US sprint hurdler Dawn Harper Nelson reflects on her journey to the top of the podium at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“This image to me is the moment where my journey to realising my full potential began. It is almost surreal to think that I had managed to win an Olympic gold medal on my first attempt having dreamt of winning an Olympic title since I was a little girl growing up in East St Louis.
“I had a very tough preparation for the 2008 Olympics. My fall training had gone well but that year was a mental struggle because I was training with an amazing group of athletes led by two-time world champion Michelle Perry, Olympic champion Joanna Hayes and Ginny Crawford (a 2007 world 100m finalist). I was regularly beaten by them in practice and I wondered if I could ever make the three-strong US team for the Olympics.
“I then picked up a knee problem in my meniscus and on 29 February I decided to have knee surgery. Once I committed to surgery, I told myself I have 60 seconds to cry my eyes out, but from that point on I had no time to wallow in self-pity. Every single moment counted, and in preparation for the Olympics I made sure I surrounded myself with positive people.
“I recall my first day back hurdling was a challenging day. Joanna (Hayes) told me to lower the hurdles to 30 inches and to jog over them to build confidence. I didn’t know how my knee would respond, but thankfully it went well and this gave me belief.
“The surgery meant I was not well prepared going into the US Trials and I was understandably nervous. At that moment, all you can see is the prospect of competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is do or die. I recall in the final I was drawn in lane two but lane three next to me was empty. As a hurdler, you only feel the people in the lane next to you, so I knew if I was to stand any chance of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics I would have to make a good start and be ahead of the girl in lane one.
“I recall getting away well from the blocks, but I clipped hurdle six or seven. For a split second I thought ‘you are giving it all away; if you don’t go now it is all over’. I scrapped my way to the line, leaned for my life and took a tumble. I’d qualified in third by seven thousandths of a second from Nichole Denby (both ran 12.62) and qualified for Beijing. At that very moment, I cried. I could not believe I was on my way to the Olympics to represent my country.
“In Beijing, I recall stepping into the Bird’s Nest Stadium for my first heat and being overcome with emotion. The stands seemed to go on forever. I had a sick feeling and thought, ‘I’m never looking up into the stands again’.
“I made it to the final where my coach (Bobby Kersee) advised me to run as if I had blinders on. I was drawn in lane six with Delloreen Ennis-London of Jamaica to my left and my compatriot Damu Cherry the other side of me.
“In the early stages of the final, I could feel Delloreen was ahead of me, so I thought ‘okay, I’m not winning so I have to go now or it is going to be over’. I managed to get ahead of Delloreen and I couldn’t feel anybody off the 10th hurdle. I was completely unaware of Lolo Jones, who was in lane four (Jones had held a clear lead until clattering through hurdle nine and losing momentum). I just threw my shoulders at the line but had no clue where I had finished.
“I saw Priscilla Lopes-Schliep jumping up and down and presumed she had won. I said to myself, ‘okay, second place is good’. I then saw Sally (Pearson) screaming and I thought to myself, well finishing third that is good too. It was only when Damu came over to me and said I had won did I know I was an Olympic gold medallist.
“For a while I was known as the ‘what girl’ because I could be seen mouthing the words ‘what’ again and again, trying to make sense of what I had achieved.
“Down at the end of the home straight, I could see my family; mom, dad and sister. That is the moment I realised all the sacrifices I had made to reach this point had been worth it. I trained in Los Angeles so spent so much time away from the family. I lived in a converted frat house, I had very little income back then and bought the cheapest food often in bulk such as chicken and pork chops. I worked three jobs to make ends meet. I remember not having any spikes and borrowing a pair from Michelle Perry. I won gold in Beijing with those spikes.
“I recall that night arriving late at the Olympic village following all my media commitments and then doping control. The door handle into my room was messed up for a while but that night the handle had broken completely and I couldn’t get into my room because a roommate had already finished her event and left the Games. I then had no option but to knock on the door of Damu – my teammate who had finished fourth that night and missed a medal by 0.01 – who was in the room next to me and I had to ask her if I could stay in her room because she had a spare bed. I said ‘I feel so bad to ask’, but she replied ‘don’t feel bad.” All night she was crying in bed and I am in the other bed knowing I am Olympic champion, bursting with emotion.
“On either side of the room were two athletes experiencing the two emotional extremes of what can happen in track and field. On the one side, I had experienced glorious success, and on the other pure devastation.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF