Dawn Harper Nelson FAITH Story
Dawn Harper Nelson is a "2x Olympic Medalist". Amongst those things she is a wife to Alonzo Nelson Jr who is also a Champion from East Saint Louis, and mother to their beautiful daughter Harper.
East Saint Louis. A place that some choose to neglect because of its often misunderstood and hard story, happens to be the place my heart finds peace.
I feel like I grew up all around this city. I went to Edgemont Elementary, Clark Jr. High School, and East Saint Louis Senior High School. I even pride myself in saying I went to Dunbar Elementary for a year. If you’re not from East St. Louis, you may not know this, but in conversations with other people from the city, everyone feels like they prove “how East St. Louis they are” by naming schools they went to. It’s our special way of “checking the box”, making sure a person is legit if they say they’re from the city.
I went to so many schools growing up, and because of that, many people from East St. Louis know me and are familiar with my status as an Olympic medalist and champion. However, it’s important to understand my journey towards achieving this accomplishment did not come easy.
After graduating from UCLA I knew going to the Olympics and winning was my ultimate goal. I had been training under Bobby Kersee for 4 years at UCLA and because of the high intensity of my training, I was confident I would be able to make it to the next level in my sport (at least until I experienced post-college training with this same coach).
Once I graduated all the safety nets were gone and it was time to enter the “real world” and “put up or shut up”. Participating in the events leading up to and actually going to the Olympics takes a tremendous amount of effort and money. Financially, I had no backing but thankfully, I did have people that believed in me.
My coach Bobby agreed to coach me for free and I believe that is what we commonly call “God’s favor”. It was His (God’s) way of letting me know He was with me. I could sense Him saying to me, even though it wasn’t easy, “I am here”.
God’s favor along and my determination to work 3 jobs with the flexibility to maintain my training schedule was a part of my plan to get where I wanted to go. I can remember this decision to work 3 jobs had my father upset and confused. He wondered why, with my earning a prestigious degree, I would choose this path. I told him I had a plan and that I was working on that plan, diligently.
Additionally, during my journey, I was faced with daily challenges that caused me to ask myself, “why would I EVER think I could be good enough to win the Olympics?” A huge example of this mental battle was the competition I faced in my own training group. There were three amazing 100-meter hurdlers (which is my particular event). Our team had the defending Olympic Champion, a two-time World Champion, the collegiate record holder, and then little old me. In case you aren’t familiar with how Team USA works in Track and Field, there are only 3 hurdlers allowed and yet, there were 4 on our team. How could I believe in my goal with that being my reality every day? Ultimately, though, God would prove himself to be faithful.
I continued to face setback after setback in my training but God would always show up in some way. His faithfulness became even more clear when I was faced with the fact that I needed to have knee surgery 4 months before the Olympic trials. I was devastated that I needed to have knee surgery.
I sat in the doctor’s office stunned while he walked out. I gave myself one minute to cry and ask God why. I asked, “haven’t I been through enough”? “Could I handle this”? You have to know that it's ok to be sad about something and to shed a tear but the key is to not remain in that place. I refused to act like something traumatic didn’t just happen to me. I truly felt like my dream was being taken from me.
I allowed myself to question, be frustrated and reflect on all the hard things that resulted from this news. I needed to release it. After that minute was up I said the “pity party” was over and I had no time for second-guessing my determination to reach my goal. I decided the only way I wouldn’t make this team was if I gave up on myself. I truly believed God had given me a gift in my athletic ability and talent, and I refused to waste it. I wanted to see how far I could go with this.
Of course, I had moments when I felt overwhelmed but that’s when I say my support system of people was extremely important. My prayer life and connection with God were vital. I talked to God ALL the time. I would joke and say to Him, “This is the path you have for me huh, ok?” I still say that now to God. Let me be clear, I hung on to God’s Word in Hebrews 13:5 when it says, “He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (NKJV).
Ultimately, I ended up achieving my goal of being an Olympian and I was a gold medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and silver medalist in the 2021 London Olympic Games. My FAITH is what got me through so many days and situations that seemed impossible. I didn’t give up because I refused to look back and have to ask myself, “man, God gave me a gift and I wonder how far I could have gone?”
Another scripture I would like to share is Psalm 91: 7 “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (NIV). My aunt wrote me a letter with this scripture in it, gave it to me, and while I was at the Olympics, I had it with me. It helped me know I belonged, I was safe, and God saw me. I was finally in a place that I longed to be. This scripture kept my success in perspective. I was settled in this truth. If
God gave me a gift, orchestrated my story, allowed me to overcome many obstacles, and arrive at the Olympics, then I belong and I don’t have to question not one thing. I just get to run and be free.
My advice to anyone reading this short slice of my journey would be to have FAITH, walk with God, and be free. Your path may not always seem straight, but you can reach where He’s trying to take you if you depend on Him.
Photo's by: Mena Darre