Dawn Harper-Nelson competed in her first outdoor national championships in 2004. Fourteen years later, she will be racing in her last U.S. championships after announcing that the 2018 season would be her last as a professional hurdler.
Haper-Nelson walks away from the sport one of the most accomplished high hurdlers in history — a two-time Olympic medalist (including gold in 2008), two-time world medalist, four-time Diamond League champion, and four-time U.S. outdoor champion.
We had a chance to catch up with Harper-Nelson after the first round of the 100 meter hurdles for what we’re calling her exit interview:
Citius Mag: What’s the game plan this weekend? Is tomorrow it?
Dawn Harper-Nelson: Oh no, I have Diamond League races to come. But this will be it for USA nationals. In the finals, you guys are doing to have to drag me off the track. I’ve had so much fun competing for USA. I want to finish this up with a complete bang and obviously a W.
CM: You seem relaxed.
DHN: I kinda surprised myself with how relaxed I was [in the first round]. Before the race, you’re nervous, but as soon as the gun goes off, you know this is what you train for. I have 11 family members here, so we’re all just having fun.
CM: How hard was it to decide this was it for you?
DHN: Honestly, it wasn’t that hard for me. I’ve always known from the time I was a child I wanted to be an Olympic champion, a wife, and a mom. I never wanted track to run my life so much that at some age I realize there’s a world around me. I’ve had a great career. Me and my husband talk about it, and I’m personally ready to have some babies. I want to come to these events with my kids and say “mama did that.” It’s still bittersweet because I’m having fun with it, but it’s time. I find myself having a pull to do something else. I’m blessed that I can make the decision, and it’s not an injury or not being able to get a lane that forces me out of the sport.
CM: Every time we see you at a U.S. championships, the hair style is always different. What’s going on with this hairstyle?
DHN: They wanna call me “old lady in the field,” so my friends and family members are like, “Give them some gray hair since they want to call you old.” I was totally against it. They told me it’s my last year to play with it. So this is just me being silly.
CM: Different athletes in professional sports choose to handle their retirement differently. Was it tough deciding how to do it?
DHN: It really was. I initially thought I’d wait until the last race and announce this is it. I was talking to my agent to let him know this is how I want my plan to be. The whole time my husband was telling me I was crazy and that people want to celebrate with you. My agent told me meet directors will be mad if you run at their races and then never see them again. He told me we have to announce it and let fans know so they can take in all your joy and cartwheels and things. It was the right decision.
CM: What are some of the other races when you’ve found yourself bawling at the end?
DHN: Diamond League finals. I have four Diamond League championships, and each one of those came down to who crossed the line first in the final. It was all or nothing. For me, those were moments at the ends of seasons when I rose to the occasion. Obviously, there are my two Olympic medals. Those are like my kids. You put four years of sacrifice on the line to say this moment, for 12 seconds, this is it. Sometimes, I sit back and will cry thinking back on my career and how it’s been pretty sweet.
CM: After you retire and someone asks you what you do for a career, what are you going to say?
DHN: I’m going to say “I used to run.” That sounds better than “retired.” When you hear someone say they’re retired, you think of someone of retirement age — like almost 70. I will be proud to say I’m a retired track athlete. Because in conversation that will follow up with, “Oh, how did that go?” [Laughs.] I’ll be able to explain what track and field is and then say how it’s given me the life I have.
CM: Looking back, do you have regrets about how anything has gone during your career?
DHN: No, not really anything that when I walk away I hated it in the moment. Training with Bobby [Kersee] early in my career, he was very good at explaining the reasons for every time I died on the track in practice. I was blessed to also have Michelle Perry, a two-time world champion, and Joanna Hayes, an Olympic champion, training with me early in my career. I saw what they did and understood the sacrifices that have to be made. They have medals, so I knew I absolutely have to be doing this — and more. Now that I’m older, I do have the regret of not understanding that I don’t have to push my body as much. For the last two years, I’ve been hammering, thinking I have to do all this. My body is telling me it’s tired because I’m 33 or 34 now. It was right before this nationals that I learned that lesson. My husband was telling me, “I think you’re doing too much. You’re not recovering as well.”
CM: Is this the least amount of pressure you’ve ever felt for a U.S. championships?
DHN: In a sense, but I am so hard on myself. I have a goal here as if I’m trying to make another team. I’ll enjoy it, but I better be on that podium. That’s just the mindset I have. If that’s not the expectation, I shouldn’t be here.
CM: What’s the difference between the top hurdlers when you were first starting on the elite level versus the best hurdlers now? What have some of the advances been?
CHN: I feel like more hurdlers now are focusing on speed. I’m a technician and you can win a lot of races if you hurdle clean. But now they’re running clean and they’re fast. If you put them in the flat 100, they’re going to put up a competitive time.