
The hard work and determination paid off. She maintained her fitness, then improved on it to realize her gold medal dream in August.
When a reporter asked the day after her golden race about being introduced as an Olympic gold medalist the rest of her life, she sobbed. "This is the first time it's hit me," she answered. "It's amazing. It's jaw-dropping. ... It's a blessing."
Since then, she feels the change. She and husband Craig Everhart, a fellow trackster, have more time to focus on training. They live in a better home. And fans recognize her.
As her coach, Bob Kersee, told reporters in Beijing: "This is a kid nobody knew. Now she's an Olympic gold medalist. It's breathtaking."
Harper, 24, began running hurdles in the eighth grade in her native East St. Louis, Ill. She did gymnastics before then, but found she enjoyed running around with other kids more. Her mom noticed, saying, "I guess you found your niche."
Harper ran in the same track club under the same coach as her idol, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won Olympic medals in the heptathlon and long jump in the 1980s and '90s.
"We'd be out on the track practicing and she would come out to visit and give us all motivational speeches and things like that," Harper said. "My mouth was wide open, and I was like, 'That is Jackie Joyner-Kersee!'"
Practice was tough, with the coach expecting hurdlers to work longer hours than the other track members. Harper stood out on the sweat meter, and her effort paid off. She consistently placed among the top five hurdlers in the nation.
As a high school senior, she won her third state title each in the 100- and 300-meter dashes at the Illinois championships. She also collected a regional victory in the 100.
Soon enough, Harper was heading West. At UCLA, she received guidance from volunteer hurdles coach Bob Kersee, whose stable of Olympic winners included wife Jackie, Gail Devers, Valerie Brisco-Hooks and Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Harper found the much-heralded Bruin track team intimidating. With all the women so fast, she wondered if she could keep up.
She quickly found that she could.
"My coaches Jeanette Bolden and Bobby Kersee would say, 'Just believe in yourself,'" Harper said. "We recruited you for a reason."
She reciprocated by becoming an All-American twice and earning a degree in psychology.
Yet the years of constant training led to lingering injuries in college.
In 2005, her senior year, she realized she'd been pushing herself too hard, too long. She needed time the recuperate. "If I can just get healthy," she thought, "there is no limit to what I can do."
After her bounce-back from knee surgery, she ran at a fast pace against other top hurdlers. That's when she knew she was mentally and physically ready to go.
At the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., with only three spots up for grabs, she had a photo finish for third place in the 100 hurdles.
A closer look gave it to Harper, with her 12.612 time edging Nicole Denby by 0.007 second.
Harper was on the fast track to China.
While nerves can sting many athletes, Harper felt calm on the Olympic field. She was ready to run the race that she and coach Kersee had planned. "If that would've gotten me (in) dead last, I would've said at least I didn't give up," she said. "Right when I crossed the finish line, I was thinking, 'Going from just a couple of months ago -- I could barely walk -- and (now) I'm here at the Olympics.'"
Desire And Joy
Harper's hunger to excel fed her success. She realized her potential when practicing with, and sometimes beating, other top athletes.
She told herself: "I know if I can mentally get it together, I will win. I will run a PR (personal record)."
Harper, who knows firsthand how to chase and reach a goal, advises people to sit down and think about what they want to do.
"Write down the steps that it takes to get there, understand the sacrifices it's going to take, understand the ups and downs, and if it's really what you want to do, accept those and go for it," she said.
Also crucial: "Enjoy the journey."
Source: Investor's Business Daily