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April 12, 2010

OVERPOWERING THE COMPETITION - An Olympian, an All-American and a national champion, Queen Harrison has hurdled all obstacles to establish a reign of track and field dominance

By: Jimmy Robertson

Queen Harrison

Lawrence Johnson sits in the head coach’s chair these days as the overseer of Clemson’s track and field program, but he never forgets the career stops that got him to this point, including a four-year stint in Blacksburg under Dave Cianelli, Tech’s well-respected director of track and field and cross country.

Shortly after arriving in Blacksburg in 2005, Johnson – affectionately known as “Boogie” – was instructed to high tail it to Fairfax in northern Virginia to find some jumpers. The native Texan navigated the country’s bastion of traffic gridlock and found the Recreation Sports Complex at George Mason, which happened to be the site of the Group AAA state indoor track and field championship meet that year.

He gazed intently at the girls’ long jump competition, an event that ultimately came down to three kids. The first girl came down the runway and leaped a personal best. The second girl followed and jumped 10 centimeters farther.

Then, Queen Quedith Harrison came to the starting line.

“She came down that runway and had the jump of her life and won it,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t that she won it, but it was the way that she won it. Most would scratch in that situation. That’s a lot of pressure to be under knowing that the jump was for the state championship. But when the stress was on, she got better.

“I never forgot that. I knew then that I wanted that kid on my team.”

Johnson got the first glimpse of what Hokie Nation and the rest of the country have seen for four years now – Harrison sprinting and hurdling over anything in her path.

She’s jumped over the travails of a childhood in which both of her parents spent time in prison. She’s leaped the transition from a jumper to a hurdler. She’s bounded past all her competitors to become an Olympian and a national champion.

She’s hurdled everything in front of her, on and off the track – and there’s been a lot to hurdle.

Quite simply, this queen’s reign has been supreme.

Photo by Cheryl Treworgy, PrettySporty.comQueen Harrison already has an indoor national championship in the 60-meter hurdles and has set her sights on the 100- and 400-meter hurdles - two events in which she has the top times in the nation - at the NCAA’s outdoor championships.

She was 10 years old, living the life with her large family, and she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why her parents were leaving the family. Especially, she didn’t understand why her father would be gone for so long and why he wouldn’t be able to go to her sporting events or her school dances or even her high school graduation.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in 1998, William Harrison was convicted for possessing and intending to distribute drugs and sent to the Fort Dix federal correctional institution in New Jersey, where he ultimately spent 10 years. Her mother, Alicia Wingate, served a much shorter sentence of 18 months.

“I was old enough to understand that something was going on, but not to the extent that it was going on,” Queen Harrison said. “But I understood that dad wasn’t going to be home for a while. As I got older, I was able to understand more of what happened. At first, I didn’t know anything that happened. I just knew that he was going to be incarcerated and that I wasn’t going to see him for a while.”

Harrison, fortunately, grew up in a large family and stayed with her three older sisters during her parents’ absence. Harrison’s parents have nine children in all, and her father has 23 total from other relationships.

Her father actually named her, and the family names – which include names like Graceful, Empress and Princess – come from her parents’ beliefs in The Nation of Gods and Earth, a group that split from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. A predominantly African-American group, it believes in finding peace with one’s self and being clean and educated.

Hence, he named her Queen. Her middle name is a derivation of her grandmother’s name, which is Edith.

Given that she lived with her siblings for a spell, and given the lack of a father figure in her life, she possessed every reason to stumble into life’s hurdles instead of leaping over them. She could have become just another statistic or another sad story of wasted talent falling victim to the world’s circumstances.

But that’s not her.

“It [getting into trouble] wasn’t anything I wanted to do,” she said. “When we moved down to Virginia, it was a really good area that we moved to. Unlike other people who are exposed to a lot of things that could lead them down the wrong path, they [her family] made sure we lived in an area that was affluent and that I went to a good school. There weren’t many factors that could lead me to a downfall.

“I wasn’t brought up that way. All my brothers and sisters went to school. One got an associate’s degree, but all the others graduated from college. It just wasn’t an option in my family. You don’t make excuses and you work hard. That’s what all my brothers and sisters did. They all played at least a couple of sports. Using excuses just wasn’t tolerated. I was pushed very hard to make sure that I didn’t let myself go down another path because it’s so easy to. But when you have a strong support system, it really helps.”

Her family moved to Richmond – they had been in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., a small hamlet northwest of New York City – when she was in the sixth grade, primarily because two of her older sisters graduated from Virginia Union and three more children went to Hampton. So they knew the area and liked it.

From an early age, William Harrison pushed sports on his children, and Queen was no different. She became a superb basketball player and picked up track in the spring because, “It wasn’t an option to just come home and not do anything,” she said.

“It was also another way to meet people,” she added. “A lot of people build relationships in elementary school, but since I didn’t come until sixth grade, I didn’t know that many people. It [going out for track] was kind of for social reasons.”

She became popular and a superstar at Hermitage High, but interestingly, wasn’t highly recruited. She nearly went to Hampton University – until Johnson saw her at the state indoor meet.

It didn’t take her long to realize that Johnson had fibbed – in a big way.

She ran the 300-meter hurdles in high school, but she loved the jumping events. Shortly after she arrived in Blacksburg, though, in the fall of 2007, she found herself toiling on all the hurdle events.

“She kept asking me, ‘When am I going to get to jump?’ and I’d say, ‘Next week,’” Johnson laughed. “Then the next week would come and she’d asked again, and I’d say, ‘Next week.’”

The next week never came for Harrison, as jumping became a forced retirement for her.

“She had some hamstring issues, and jumping puts a lot of stress on your hamstrings,” Johnson said. “With the hurdles, there’s not as much pressure on your hamstrings. So I did it to keep her healthy, and I thought she had a lot of potential, too.”

“A lot of jumpers don’t have long careers,” Harrison said. “I think he was looking at it for the long run. He thought it would be beneficial for me. He saw something in me, a talent in me, and he thought that if I worked hard and pushed myself, then I could make a career out of track and field. And he didn’t think jumping would be the way to go.”

That decision could end up making Queen Harrison a very rich young lady.

She quickly grasped hurdling, which places more emphasis on technique than speed. She went from apprentice to All-American seemingly in less time than it takes her to complete the 60-meter hurdles.

During her freshman season, she placed third in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor championships. After her freshman season, she burst onto the national scene by winning the 400-meter hurdles at the Pan American Junior Championships and claiming silver in the 100-meter hurdles. Her sophomore season, she claimed third in the 60-meter hurdles at the NCAA’s indoor championships.

After blitzing the field at the NCAA East Regional during the spring of her sophomore year, her contrary hamstring seized up on her, preventing her from participating in the NCAA outdoor championships that season.

It may have been a blessing. The extra time off allowed her to rest in preparation for the U.S. Olympic trials held in Oregon that June.

Only 19 at the time, she leaped into Tech history, jumping 11 hurdles – 10 stationary ones and then a competitor who fell into her lane – to finish second and qualify for the Olympic team. She became the first Tech female athlete to qualify for an Olympic team and just the second overall.

“When I got hurt, it was discouraging, but only for a couple of days,” she said. “I didn’t count myself out, but I didn’t think 2008 would be my year because of that.

“After that last hurdle, I just ran like my life depended on it. Then I couldn’t believe it, and I could hear my sisters screaming in the stands. I got second, but it didn’t register. It didn’t register that the top three went to the Olympics. I don’t know when it hit me. Maybe when I was doing the victory lap and holding the American flag.

“It still gives me chills.”

“SQUEEEEEEEEEZIIIIEEEE,” a loud voice boomed as Harrison warmed up for the 60-meter hurdle finals at the ACC indoor meet this past February.

Harrison smiled. She still knew the voice despite being miles and years removed from it.

William Harrison was released from prison in August of 2008, just days before she left to go to China, where she made it to the semifinal round of the 400 hurdles. He wasn’t able to go – her mother and two of her sisters went – but on this day, he was watching his daughter compete collegiately for the very first time.

She did not disappoint.

She set an ACC record in the 60-meter hurdles and tied the Rector Field House record (7.94 seconds) in claiming first. Then, 20 minutes later, she won the 400-meter dash.

“It was just so cool,” she said of her father’s appearance. “When I was younger, all my brothers and sisters would play sports, and you would always know when my dad was in the building because he’s the loudest one in there. I didn’t even know when he got there [to Rector]. He has a nickname for me. He calls me ‘Squeezie’ because he says I hug the tightest out of everyone. I’m in there warming up and the next thing I know, I hear ‘SQUEEEEZIEEE’ so loud and I said, ‘I know exactly who that is.’

“Our relationship is really, really good. He’s always given me motivation before the races. It’s been good.”

She also has adjusted well to her new coach, Charles Foster, who took over for Johnson when Johnson left to go to Clemson last July. Foster takes a more scientific approach to sprinting, jumping and hurdling, and that presented some challenges to Harrison.

After all, not many coaches feature a diagram of a skeletal system on their walls. But Foster knows his stuff, as evidenced by having coached two Olympic gold medalists in his career. Under his watch, Harrison won the national championship at the NCAA indoor meet in the 60-meter hurdles in mid-March, becoming the first Tech female athlete to win a national championship in any sport.

“They all had to buy in, and as I told them, ‘Un-ball your fist and give me a chance,’” Foster said. “I coach to the sciences and show them how a body works. I think that will help them run faster and alleviate injuries.

“I think Queen’s been a tremendous surprise, even to herself. She’s talented, but she found out she’s more athletic than she gave herself credit for.”

Harrison’s Tech days are coming to an end, but her career is not. Being an Olympian, an All-American and a national champion only drives her more.

First, she wants to go out in grand fashion, claiming double gold in the 100-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor meet held in early June. She currently holds the top time in the country in both events.

“I want to make my mark on this institution,” she said. “No one has won the 100, 400 and 60 in the same year. I have high expectations of myself.”

She graduates in May, but a professional track career, with potential lucrative endorsements, and another stab at the Olympics beckon, though it won’t be easy. It may require re-tooling her form to get more speed because that extra hundredth of a second matters at that level.

“She can do that,” Foster said. “She has tools she hasn’t used to the fullest extent. She hasn’t fully tapped into her abilities yet.”

“Queen is the only person who can stop herself,” Johnson said. “If she became uncommitted, undisciplined or unfocused … But I don’t see that happening. I think she has a very exciting career in front of her.”

Harrison, though, buries the thoughts. For her, it’s about hurdling the next obstacle in her path, wherever it is.

“I don’t like to think too far ahead,” she said.

It’s certainly a strategy that has worked.

Judging from the results, Queen Harrison already has more than lived up to her royal name.