Top hurdlers converge at U.S. Open

NEW YORK -- Fifty meters. Four hurdles. It's a novelty distance that is hardly ever contested, and the three top-shelf female sprint hurdlers who will line up in a field of six for Saturday night's U.S. Open race have barely slipped into this season's shoes. Still, the race featuring American stars Dawn Harper, Lolo Jones and Kellie Wells can be considered a very, very early warm-up act for the theater promised by the 2012 London Olympics.

"Unlike some other events, we never dodge each other," Wells, last year's breakout star who won U.S. 100-meter championships both indoors and outdoors, said Friday. "Every race we line up, we welcome it ... It'll be fun to see what kind of times we can all put up."

It will be entertaining simply to see this trio of talented, outspoken women on the same stage in the dead of winter, even if their event will be over in an eyeblink. All have overcome obstacles, other than the ones they're so proficient at surmounting on the track, and they are fiercely competitive.

"I respect their stories," Harper, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, said of Jones and Wells. "I hope they respect mine."

Renovations to Madison Square Garden forced organizers to reverse the start and finish locations customarily used for the 60-meter event, and a structural pole now stands in the area where the runners would normally decelerate, so the decision was made to shorten the distance. (The men will also run a 50-meter event, headlined by David Oliver, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 110-meter hurdles.)

None of the three women, who are in their late 20s and seasoned on the international circuit, have ever run a 50-meter race. Indoor world records in the distance date back to the 1980s for both genders. The 6.58 seconds clocked in 1988 by an East German woman, Cornelia Oschkenat, is still on the books.

Harper rarely runs indoors, period, and is still doing endurance workouts back at the UCLA track that is her training home. But coach Bobby Kersee is mindful of the new world record set by Australia's Sally Pearson at last year's world championships, where Harper earned a bronze medal, and wants Harper to work on her start, so he thought this was a good place to begin.

"With Sally running that time [12.28 seconds], I don't have the luxury of starting in the back," Harper said.

She said she still enjoys hearing herself introduced as the reigning Olympic champion.

"It has such a ring to it," Harper said. "I've got a target on the front and back end of me, but I say to myself, 'You wanted to be the one with the bull's-eye on your back, so accept it and love it.'"

Two years ago, Harper didn't know if she'd be around to try to defend her title. When she underwent a second surgery on her right (trailing) knee in the summer of 2010, the cartilage was so chewed up that the doctor warned her it wasn't a given that she could ever race again. From that perspective, Harper's personal best of 12.47 at worlds represented more than a moral victory.

Jones will be racing for the first time since last year's U.S. outdoor championships in June, when a subpar performance persuaded her to find out what was really wrong with her chronically aching back. She underwent surgery in August for a "tethered" spinal cord, a congenital defect that probably wouldn't have affected her if she weren't an elite athlete.

Rehab went so well that Jones was able to bump up her targeted return to competition by a few weeks, and she raced well at a small meet in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this month.

Some of her rehab-dictated training regime -- including doing lifts in a sand pit -- is more demanding than before the surgery, and Jones said the resulting soreness occasionally provoked some paranoid thoughts that the surgery hadn't worked. That's behind her now, as is the moment she nicked the second-to-last hurdle in the 100 final at the 2008 Beijing Games, losing her lead and a place on the podium in a few torturous fractions of a second.

"Nothing's guaranteed," Jones said of her event. "I wouldn't want to gamble on our sport."

Wells knows how crushing injury and inadvertent incidents on the track can be. A torn hamstring at the 2008 Olympic trials kept her out of Beijing and she took a tumble and DNFed in the worlds final last year.

"It didn't end the way I wanted it to," she said of her season, "but that's the hurdles. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last that happened to. I'm so excited -- in 2011 I learned [who I was] as an athlete, learned the hurdles better. I'm going into 2012 with a lot of confidence."

The year was memorable for Wells in another way, as she chose to go public with details of childhood sexual abuse that involved her mother's boyfriend. Both Wells' mother and her companion were killed in a car accident shortly after Wells moved out of the house while still in high school.

Reaction has been "huge," according to Wells. "I get so many emails and Facebook stuff from my fans and women and children that I've affected. I think that's more motivation than any money or any medals I could win, to know that doing this has given me a platform to let people hear me speak, to save a life or to change a little girl's life."

The U.S. will take three hurdlers to London in the 100-meter event, and Harper, Jones, Wells and 2011 world silver medalist Danielle Carruthers (who is not racing in New York) should duke it out for those slots if they all remain healthy. This meet will be the first of many meetings before the Olympic trials, something Harper said can only help her peak at the right time.

"I love racing those girls," she said. "When you win, you've earned it. No one gives you anything."

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.