With family cheering, hurdler Keni Harrison eyes Olympics
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Even as the middle child in a family with 11 kids, Keni Harrison always stood out.
Only fitting, then, that her family stands out, too. A few of them are hoping they’ll be at the stadium in Rio de Janeiro later this summer — dressed in their familiar neon shirts to cheer on Keni, the American record holder in the 100-meter hurdles, at the Olympics.
The 23-year-old Harrison used sports — first gymnastics, then soccer, then, finally, track — to carve her path in an oversized family that wasn’t originally planned that way.
At first, her mother, Karon, didn’t want kids, yet ended up with one short of a dozen — nine of whom are adopted, including Keni, who will try to secure her spot in Rio next week at Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.
“I know it wasn’t easy raising all of us,” said Keni, who broke the American record last month. “But my parents found a way. They always found a way.”
The Harrison crew grew up in a six-bedroom house in Clayton, North Carolina. Bathroom space was at a premium and meals were typically on the run — many of them eaten out of the back of a hotel shuttle bus the family used to transport all the kids from one activity to another.
Keni was born in Tennessee to a mother she never knew. Karon and Gary had just adopted a daughter, Tasha, when they got a call from the agency about another infant in need of a home. Were they interested?
Next thing they knew, they were on their way home from a camping trip to pick up Keni. She and Tasha are 11 days apart.
The Harrison house has always been filled with noise, screams, love and caring. Casey, 33, is the oldest and Kara, 18, the youngest in a family that includes kids of many nationalities — including two from Bolivia and two of Korean heritage.
“It was always busy, but you don’t think about it,” their mom said. “You had birthday parties out of the back of the car. You always keep snacks in the car. You’re running here and there.”
Both the parents are retired military, with Gary now working for the Transportation Security Administration and Karon as an assistant preschool teacher.
They bought toilet paper in bulk, along with cereal, mac and cheese, fish sticks and milk — lots of milk. The family went through nearly seven gallons a week.
Gary and their grandpa built a large dining room table so they could congregate. One problem: They were rarely home together. Their schedules were just too frenzied; Karon memorized everything and jotted it all down for her husband.
They made plenty of memories. A few embarrassing ones, too.
Like when the family picked pick up Casey after high school cross country practice in a shuttle bus with the word “Marriott” fading on the side but still visible.
“They’d all yell my name and wave,” laughed Casey, an Air Force major living in Anchorage, Alaska. “You sort of pretend you don’t know the people yelling out the window at you.”
It was hard to ignore the talent of Keni, though.
At first, she appeared headed toward a soccer career. She was super-fast, which drew the attention of the track coach who asked her to run in a few meets.
She showed so much potential even with little training and wearing tennis shoes. It didn’t take long until she hit her stride, capturing 100 and 400 hurdles titles at the 2010 USA Junior Olympics. She caught the attention of Clemson, where she went before transferring to Kentucky and going on to twin two individual NCAA titles.
Keni remains a volunteer assistant coach for Kentucky while training under Wildcats coach Edrick Floreal. At the recent NCAA championships in Eugene, she helped out the team before squeezing in her own workouts.
“She’s the kind of kid that doesn’t take anything for granted,” her mom said. “Keni feels she has to live up to a lot of expectations and doesn’t want to disappoint people. She doesn’t realize that everyone will be proud of her no matter how she does.”
Support. This group has that in abundance.
Whenever Keni competes, there’s sure to be family around. Usually in bright attire. That’s the way it was when Casey graduated from the Air Force Academy, her family driving out to Colorado and wearing fluorescent green shirts.
“People were like, ‘Where is the (family) section?’” Casey recounted. “I’m like, ‘See all those green shirts? It’s right there.’”
Just thinking about the trials has Keni’s mom on edge, especially since she has to miss it for a previously planned trip. Her husband will be there, though.
It’s a loaded field, too, one that includes 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson, Lolo Jones and Brianna Rollins, the 2013 world outdoor champion. But Harrison is the one to catch after breaking the American record last month at the Nike Prefontaine Classic in a time of 12.24 seconds. It was just 0.03 shy of eclipsing the fastest time in history.
“To everybody else, she’s a superstar,” Casey said. “To us, she’s just Keni.”