Mark Story

Mark Story: From a superhero, UK track star Kendra Harrison finds her winning edge

The Harrison family in 2012. Front row, from left: Bo, Eimy (daughter-in-law), Kara, Gabi and Victor. Middle row: Gary, Karon, Casey, Mike (son-in-law) and Tasha. Back row: JoJo, Cory, Hyung, Kipp and Kendra. Nine of the 11 children are adopted.
The Harrison family in 2012. Front row, from left: Bo, Eimy (daughter-in-law), Kara, Gabi and Victor. Middle row: Gary, Karon, Casey, Mike (son-in-law) and Tasha. Back row: JoJo, Cory, Hyung, Kipp and Kendra. Nine of the 11 children are adopted.

The most dynamic athlete on the University of Kentucky campus has taken her career to new heights this spring due to inspiration from ... Superman?

A year ago as a junior, Kentucky star hurdler Kendra Harrison torched the Southeastern Conference championship meet. The transfer from Clemson took gold medals in both the 100- and 400-meter hurdles. No female SEC athlete had completed that double since 1999.

Based on her time, UK track and field coach Edrick Floreal was confident that Harrison would add the NCAA championship in the 400-meter hurdles, too.

Yet, when the race came, Harrison ran almost a second slower than she had in the SEC meet. She finished second to Texas A&M's Shamier Little.

"I thought she was going to win, and she didn't," Floreal said. "It seemed like every time she went to NCAAs, she sort of fell apart. "

Perplexed, Floreal got on the phone with Harrison's mother, Karon. In an hour-long conversation, the two found themselves agreeing that Harrison's problems stemmed from a lack of belief in self.

"I talked to her mom. She gave me some insight that 'Hey, she's always had issues with that,'" Floreal said. "She'd typically have a bad meet at the big meets because she suffers from a lack of confidence. You think it's strange for somebody that good to lack confidence, but she does."

At its core, good coaching is finding a motivational approach that an athlete takes to heart.

This year, before Harrison was to compete in the NCAA indoor national championship meet, Floreal sat his senior star down for a talk.

"Coach Flo was like, 'You are like Superman, except you never take off your glasses. Superman, when he takes his glasses off, he's another person. (But) when you step on the track, you still have your glasses on, so you're really not all the way into it,'" Harrison said last week.

So far this season, opponents have seen what happens when Kendra Harrison "takes the glasses off."

They get dusted.

The most dynamic athlete on the UK campus came to Kentucky with a unique fan base. Kendra Harrison comes from a family of 11 children. Of Gary and Karon Harrison's kids, nine are adopted — including Kendra.

In a household where the parents are white, the Harrison clan includes children who are Korean, Bolivian, black and white. There is 15 years' difference between oldest child (now 32) and youngest (17).

"An interesting mix," Floreal said. "Keni's got brothers and sisters from just about any ethnicity in the world. I don't know how they do it. But the cool thing is, I've met most of them, and ... they are genuine in how they care for and love one another. And her parents, they've got a special place in heaven for people like that."

Gary and Karon Harrison met as each served in the U.S. Navy. He was a pilot, she a physical therapist.

The great irony of the life they've lived, Gary Harrison says, is that when the couple went through pre-marriage counseling, "we both agreed we didn't want kids."

How do you go from that to raising 11 children?

"Everybody asks that question," Gary Harrison said. "There was no one great moment where we decided we would do this. Our oldest daughter, Casey, was born and we decided we wanted more children. We had some issues, miscarriage, and decided to try adoption. Once we started, we just kept on."

A Navy family, the Harrisons lived around the globe — Hawaii, California, Georgia, Bolivia. When Gary retired from the Navy, he took a job in homeland security in North Carolina. The family settled in Clayton, N.C., a town of some 17,695 just outside Raleigh.

To transport his family of 13, Gary bought a used Marriott Hotel shuttle bus and converted it into a family van — complete with a "time-out chair" up front for the misbehaving.

Kendra says she was adopted "right out of the hospital." She was the family's sixth child.

The good part of being in the middle of what became 11 children "is when I got to high school, (older siblings) started going to college and (bed)rooms opened up," Kendra says. "I was really happy to get my own room."

A down side of the middle was "I wasn't always the smallest, so the attention, sometimes, wasn't there," Kendra said. "Doing sports was my way of standing out and getting that light on me."

Growing up, Kendra loved tumbling and became a competitive cheerleader. She played soccer, and thought that would be her path to a college scholarship.

Yet the track coaches at Clayton High School kept noticing how much faster Kendra was than anyone else on the soccer pitch. They pleaded with her to try track.

With her love of tumbling, Kendra gravitated to the jumping involved with running hurdles. Her mom, Karon, says Kendra started winning state-level high school competitions while running in tennis shoes.

"We were naive to the sport. We didn't know she was supposed to have specialized track shoes," Karon Harrison said. "I'm not the kind of parent who brags on my kids, but after we learned about the shoes, I do remember thinking if she was winning in tennis shoes, maybe Keni is pretty good."

The college recruiters noticed. LSU, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati were among the schools that wooed Kendra. She picked Clemson, in part, because star hurdler Brianna Rollins was already there.

In her first two years at Clemson, Harrison became a six-time ACC champion. However, before her junior year, an NCAA investigation led to a coaching shake-up at Clemson.

UK hired ex-Clemson assistant coach Tim Hall. Harrison and star sprinter Dezerea Bryant followed Hall to Lexington.

"Horses," are what Harrison says she knew of Kentucky.

The most dynamic athlete on the UK campus says she does not know why her self-confidence has not always matched her talent level.

"Mentally, no matter if I was ranked 1 or 10, it was still the same," Kendra said. "(I would think) 'There's a chance I could die (run out of gas). There's a chance I may hit a hurdle.' Or 'What's going to happen when I do start winning? How am I going to run with that much pressure on me?'"

That mind-set is what UK's Floreal was trying to overturn before this year's NCAA indoor championships when he went the Clark Kent/Superman motivational route.

In the 60-meter hurdles finals, Harrison ran a 7.87 and edged Florida's Bridgette Owens by .01 of a second.

At last, Kendra was an NCAA champion.

"It meant everything," Harrison said. "I'm a quiet person. I couldn't put into words the feelings I had."

With that onus off her back, Harrison has been on a rampage in the 2015 outdoor season. Kendra has run the fastest times in the NCAA in both the 100 hurdles (:12.62) and the 400 hurdles (:54.94).

"She was really fast last year; she's equally fast this year," said Floreal. "I just think her self-confidence is different. ... She feels more comfortable in her own skin. I think she's accepted that she's a star, and stars are asked to do 'star stuff.'"

Winning both the 100 and 400 hurdles at the NCAA outdoor championships in June would be the epitome of "star stuff."

"That's a pretty special opportunity," Floreal said. "Hopefully, she can pull that off."

For Kendra Harrison, it could be as simple as "taking the glasses off" and letting herself fly.

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