No hurdle too high for Kellie Wells
As a kid, track practice was a safe space for Kellie Wells. A rising star at James River High School in Virginia, Wells loved running and, especially, clearing hurdles. But, with equal passion, she dreaded going home to face her abusive stepfather.
After years of silence, in 2010 Wells began talking publicly about consistent sexual abuse she said she'd suffered as a teenager, abuse she said eventually led to rape.
She initially wrote about it on her blog.
"It took me two or three days to write the blog post, so I was comfortable with it," she said. "I thought about my mom. If someone had shared their experiences and helped, maybe the outcome would've been different for her."
Now 29, Wells is hoping is that she can use her rising stardom as the reigning U.S. women's indoor and outdoor hurdling champion to help other victims come forward with their stories, realize they are not alone and move on with their lives and achieve their dreams.
Wells is well on her way, with her focus fixed on London.
Running away from it all
Wells discovered the sport that's become her livelihood while watching her older sister Tonni perform drills in their Richmond, Va., neighborhood. Tonni was approaching her teens, and Wells was six years her junior.
"This is what I was meant to do," Wells said. "I had talent."
She said she also turned to track to avoid her stepfather. But daily practice wasn't enough for her to escape. Wells said the rape occurred when she was 16, and that all she could do was run -- out of the house and away from the man her mother had chosen to trust. When she confided in her mother, she said she was received with silence. She moved in with a friend to escape the abuse.
Wells had had mere weeks to process what had happened when more cruelty struck her family. Her stepfather and mother were in a fatal car accident that Wells unknowingly drove past on her way home.
Instead of crumbling, Wells chose to focus on the most positive influence in her life: track and field. She thought about her mom. "She loved track and everything I did," Wells said.
She gathered strength from what she'd overcome to keep moving forward.
It also helped that James River High's head track coach, Vatel Dixon, was there to mentor Wells. They started working together during Wells' sophomore year.
"I was the only black male teacher in that building for a long time," he said.
Wells ran six events per meet, often scoring half the points the team needed to win. After multiple losing seasons, "we went from worst to first," said Dixon.
Wells' accomplishments, including earning the school's first state title, and her tenacity on the track paved the road to Hampton University, where she became an NCAA All-American and a MEAC champion.
The pressure of performing provided relief from the situation at home.
"But you should never be ashamed of where you come from," she said. "We all get to a good place. I hope my good place can help others find their good place."
Despite early success on the track, Wells' running career hasn't been without difficulties. She rose to the top of her sport, as a world-class hurdler, just one year after going pro in 2007. She approached the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., with confidence. She won the quarterfinals. Her personal-best time of 12.58 seconds in the semifinals was her ticket to the finals. But she couldn't compete: Wells had suffered a torn hamstring.
"I felt it immediately after I crossed the line [in the semis]," she said. "It was an immense pain in my leg. I was perfectly healthy going into the trials. I thought, 'What is this?' as I went down, and then I couldn't get up."
Knowing how to deal with pressure has become part of me. I didn't realize I had that quality until I looked back on my life.Kellie Wells
It took more than a year for the injury to heal. Her memories of struggling to walk and then run provide motivation.
"When I don't want to be out there, I tell myself that something could be forcing me to stop," she said. "I didn't start out as the fastest. I had to work to get here."
In June 2011, Wells returned to Oregon's Hayward Field, where she'd gone down three years earlier.
"I walked up to the track and I sat in the lane. I just sat there and I talked to it," she said.
Wells clocked 12.50 that day, once again defying the past.
"My races were the last two days of the meet," she said. "I had to watch everyone else make it first. But I went there to win and to go to [Daegu, South Korea, for the world championships]. And I did just that."
She earned national titles in the 100-meter hurdles and the 60-meter indoor hurdles that same year.
"Knowing how to deal with pressure has become part of me," Wells said. "I didn't realize I had that quality until I looked back on my life."
To help others cope, she's developing a foundation to support abused women and children. It doesn't have a name yet, but she plans to announce it on her website soon.
"I know that showing my positive side can make all the difference, especially when working with children," Wells said. "Talking about it has made a huge difference. I made a way out of no way. I want other women to become who they want to be, just like I'm becoming the woman I'm meant to be."
Wells' life has never been easy, so she takes it in stride. She broke an arm in early February, went through surgery and quickly got back to training. After missing much of the indoor racing season, she's more determined than ever. She'll return to racing at the end of this month and plans to run straight through the June 22 Olympic trials -- then lay it all on the line in London.
Recently, Wells returned to her high school and spoke to students about everything she's overcome on her way to the top. The kids were in awe, so Coach Dixon broke the ice with the first question: "When you make it to London 2012, can I get a ticket?"
Wells said she could never break a promise to him, so of course, he'd join her at the Olympics.
"She took to me because she didn't have that father figure and role model at home," he said.
Dixon and Wells established a bond that has only been strengthened over the past decade. She calls him on the phone each Father's Day.
Through it all, Wells has become her own woman -- one who would make her mother proud.
"I talk to my mom all the time," she said. "She's always here -- I have her tattoos on me. I hope she's looking down and she's excited about what's coming up."
Rachel Cooperman will never be as fast as the athletes she covers, but she's happy to write about them, run alongside them and sometimes sprint to catch up to them for a good story. She's a freelance journalist in New York City.