Most Olympic athletes had to wait an extra year to make the trip to Tokyo because of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the postponement of the 2020 Games.
Keni Harrison had to wait five.
The extra four came as the result of a disappointing performance at the 2016 U.S. Trials, one that cost the 28-year-old Clayton High School graduate — who had set a world record in the 100-meter hurdles earlier that summer — a spot on the team for the most recent Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Harrison made amends for that failure last week by winning her event at this year’s trials in Eugene, Oregon. Her victory in a time of 12.47 didn’t just qualify her for her first Olympic experience, it firmly established her as the favorite to bring home a gold medal.
“Just to come out here and do what I knew that I could do … I’m so glad I could put the past behind me and just move forward,” Harrison said in an interview with NBC immediately after the race.
The former Gatorade North Carolina Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year was slow out of the blocks but began making up ground quickly. She took the lead as she approached the final hurdles on the way to edging out new Olympic teammates Brianna McNeal and Christina Clemons.
It took a moment for Harrison to realize what she had accomplished. But as soon as she saw the result flash on the stadium scoreboard, she began clapping and waving to the crowd before bending over and shedding a tear of joy.
“I tried not to think of it as pressure,” she said. “I know what I’m capable of. Just to come out and execute, come across the line first and get the opportunity to go to the Olympics, it means everything.”
Harrison was one of seven athletes with North Carolina ties to earn spots on the team that will represent the U.S. in Tokyo next month.
The others are Hope Mills native Quanera Hayes; NC A&T teammates Randolph Ross and Trevor Stewart earned their spots in the 400 and 4 x 400 relay, respectively; UNC graduate Kenny Selmon; current Tar Heels volunteer assistant coach David Kendziera; and former UNC pole vaulter Sandi Morris.
Hayes punched her ticket to Tokyo by beating six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix to win the 400-meter dash in a time of 49.78.
The graduate of Grays Creek High and Salisbury’s Livingstone College nearly ended her track career when gave birth to her son in 2018, but she decided to continue running with an eye toward qualifying for the 2020 Games.
After her victory in the trials last week, she shared the moment on the track with 2-year-old Demetrius and Felix’s young daughter.
“It was just work hard, keep going and to not give up because I knew I had somebody looking up to me,” Hayes said in a postrace Zoom about her attitude since becoming a mother. “My expectation here was to come out here, to do what I was trained to do and to trust what my coach and I have been doing this entire season, and just try to go for it.”
Ross also had a family connection to his Olympic qualification. The newly crowned NCAA champion in the 400 finished third in the same event — on Father’s Day — to make the U.S. team 17 years after his father and coach, Duane Ross, represented his country in Athens in 2004.
“I have had a couple of great moments in college, but this is the moment everyone trains for, waits for. It has just been all about determination,” the younger Ross told NCATAggies.com.
“For him to do something at this level at this age,” his father added, “he had me in tears.”
Ross’ Aggie teammate Stewart qualified for the 4-x-400 relay team by finishing fourth in the 400.
Selmon and Kendziera earned their spots on the U.S. squad by finishing second and third, respectively, in the 400 hurdles behind race winner Rai Benjamin. Selmon, a three-time ACC champion with the Tar Heels from 2014-18, set a personal best with a time of 48.60.
Morris, meanwhile, made her second Olympic team by clearing 15-1 in the pole vault. The 2016 silver medalist spent her freshman year at UNC before transferring to Arkansas.
The opening ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for Friday, July 23.