LONDON — After hurdling for redemption at London Stadium last year, and getting plenty of it, Keni Harrison is back in the same place, hurdling for a title and only a title.
For now, Harrison, a 24-year-old American from a family of 13, is in the uncommon position of being a world-record holder who has yet to win a medal of any color in a major global championship.
That could change in a hurry Saturday at the world championship final in the 100-meter hurdles — the tricky, technical and spectacular event that Harrison redefined last year when her time of 12.20 seconds at a Diamond League meet here broke Yordanka Donkova’s 28-year-old world mark of 12.21, long considered untouchable.
“Being back in London is definitely a confidence booster,” Harrison said in an interview at the United States team’s hotel in central London. “I know the crowd is going to be amazing. I love the track. It is fast, obviously, so I’m just getting ready for that moment and to live it fully.”
But she barely made the final at worlds. After posting the best time in the preliminary heats in 12.60, she struggled to a 12.86 in the semifinals and made the final by just 0.01 seconds.
Harrison, whose first name is Kendra but who prefers her nickname Keni, considers herself an introvert. She projected calm Wednesday for a nearly hourlong interview, speaking thoughtfully and seldom shifting in her seat.
Anyone who grew up with 10 siblings — she is the middle child — can clearly handle pandemonium. But composure is not yet her trademark in the biggest races. In her first world championships in 2015, she did not reach the final. Her world record in London last year came just two weeks after she had faltered as the favorite at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, finishing sixth and failing to make the team for the Rio Games.
It was a brutal blow to Harrison and an illuminating moment to her coach, Edrick Floréal, who had been convinced that Harrison, who had already set an American record, 12.24, was in the right place and head space and blamed himself for not sensing the trouble.
He and Harrison stayed up until “4 or 5 in the morning” the night after the defeat, he said, talking it through. He insisted that she report the next morning to the track.
“I’m pretty sure I was crying throughout the workout because I didn’t want to be there,” she said. “The reality hits you: ‘You didn’t make the team. You are No. 1 in the world. You didn’t make the team. You even broke the American record. You didn’t make the team.’ All those thoughts in your mind, but he kept pushing me, and that’s what got me through.”
Floréal told her he would travel to London for last year’s Diamond League meet on one condition.
“He said, ‘If you don’t think you’re going to do something amazing, then I’m not going to go,'” Harrison said.
Once there, he shepherded her through her routines. “Basically 24/7: breakfast, lunch and dinner together,” Floréal said in an interview this week. “She was embarrassed about the Olympics, had her head down, didn’t want anyone to see her face.”
But after the first round, he said, her confidence returned.
“And when the gun went off in the final, she was determined to make a statement that ‘I’m not a choker. I just had a bad meet,'” he said. “And I think had that meet and that moment not happened, I’m not sure that world record would ever have been broken. It was the perfect storm.”
Will it thus be impossible to generate another one?
“I do think it could happen again,” Floréal said. “I think she’s in the right place right now.”
Harrison has the world’s leading time again in 2017: a 12.28 last month in Hungary. She also feels fresh, partly because she broke her left hand warming up at a Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar, in May (she still won the ensuing race), forcing her to take time off.
“I don’t feel tired,” she said. “I don’t feel like I ran too many meets, so I think it (the broken hand) was probably a blessing in disguise.”
Win or lose, Harrison has quite a cheering section in London. Her parents, Karon and Gary, and six of her siblings made the journey.
“We’re a traveling road show,” Gary Harrison said Wednesday amid touring London in the rain. “We’re kind of overwhelming when we show up.”
The Harrison children range in age from 19 to 34. The oldest, Casey, and youngest, Kara, are the Harrisons’ biological children. “If you want to irritate your wife, get a mother of 10 pregnant,” Gary Harrison joked.
The Harrisons’ other nine children were adopted in a wide range of circumstances.
“I have two siblings who are African-American, two that are biracial, two that are Korean, two that are Bolivian and two that are my parents’ biological kids,” Keni Harrison said. “I don’t even think about it.
“My family came to visit this morning, and a lot of people on the team don’t really know I’m adopted, and they were like, ‘Who are these people, Keni?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s my family,’ and they’re like, ‘OK!’ Clearly people on the outside see it, but I don’t really see it as different races.”
Gary Harrison, a former Navy pilot who recently retired after 20 years, once bought a Marriott Hotel shuttle bus to transport the family. The bus featured a seat near the front called “the timeout seat.” He never quite got around to painting over the “Marriott” on the side of the bus, he said.
Remembering all of the children’s current ages remains a challenge. “I have a spreadsheet,” he said.
Keni Harrison, born prematurely to a black single mother, was adopted as a newborn shortly after her sister Tasha had been adopted. “They are like twins in terms of their ages, so we got two babies in like a month,” Gary Harrison said. “Keni was in the ICU for 30 days, and I picked her up on day 31.”
She did not grow tall — she is 5 feet 3 inches tall, short for an elite sprinter — but she did grow up to be agile and fast, and her speed on the soccer field eventually caught the attention of track coaches in Clayton, North Carolina.
She received a full track scholarship to Clemson and then transferred to Kentucky, where she is now part of an elite professional group training under Floréal that includes Omar McLeod, the reigning world and Olympic champion in the men’s 110 hurdles.
Harrison volunteers as an assistant and helped recruit Sydney McLaughlin, an 18-year-old from New Jersey who competed in the Olympics in the 400 hurdles last year. McLaughlin, the youngest track and field athlete in 26 years to make the U.S. Olympic team, will attend Kentucky this fall.
Harrison will have to wait for her Olympic moment (she watched at her parents’ house on television last year as the American women swept the medals in the 100 hurdles in Rio). But the former Olympic stadium in London has already provided her with quite a showcase for her fast-twitch talents.
Time for an encore?
“Coach Flo put it this way: He said breaking that world record is the hardest thing you can do,” Harrison said. “The next thing is to go get some medals. That’s a lot easier than trying to chase the record. That’s how I’m thinking of it, anyway.”