LONDON — Lolo Jones was leading the race at the Beijing Games when she clipped the second-to-last hurdle and saw her hopes for an Olympic medal disappear. The other runners burst across the finish line, but everyone at the Bird’s Nest was focused on Jones, pounding the track with her hand and unable to stop the tears. In four years, no one has stopped paying attention.
Dawn Harper was crying that day, too. From humble beginnings in St. Louis, she had to borrow someone else’s shoes to run in Beijing. While the world watched Jones stumble, Harper was the first across the finish line, an elated 24-year-old gold medalist.
Still a faint blip on the radar, Harper is in London now, trying to become the first woman to defend the Olympic 100-meter hurdles title, yet Jones is the one who garners the attention, the cover of Time magazine, the lucrative sponsorships. It’s Jones who struggled to qualify for the Olympics and still flew to Los Angeles two days later to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
“Hmmm,” said Harper, pausing to consider her words. “At one point, it was. I don’t want to lie and say that it wasn’t. . . . I have dropped to my knees and just prayed about it and said, ‘I know that I’m blessed just to be here.’
While Jones tries to redeem her Beijing blunder and justify all the attention Tuesday night, the more accomplished Harper might stand the better chance to add to the United States’s modest medal haul on the track. There’s also American teammate Kellie Wells, who last month became the lone hurdler to beat speedy Australian Sally Pearson this year.
With 18 track and field events now complete at these Olympics, the Americans have two golds among their nine medals. In cold and windy conditions Monday night, Jenn Suhr cleared 15 feet 9 inches to win an Olympic title in the pole vault.
“I’ve never felt so much pressure,” Suhr said, “relief, so much excitement and joy, I mean, happiness — all at once.”
To win gold, Suhr, the silver medalist in Beijing, had to get past the top pole vaulter in the history of the event, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, the world record-holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist. Isinbayeva cleared 15-5 and had to settle for bronze.
“I think I was in a mental state of peace with it. I just wanted it over,” Suhr, 30, said. “It’s been a long time.”
The U.S. men are still searching for their first track and field gold medal. Michael Tinsley picked up silver in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, crossing the finish line in 47.91 seconds. The race was won by Felix Sanchez, a USC product who runs for the Dominican Republic but calls California home. Sanchez, 34, earned his second career Olympic title with a time of 47.63. He won the same race at the Athens Games.
On Tuesday, the Americans will take aim at medals in four events, including the men’s 1,500-meter race, which features Broadneck High graduate Matthew Centrowitz. But perhaps no race provides the intrigue and unpredictability of the women’s 100-meter hurdles, a mad dash over 10 obstacles where the slightest miscue can mean disaster.
“It’s completely stacked. . . . I think we have some dogs out there, is what I call it,” Harper said of the field.
After struggling to even qualify at the U.S. trials, Jones posted her best time of the year in Monday’s first-round heat, crossing the finish line in 12.68 seconds. Wells won her race, too, finishing in 12.69 seconds, and Harper posted a 12.75 to also advance.
The biggest surprise in the first round came in the final race when Jamaica’s Brigitte Foster-Hylton, the second-faster hurdler of the year and a four-time Olympian, hit the fifth hurdle with her trail leg and failed to advance.
Pearson posted the top time (12.57) and is clearly the favorite, having notched the world’s three fastest marks of the year. She finished her first-round heat in 12.57 seconds.
Just three weeks, Wells topped the reigning world champ by two-hundredths of a second with a mark of 12.54. Pearson had suffered a fall during warm-ups, and her time was much slower than the 12.4 she’d posted a week earlier. Wells played down any benefits to having beaten Pearson across the finish line.
“A win is a win no matter who you get it against,” Wells said.
While Harper won’t have to borrow shoes for Tuesday’s race, her list of sponsors still pales in comparison to Jones’s portfolio, which includes Asics, Red Bull and McDonald’s among others. Harper’s Web site lists three sponsors, one of which is a scrub-brush for feet.
Harper knows the only way to make people remember her name is to win, and if she does that Tuesday, she’ll forever be listed in Olympic record books.
“Nothing someone else gets can take away from my journey, can take away from the joy that I have,” she said.
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