In professional sports, female athletes continue to fight for equality. They are pushing for equal pay, combating sexism within their particular sport and demanding maternal protections from sponsors.
Three U.S. Olympic track stars — including Allyson Felix, Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño — voiced their opinions last year about sponsors who released them from their contracts because of their pregnancies. (After public outcry, Nike had a change of heart, announcing a new maternity policy that guarantees a sponsored athlete’s pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy.)
East St. Louis native and two-time Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson is fighting the equality battle as well. After retiring from track and field in 2018, she announced in November 2019 that motherhood had made her even more driven to train and prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games.
But, since coming out of retirement, Harper-Nelson is having some difficulties finding sponsorships. She said many question her competition level now that she is a mother.
“It’s been very different, because I've had my sponsor in the past, and, as of right now, I don't,” Harper-Nelson said. “That's been a big topic among athletes in general, especially women with having babies.”
Harper-Nelson said she was not dropped because she had a baby; she was released from her contract when she retired. But now that she is coming back, she said, “The discussion has been more of, 'We kind of need you to prove [yourself] to us.'”
Harper-Nelson, 35, began running track at the age of 12, but it was not until her eighth-grade year that she was introduced to the sport that would become her claim to fame: the 100-meter hurdles. As Harper-Nelson continued her track journey at East St. Louis Senior High School and UCLA, she found herself running for leading track coaches Nino Fennoy and Bob Kersee.
She has been competing professionally for 13 years now, but she said her career may not have advanced if it was not for her coaches’ belief in her and the encouraging first encounter from one of East St. Louis’ most decorated track stars: Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“I do remember in summer track having Jackie Joyner-Kersee come to me and say, ‘I see something special in you. There’s a spark, keep working and stick with it,’” Harper-Nelson said.
Though those words of encouragement are nearly 20 years old, Harper-Nelson still reflects on them today, as she prepares to return to the Olympics for the third time. In 2008, she was the Olympic champion of the 100-meter hurdles event, and in 2012 she became a silver medalist in the same competition. And with East St. Louis having her back, her husband — Alonzo Nelson Jr. — as one of her coaches, and her daughter in tow, she said she is hoping to bring her city and her family another medal this year.
“I have traveled the world because of my gift. Even at the age of 35 and having my daughter, I know that when that gun goes off, I have what it takes to be on top of that podium,” Harper-Nelson said. “For me, [it] is about the love of sport and in love of being a mother and a wife, and so 2020 is just going to be the encompass of everything.”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke with Harper-Nelson after a training session at Belleville West High School about dealing with sponsorship woes, motherhood and why she is proud to be from East St. Louis.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Andrea Henderson: You participated in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. What was that experience like for you?
Dawn Harper-Nelson: It was the definition of all of your sacrifices and hard work paid off. Every single time that you were on the track, you shared it here. This workout went bad or went great. I couldn't eat ice cream. I had to miss family functions: birthdays, weddings, funerals. I have missed everything. So, I think for a lot of people, that's what the tears are about, that you see when they win or they reach what ever goal. If you think about all those things or those days, I didn't know if it was going to be worth it. So, in 2008, I just remember when I crossed the line, I literally said to myself, 'God thought everything that will come with being an Olympic champion, I could handle it.' This little girl from East St. Louis was going to be the one on top of the podium. It just blew my mind.
Henderson: There are a lot of talented athletes out of East St. Louis, like Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Knowing the type of sports talent that has come out of East St. Louis, how do you think this made you who you are today?
Harper-Nelson: I fell in love with track, really, when I did the hurdles around eighth grade. But I do remember in summer track having Jackie Joyner-Kersee pull me aside and tell me: “I see something special in you. There's a spark. Keep working and stick with it. There's something I see.” So that to me just meant the world, and I just kept going. I was blessed to get a full ride to UCLA and then have her coach talk to me and say, “You got what it takes” and, “Your technique is some of the best technique I've ever seen.” I knew for me he [Bob Kersee] would be that key to get me to the next level and keep me on top of the podium. It meant the world to me. I put the extra pressure on myself, but I embraced it because it was something I wanted for myself, no matter where I was going to come from.
Henderson: You have been living in California and training out there for over 15 years. What does it feel like to be living and training back home now?
Harper-Nelson: It's almost like a dream come true, because I've never been able to train like this and see my support system on a daily basis. I've never been able to have the people who knew me from the beginning be by my side during my Olympic journey. I also appreciate how [Belleville West High School student athletes] get to see the everyday grind. And that's really what I want for them. So, being at home is everything to me.
Henderson: Now that you are home, you have started a family and decided to come out of retirement to gear up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Since you declared your return to track, what are some challenges you have been faced with so far?
Harper-Nelson: Two things that just came to mind: Obviously, the physical. I know my body from being in the best shape of his life; I know my body from year after year. But having a baby that's been off for nine months. Even though I continued my workouts, it is still nothing like going to competitions throughout the year — having a season's best or personal record — so, being patient with my body has been very hard. And to be honest, really, sponsorships is another really big thing. As an athlete, financially, there are certain things that you need to have in place. That is what helps an athlete be able to mentally and physically just 100% focus on their job.
Henderson: So many people believe that women athletes cannot compete at the same level once they have a baby. They may see it as if you are done. What do you say to those people who think that way?
Harper-Nelson: You can just drop names, like Serena [Williams] and Candace Parker. I think you almost do yourself a disservice to count us out. I say if they are a killer in their sport, then let them have a baby, an extra motivation. Let them have a little person that they can look into those eyes and say, “I'm doing it for the both of us.” For me, I know I am a competitor, and when you look at me as if I've been injured or like I'm at a deficit, I'm that person that you don't want to say that to, because you're going to make me come out stronger.
Henderson: What do you say to the working mothers who may not be athletes?
Harper-Nelson: What I say to them is, 'You know what you're worth.' You know what you went through for those nine months, you know the concerns and the nervousness you had at night when you went home. But you got up the next day, and you made it work. You found a way, and you're stronger for it. Find your support system and understand that you're more than that situation.
Henderson: Why is the race toward the 2020 Olympics important to you?
Harper-Nelson: It is important because I have had a love for running since about 12 years or 13 years old, and it has given me the world. I have traveled the world because of my gift — running and hurdling — and I feel in my heart that I still have what it takes to be on top of the podium. One thing I've always said is I never want to take my gift for granted. Even at the age of 35 and having my daughter, I know that when that gun goes off, I have what it takes to be on top of that podium. So for me, it is about the love of track and field and the love of being a mother and a wife. The 2020 Olympics is going to be the encompassing of everything.
Henderson: Do you have any races leading up to Tokyo?
Harper-Nelson: As of right now, the two races I am going to start with are the Jackie Joyner-Kersee race at UCLA, it's the second week of April, and then Mt. SAC Relays, which is the third week of April in California. I’ll continue to build my schedule from there. But obviously I'll have the Olympic trials in June and then the Olympics.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon.
Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist
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