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How U.S. hurdler Kendra Harrison turned her Olympic frustration into a positive

Kendra Harrison smashed a 28-year-old world record in the 100-meter hurdles just two weeks after failing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in the same event. Reuters/Eddie Keogh

Within seconds of crossing the finish line at the Müller Anniversary Games in London on July 22, the stoic expression on American record holder Kendra "Keni" Harrison's face morphed into uncontrollable emotion.

With her time of 12.20 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles posted on the scoreboard, she fell to her knees and buried her face in her hands. Harrison had just broken a 28-year-old world record, previously set by Bulgarian Yordanka Donkova in 1988. When she finally peeled herself off the track, she rushed toward the stands to her coach Edrick Floréal with tears in her eyes.

"I told you! I told you!" Floréal shouted as the two embraced.

This race -- part of the prestigious IAAF Diamond League event that drew elite athletes worldwide -- was an uplifting outcome to a crushing reality nearly two weeks prior. It was widely expected that the 23-year-old hurdling sensation would make the team at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon. But on July 8, the day of the final, Harrison placed a disappointing sixth.

It was the wrong day to have a bad race.

"It was all mental," Harrison admitted. "Dealing with the media, coming in at number one and not having lost a race, all played a role in the way I performed."

"The truth is we choked," added Floréal, who is the head track and field coach at the University of Kentucky. "There was pressure to make the Olympic team."

Harrison, whose 12.36 earlier this year was the fastest season-opening 100-meter time in U.S. history, entered the Olympic trials with the No. 1 time in the world. But she faced a pool of deep talent. Nine of the world's top-12 women's 100m hurdlers are from the U.S., and only three would move on to compete in Rio. Harrison is not among them. Instead, she is watching the Olympics on TV and spending time with her family and friends in Clayton, North Carolina, where she grew up.

Moments following the 100m hurdles final at the trials, while Brianna Rollins, Kristi Castlin and Nia Ali, who placed first, second and third, respectively, rejoiced, Harrison forced a smile through the bombardment of questions from the media.

"What happened?" blurted one reporter, and "Was there a point you felt like all hope was lost?" asked another.

"I'm at a loss of words right now," Harrison quietly stated during a postrace interview.

Floréal ordered Harrison back on the track the day after what he described as a vicariously gut-wrenching experience. He didn't want Harrison to mope in her hotel room. "I wanted her to get so angry, and take it out on the hurdles," he said. So he made her go over as many as possible -- in the rain. Harrison cried throughout practice.

Harrison's mother Karon anticipated that her daughter would focus on making the Olympic team in 2020. But Harrison had devised a different plan ever since the 2015 season, a turning point in her career, when she said she found her confidence and realized, "I have what it takes. I just have to stay relaxed and go out there and do it," Harrison stated before the Olympic trials.

"Most people at 23 years of age don't dominate an event like that," Floréal said. "It's a long process to come on top. She just got there so fast."

Leading into the most pivotal moment of her athletic career, Harrison had spent many nights after practice watching film of herself soaring over hurdles. When curiosity struck, as it did most nights, she'd text Floréal no matter the hour.

"I'll ask him about my velocity," Harrison said, noting that lately she had probed him about how she could improve her trail leg.

What's supposed to be a time to recharge turns into a calculated query she needs to know the answer to as quickly as possible because, as she understands, "athletes that are able to hold on to their technique and are able to execute at the end of the race are the most successful," Harrison said.

"I call her the hurdle nerd," said Floréal of Harrison, whom he has worked with since 2013, when she transferred from Clemson to Kentucky (since graduating in 2015, Harrison transitioned to volunteer assistant coach for the Wildcats). "She embraces the idea of being a professional beyond belief."

That includes assessing and refining the most finite details -- like not popping up too soon before reaching the first hurdle and focusing on the placement of her trail leg leading into the last of the 10 hurdles.

"If she's not happy with a result, she does it again and again and again until she gets it right," Floréal said.

How Harrison developed into one of the world's best hurdlers is the by-product of her tireless commitment to the sport. Her superior talent doesn't run in the family, at least, not that she's aware of.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Harrison was adopted when she was 3 months old by Gary and Karon. She is one of eight siblings adopted from all over the world, including from Korea and Bolivia. Gary and Karon also have two biological children.

Gary, a retired U.S. Navy pilot, would often shuffle his kids around in a used Marriott shuttle bus he purchased as the family van. That included to soccer and track practices for Harrison, who is the only elite athlete among her siblings, ranging in ages from 18 to 33. Excelling in sports was her way to stand out and get attention.

Harrison had her father's full attention in Eugene, where he sat in the stands at Hayward Field and watched his daughter's fate unfold. It has taken years for Harrison to grow into her own and realize that she has staying power.

"She never saw herself in this position," Floréal said. "During our first two years together, every time we'd get to big meets, she'd fall apart. She'd be number one in the nation, but she'd be afraid to win. It was the thought of what comes after finishing first -- the expectation that everybody has on you."

Described as reserved by both her father and her coach, Harrison is learning to embrace what comes with the territory of being the best in the world.

"Hurdling is 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical," Harrison said. "I want to be able to run under pressure. Ability-wise, I know I'm gifted enough to make the Olympic team. It's mind over matter."

This is what she has spent the past year working to better understand as she continues to catapult to the top. And while this Olympic opportunity slipped away, Harrison is adamant about not letting history repeat itself.

"I'm glad to be that story that athletes can look at and see that when things don't go your way, you've got to get back out there," Harrison said. "Four years is going to go by fast. I'm not sure which hurdle event I'll be doing -- the 100 or the 400 -- but I will definitely be in Tokyo."