Hurdling All Obstacles

Virginia Tech's Queen Harrison dodged a fallen competitor en route to a berth on the U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles.
Virginia Tech's Queen Harrison dodged a fallen competitor en route to a berth on the U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles. (By Phil Coale -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- On the morning of the 400-meter hurdles final at the U.S. Olympic trials, Queen Harrison ambled through the Nike store in Eugene, Ore., with her coach, Lawrence Johnson. They planned on buying Harrison a new pair of tights so she would look sharp for the most important race of her life. And then a revelation struck Johnson.

"You know what, Queen," Johnson said, turning toward Harrison. "We're going to make this Olympic team today."

So instead of purchasing tights, they printed custom T-shirts, to be worn after the race. The front of the shirts featured a "VT" logo as big as they could make it, to let everyone know the 19-year-old Harrison was from Virginia Tech. The back displayed their track team's motto: "invictus," Latin for "unconquerable."

"It's a good thing to live by, that you're unconquerable, that you hold your head high," said Harrison, the first woman from Virginia Tech to make a U.S. Olympic team. "Just not letting setbacks dictate what the outcome of your life is going to be. I think that's the biggest thing. Stuff that happens to you doesn't show what you're going to be or how you're going to live your life. You have to make your own destiny."

When Harrison and Johnson arrived at the track in Eugene on June 29, he offered a final word. "We're invictus," he said.

In the moments before the final, Harrison would call upon that mantra. Her hamstring, injured during the NCAA championships 18 days earlier, ached. She drew Lane 8, the farthest outside and most challenging. She needed a top three finish to make the Olympic team, to make a year's worth of sacrifice worthwhile.

She had more than typical motivation. Her father, William Harrison, received a 10-year sentence in 1998 for possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute. He will be released from the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution in New Jersey just before the Beijing Games begin. If Harrison finished in the top three, the first time her father would see her race would be at the Olympics.

She crouched into the blocks and thought, over and over, "My hamstring is not an issue." She prepared for the race like any other, not looking to her left or right at runners she once idolized. She was such an underdog that NBC announcers didn't announce her name before the race.

Harrison kept pace from the starting gun. She followed her strategy, cruising for the first 300 meters, then blowing past fatigued competitors in the final 100. Suddenly, before the 10th and final hurdle, circumstances muddled those plans: Another runner tumbled into her lane. Harrison tight-roped around that unexpected hurdle, barely breaking stride. Then she bolted toward the finish, separating from the pack, arms flailing as she crossed the line.

Harrison craned her neck to see the scoreboard: She had finished second, behind Tiffany Ross-Williams and a blink ahead of Sheena Tosta. She dropped to her knees and pointed at the sky.

High above the track, NBC's Tom Hammond gushed, "Queen Harrison, a huge surprise!" Two of her sisters, Princess and Muun, rushed down from the stands, talked their way past a security guard and mobbed her. Harrison jogged a victory lap, the start to a surreal afternoon. Sanya Richards walked by and told her, "Good run, girl." So did Tyson Gay. She saw Jackie Joyner-Kersee, her idol.

"The thing was, when she said, 'Good job, Queen,' I was like, 'Ohhh, oh my God, oh [expletive],' " Harrison said. "That was crazy. I didn't want her to see me looking crazy, but that was the tightest, tightest, tightest.

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