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.
"It was crazy. It's still unbelievable now. It still hasn't settled in 100 percent. I don't think it ever will. Even when I'm on the line, I'll still be like, 'Am I really here?' "
With surprising immediacy, though, Harrison began viewing her berth not as an achievement to celebrate, but a step to build upon. She vowed she would "do some damage" and "break some more hearts" in Beijing.
"I just don't think anyone wants it more than me," she said.
She and Johnson estimate her hamstring, now fully healed, allowed her to finish in 54.60 seconds at the trials while using 80 percent of her ability. Only five women in the world who qualified for Beijing have run faster times this year.
"They're going to have to deal with a healthier Queen Harrison, which is a dangerous Queen Harrison," Johnson said. "We have no plans of going over there and not being a medalist. That's the goal. That's the plan. It's not enough for us to be on the team."
Harrison derived her competitive streak from her large, close-knit family. Home contests of the word game Taboo often erupted into shouting matches. She raced against her cousins and siblings growing up, always dusting everyone, even the boys.
And Harrison enjoyed ample competition. William Harrison has 23 children, nine of them with Queen's mother, Alicia Wingate, ranging in age from 33 to 11. Their names, from oldest to youngest: Graceful, Zuequal, Muun, King Master, Princess, Goldin, Queen, Empress and Victory. (Harrison's full name is Queen Quedith Earth Harrison, Princess's is Princess Gemisa Wisdom and Goldin's is God Goldin Zig Zag Zig Allah.) He chose such names because he wanted "something righteous, something new and powerful," Wingate said.
"My father always wanted us to know we're not like anyone else," Muun said. "He told us, 'I want you to know that you're extraordinary.' He gave us these names because he wanted us to live up to them."
William enlisted a strict regimen. Every morning, Harrison and her siblings did push-ups and sit-ups. William once scolded one of Harrison's half-brothers, God Rule Allah, for asking to switch from advanced high school classes -- all of William's children studied a level or two above their age group in math and science -- to a less difficult curriculum. William told him, "You're not regular."
Harrison chafes at the growing notion that her story is "rags to riches" because she grew up without a father. She said William is, and always has been, a presence in her life. She speaks with him over the phone regularly; William told her last week he cried when he read a newspaper article about her qualifying for Beijing.
"He's just like me, my mother and my siblings, part of that strong support system that I have and I've had," Harrison said. "Even with his absence, he still continues to be supportive and very influential in my life."
William will be released from Fort Dix on Aug. 6, two days before the Olympics start and 11 days before Harrison's first race. He is not allowed to travel internationally, so Harrison will see her father for the first time in 10 years on Aug. 25, the day after the Closing Ceremonies.
"Just as soon as I get off that flight, he better be waiting for me at the airport," Harrison said. "I'm going to hug him. And jump on him."
One afternoon earlier this month, after a morning training session, Harrison chomped on a quesadilla on Main Street in Blacksburg and considered how she arrived at this point. She explained that Johnson had borrowed "invictus" from a British poet named William Ernest Henley. Harrison leaned back in her chair, searched her mind for the correct words and recited the first verse of the poem that, she realized, has come to define her story:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.