Update - June 14, 2015: Harrison won the NCAA 100m hurdles and claimed Silver in the 400m hurdles on Saturday.
Kendra Harrison isn't just a world-class hurdler. She's a "hurdles nerd."
Those are the words of her coach, Edrick Floreal, who uses the term affectionately.
After all, he coached her to the NCAA 60-meter hurdles Championship indoors in March, the 100m hurdles title this weekend and the two now have their sights trained on historic goals in the coming weeks and months.
For his part, Floreal is a world-class hurdles coach. He guided Amaechi Morton to the 2012 NCAA 400m hurdles Title, he recruited and worked with Kori Carter --!the 2013 NCAA Champion and now one of the world's top 400m hurdlers -- and he once coached LaVonna Martin: the 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist. Now his wife.
Said accomplishments barely scratch the surface of Floreal's achievements. And while his credentials when it comes to coaching hurdles are tough to match, Harrison could become his greatest pupil yet.
She added some evidence to support the argument this past weekend as she led UK to a school-record NCAA Runner-up team finish on Saturday. Harrison won the short hurdles -- completing an undefeated NCAA season indoors and out in short hurdles race -- and claimed the Silver Medal in the 400m hurdles with a historically fast time.
Floreal describes her as a nerd for the hurdles because her hunger to better understand her craft is unmatched in his experience.
"Keni (Harrison's nickname) is sort of a 'nerd' in the hurdles," Floreal said. "Most athletes just want to hurdle and get it over with, but she's interested in the science of it. Learning and asking a lot of questions.
"Sometimes as a coach you find athletes who are like-minded. Keni wants to get into the science of hurdling. She's constantly asking me to teach her not just how to hurdle, but how to maneuver the hurdles. How to deal with all the variables that come up in an already complicated endeavor.
"I get a lot of texts late at night from her asking about things like the position of her trail leg. That's not the typical behavior of a 18-to-22-year-old, even among athletes, but it speaks to Keni's commitment to her craft."
The duo has been working together for two seasons, after Harrison spent the first two years of her college career at Clemson. There, she trained with reigning 100-meter hurdles World Champion and collegiate-record holder Brianna Rollins.
Harrison was plenty decorated as a Tiger, but she's reached stratospheric heights since becoming a Wildcat.
"Coach Flo and I just have a special connection," Harrison said. "We have a similar demeanor. He's a quiet man and I'm sort of the same. We view the sport through a similar lens.
"He knows what I'm thinking and we work well together. We spend a lot of time watching film and talking about hurdling as well as actual training on the track."
A multi-time All-American at Clemson, since arriving in Lexington before the 2013-14 season she's won an NCAA title, five Southeastern Conference Championships and become the third-fastest hurdler in NCAA history in both the 60-meter hurdles and 100-meter hurdles.
But a similarly important, albeit unexpected, milestone in Harrison's development was a preseason injury last winter. She did not compete in 2015 until the SEC Championships, where she opened with the collegiate-leading time en route to repeating as the Conference 60-meter hurdles champion.
"She couldn't train for almost two months while her hamstring healed and she improved her flexibility," Floreal said. "We decided 'if you can't run over hurdles, you're going to watch a ton of film so you can understand the event better.'
"When she did come back it was like a light had gone off. She had to break down everything she knew to uncover a level she never thought she could reach."
The results indicate that the break from training was important. Her immersion in studying hurdling -- while not actually practicing -- allowed her to exploit what Floreal might lovingly call her "nerd tendencies."
But the way Harrison has hurdled in 2015, she might better be referred to as amazing or something similar.
Harrison is the world's second-fastest woman (the top-ranked amateur) in the 100-meter hurdles this season, ahead of decorated professionals like her former training partner Rollins. Those two will likely compete against one another -- and a loaded field of world-class American hurdlers -- for a place on the World Championships team later in June, but for now Harrison in focused on an attempt at NCAA history.
But off a second straight NCAA Silver in the 400m hurdles, Harrison isn't lacking for motivation as she now sets her sights on the United States Championships and World Championships Trials later this month.
With a new NCAA Championships schedule aimed at enhancing excitement for the television audience, Harrison proved she's a gamer. With just 35 minutes to rest between her win in the 100-meter hurdles and the start of the 400-meter hurdles, she ran a PR in the long hurdles -- considered by many to be track and field's most excruciating event.
Only Virginia Tech's Queen Harrison has won the 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles at the same NCAA Championships (2010).
"I don't think people realize how tough that is," Floreal said. "In the history of track one woman has one woman has won both and she had four days to do it. Kendra came within a couple tenths of a second of winning both with 35 minutes rest."
Harrison has indicated she will pick one event to run at the USA Championships, although she's open to running both in the future.
"When I'm fresh who knows what will happen?," she said. "Going into USAs I'm going to pick one event so my focus is going to be sharp."
In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Jared Philips writes about the group's arrival in Ethiopia.
By Jared Phillips
Today's the day. We are traveling to Ethiopia! Our team got up early and headed to the airport where waiting in lines, flight delays and confiscation of necessary items at security awaited us. However, we were all incredibly excited for this trip, so these events were merely slight bumps in the road.
We boarded our nearly 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa shortly after noon in Washington, D.C., and finally touched down on a cloudy, cool morning at Bole International Airport at roughly 9:30 a.m. local time. Our team's exhaustion quickly turned into exhilaration after landing in what was a novel experience for all of us but Jason (Schlafer, the senior associate athletic director accompanying student-athletes): Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Made it safely to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with a full day ahead of us! #UKtoEthiopia
Surprisingly quickly, we made it through customs, picked up our baggage, and walked out of the terminal. I got a taste of how kind the Ethiopian people are when a lady stopped me as our team was leaving the terminal and personally welcomed me to Addis Ababa; it was rather touching to see someone as welcoming as she was. As soon as we were outside, we were in awe what was before us: a mixture of nature and urban life stretching for miles and miles. The weather was nice and cool compared to Lexington, and the mass of cars in the airport parking lot awaited us. We met up with Mark, who would be leading us around to the various places on the trip, and Nikki, our photographer for the week and departed for our guesthouse.
Immediately, our group got to witness the poverty and crowdedness that characterize the cities of third-world countries. People were everywhere: walking in the streets, begging and trying to sell numerous goods, and crammed into blue and white vans that served as taxis for the city. Upscale buildings stood next to tiny tin shacks, and rudimentary slabs of concrete under construction littered the landscape before us. The traffic was organized chaos, as cars, trucks, and vans would come and go with not a stop sign or traffic light in sight. We arrived at the Addis Guesthouse, across from a field where tents of cloth, towels, and mud sprung up from the ground. We met two of the local guys that would be assisting us this week, Girma and Wario, who dropped our luggage off in our rooms, and we soon departed for our first visit.
As our driver navigated through the Addis traffic, Mark explained to us that the neighborhood we would visit is mainly occupied by widows and their children, and that we would be giving them bags of coffee and sugar and mattresses, complete with sheets and a blanket. We arrived outside a community center and made our way in through a metal gate with barbed wire, a common scene in Addis. What happened next absolutely floored me. As soon as the widows and children saw us, they welcomed us with such warmth and love, peppering us with hugs and kisses. The joy evident on their faces was contagious. After a few hugs, I could not help but beam with joy simply being in their presence.
We hastily made our way into the community center where everyone sat in a circle and each member of our team was introduced to much applause. The women sang worship songs with clapping and rejoicing, and even though none of our group could understand what was being sung, it was a pretty neat experience. Several women then proceeded to share their testimony of how their sponsorship through the program that Mark is in charge of has completely changed their lives by giving them food to eat and providing for their children's healthcare and education. In everything these women thanked God for what they had, and it struck a chord with me: I complain about my phone being slow sometimes, yet these women are so thankful for the very little they have. Such incredible conviction.
Afterward, we handed out bags of coffee and sugar to these women, who thanked us profusely for them. We also managed to give out mattresses and sheets to the women who needed replacements. We then got to spend time with one another, meeting each other and playing with the kids. One woman, Tonga, pulled me aside and continued to thank the group and me for coming to visit them and eagerly introduced me to her daughter. She kept telling me how we were such a blessing to them and how grateful she was for the things we handed out. Although it felt good to provide for these people's physical needs, I was humbled by her gratitude and thankful to her for how loving and gracious the hearts of the widows are. I got the joy of hanging out with some of these kids and seeing their faces light up when Montana handed out some chocolate.
Two of these children I will remember forever: Biniyam, a 13-year-old boy, and Doriba, his 10-year-old sister. We bonded immediately and Haley and I got to carry their mattress back to their house. It was fantastic seeing these children who had nearly nothing, yet were so joyful and free of burdens. Walking through the neighborhood, we saw some houses that were pretty decent for their standards, but as we got closer we saw things for what they were. In the garages and backyards of these people, we saw widows and children in makeshift homes. Once we reached Biniyam's home, he invited us inside and showed us around. The house was no bigger than my bedroom at the guesthouse, yet they kept saying how big it was and were so proud of their belongings. These people are so thankful for the very little they have, and I was yet again floored at their attitude; we may have comfort in America, but the joy that these people have is a treasure very much worth looking for and guarding with your life.
We returned to the community center from Biniyam's house for a lunch of fried egg sandwiches and sodas, then left to go deliver laptops to some of Mark's friends and pick up supplies for his children. The area we were in, as Wario noted, is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Addis, yet it was not exactly middle-class America. Even something as subtle as being in a nice area of Addis rocked me. It was continued evidence that comfort and possessions do not equal joy, and possibly the absence of comfort and possessions (or the absence of finding your value in these things) contributes to the joy that people have.
Once we dropped off the laptops, we left to go exchange our American dollars for Ethiopian birr and we stopped by the "Starbucks of Ethiopia:" Kaldi's Coffee. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my coffee and I'm a big fan of the local coffee shops we have in Lexington, but nothing has come close to what I had today. The coffee is so rich that it doesn't need any creamer, sugar or anything fancy. These Ethiopians know their coffee! After the coffee shop, we returned to the guesthouse to eat dinner and retire for the night, exhausted after a long yet rewarding day in Addis Ababa.
The University of Kentucky Athletics Department has obviously enjoyed one of its best seasons in history across all sports. Recent news has confirmed that the Wildcats are also enjoying tremendous success in the classroom.
At the heart of that success has been UK's innovative and nationally renowned Center for Academic and Tutorial Services.
One staff member at CATS has recently raked in a number of prestigious honors for his hard work, and the Wildcats' subsequent academic success.
The awards have gone to someone staff members across the UK Athletics Department couldn't consider more deserving.
With the renown, the praise for Mike Pirrman has now extended beyond UK to multiple academic advising professional organizations.
"Mike Pirrman is an incredibly caring person who puts the well-being of the student-athletes he advises above all else," Associate Athletics Director for Student Services Bob Bradley said. "Mike realizes that someday their athletic exploits will come to an end and that the quality of their educational experience will be of utmost importance to their future success. He takes their post-college quality of life very serious."
Pirrman, who serves as academic advisor for six teams within the cross country/track and field program, was honored earlier this semester as the recipient of the 20th annual University of Kentucky Ken Freedman Outstanding Professional Advisor Award.
The award recognizes outstanding service in the field of academic advising.
In addition, Pirrman was awarded the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Region 3 Excellence in Advising Award.
His accolades did not extend to just regional and state honors; he received a Certificate of Merit from the national division of NACADA.
The awards come as recognition for the hard work Pirrman has put in, which extends far beyond normal 9-5 hours. Such commitments come with the territory of advising college students, but still his efforts -- which go above and beyond those expected of an everyday professional -- have not go unnoticed by UK track and field and cross country head coach Edrick Floreal.
Floreal is known as a demanding coach when it comes to athletes' training, but his high standards also extend to the classroom. Thus he brings Pirrman on many of the team's road trips, which often occur at key points during the academic year.
Pirrman holds study halls in team hotels throughout those trips, sacrificing many a weekend during the year on behalf of the student-athletes he advises.
That sacrifice of possible personal time, and the positive results that time has had on many multiple Wildcats it not lost on Floreal.
But the influence of Pirrman's time and effort on the well-being of UK student-athletes are just beginning to be adequately documented.
"Mike's impact on the teams are supported by numbers that stand on their own," Floreal said. "Just look at the women's cross country team's perfect 1000 score in Academic Progress Rate. The women's indoor and outdoor track and field, and men's cross country all exceeded the national average in terms of APR. Also our women's cross country team's GPA was 3.667 GPA, which helped the entire athletic department to its best academic semester since 2002-03.
"His commitment to our team, student athletes and staff is always evident in the numbers that reach far beyond our student-athletes' four years at UK. It is something they will carry for a lifetime."
Other examples Pirrman's commitments are reflected in academic successes by the likes Chelsea Oswald.
Oswald graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the 2012-13 Boyd McWhorter Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award as the Southeastern Conference's top student-athlete achieving success in the classroom and in competition. Oswald won the SEC 5,000 and 10,000-meter Championships in the 2012-13 year, also claiming three All-America honors.
"I've been given a great opportunity here at UK and I've just tried my hardest every day to make the most of it," Oswald said upon receiving the McWhorter award. "This award recognizes not only my achievements, but also all the great people, like Mike Pirrman, who have helped me along the way."
Luis Orta, meanwhile, was selected to give the commencement address at the University's 2012 December Graduation Ceremony. The Caracas, Venezuela native graduated with a dual degree in international studies and Hispanic studies.
Orta's journey to graduation was one of the greatest testaments to Pirrman's role in guiding student-athletes from enrollment to graduation.
In his first semester at UK, Orta successfully navigated a full
course load even though he was only just learning English. Along the way, he broke three freshman records in competition. During his four years, Orta developed academically, so much so that he was the commencement speaker.
At graduation as well as during an acceptance speech for the "Mr. Wildcat" award at the 2013 CATSPY Awards, Orta expressed his gratitude for the guidance Pirrman had provided, and in fluent English to boot.
"Last year I got this award and I forgot to mention Mike Pirrman," Orta said in 2013. "I have to thank him so much. Four years ago, I had the great fortune to come to this country and pursue my dreams. It's thanks to him and my teammates that I was able to get through my first year even though I didn't speak English. I ended up graduating with honors and a double SEC Champion, and it's just been a blessing."
Only one Wildcat, however, did something that Edrick Floreal simply couldn't explain.
"What Ally Peare did, that's just unheard of," Floreal said.
Within 90 minutes, Peare in ran in the finals of both the 1500m and 800m. To make things even more difficult, she had to qualify for the two grueling races in the preceding 48 hours.
The challenge is so great, in fact, that Floreal hesitates to even ask a student-athlete to face it.
"That's one of my greatest fears, to put somebody in the eight and 15, because the second one is always kind of god awful," Floreal said. "The kid is so lactic acid loaded up."
Defying biology, Peare managed second-place finishes in both. She tallied 16 points for her team, playing an important role as the UK women placed fourth, their best finish at SECs since 1983.
"It was a really great weekend for me," Peare said. "It's been really exciting and I'm just glad I was able to score a lot of points for the team."
Knowing the nature of the double, the coaching staff adjusted their projections for Peare's point-scoring down a bit entering the weekend. The senior, however, wasn't having any of it.
"I was only expected to score nine points," Peare said. "I even talked to Coach and I was like, 'I think I can score more than that.' "
She nearly eclipsed nine in her first race, finishing with a school-record time of 4:15.14 in the 1500. Afterward, women's distance coach Hakon DeVries pulled her aside to strategize for the 800.
"I had a lot of confidence in myself from Coach DeVries," Peare said. "He told me beforehand, that going into the 800, five other girls were coming back from the double of the 15. He said, 'I believe you can run 2:04.' "
Her time? 2:04.13.
Peare surged to the finish, nipping Georgia's Megan Malasarte by a mere tenth of a second.
"I thought, 'Man, no way you can come back after that 15 and do that.' " Floreal said. "And then when they took off in 57 (seconds through 400 meters), I thought, 'So much for us.' And then all of a sudden this little gal kept coming and then kept coming and then kicked in the home stretch. You're not supposed to be able to kick after running a 15. Your legs are not supposed to respond. I'm just so impressed."
For a little added perspective on Peare's feat, you needn't look any further than her UK teammate Keffri Neal. The junior won the 1500 and attempted the same double Peare pulled off, but finished eighth to account for 11 points. It was a more than respectable effort, but only makes Peare's all the more impressive.
"It takes a strong physical body and a strong personality as well," Neal said. "Maybe I'm not at that level yet but I'm trying to get there. She's a very good runner and I'm happy that she could run that fast."
Her coach, clearly, felt the same way.
With the women finishing fourth and the men coming in sixth -- their best SEC outdoor finish since 1996 -- the Cats turned in the clearest proof yet of the program's progress under Floreal. True to his nature, Floreal had already moved on to the next step when asked about it.
"Obviously the biggest trophy you get is the one you get at the NCAA," Floreal said. "We want to get ready for that and then position ourselves to do as best as we can and hopefully be a podium team at the NCAA. That's the goal of a program. That's what's going to define us."
Peare is on board, but she has so more immediate concerns to tend to first.
"I'm going to sleep very well tonight after I get a very good meal," she said.
Andrew Evans won his second SEC discus title in three years on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Before the Southeastern Conference Championships, Edrick Floreal and his Kentucky coaching staff sketched out how they expected the meet to go. They went event by event, assigning points based on how they thought each athlete would perform.
Then the athletes had a choice. They could either hear how many points they were expected to score or go into the weekend blind.
The former option, in Floreal's eyes, was the better one.
"You've gotta be able to embrace that pressure," Floreal said. "When somebody tells me, 'I don't want to know what you expect from me,' that's not very good. I want them to make the decision."
For senior discus thrower Andrew Evans, the decision was easy.
"The team has expectations of us," Evans said. "They asked us if we wanted to know what expectations they had for us in points and discus was (to score) 10 (points). So I knew they wanted me to get it done."
And get it done he did. Evans won the second SEC title of his career, turning in a throw of 64.09 meters/210-3 on his final attempt in front of a large crowd there to watch a loaded discus final.
"We initially had the throwing set up on the infield, which is kind of absent the crowd right on top of you," Evans said. "Then we moved it to the outside throwing facility where everybody's right on top of you and expectations are right on top of you as well."
His coach's expectations were far from the only ones Evans had to shoulder competing Saturday in front of his home fans.
Just two weeks ago, Evans won National Athlete of the Week honors after his throw of 66.37m/217-9 at the Tennessee Challenge. The mark is the best in the NCAA this season and third best in the world this year, but brought with it the pressure to back up that "magical moment," as Floreal called it.
"You have to be able to perform when people expect you to do it," Floreal said. "I'm really happy that Andrew was able to get it done with all the pressure. Everybody that was over there, they expected one thing: Andrew Evans to win the discus. And he fought off the demons and delivered the goods in a big way."
Emerging atop a field that featured three of the top four throwers in the country, Evans received his gold medal from former discus national champion and UK alum Rashaud Scott. With his nation-leading throw two weeks ago, Evans took over the school record from Scott, who graduated in 2009.
"Rashaud and I are good pals," Evans said. "He let me have it when I took his record, so we just kind of go back and forth."
Scott started a streak of five consecutive SEC discus titles for UK athletes in 2008, a streak Evans continued in 2012 but ended a year ago when he finished second. In his final home meet, Evans is happy to restart the streak and continue a Wildcat tradition.
"It feels good to win again and bring it back to Kentucky, because Kentucky is such a storied discus school," Evans said. "Hopefully we can use my results to bring in big discus recruits to keep making the program better."
If his younger teammates can mimic the way Evans handles the weight of expectations, UK track and field will continue to blossom under Floreal.
"Being counted on, that's good," Floreal said. "You don't want to not exist. Nobody expects anything from you, who wants to live that life? I want a life where I know that people expect stuff from me. We expect you to do something here."
"My interest is having people around me that they are OK with that, they can live with that, they can stand up under it and be OK with the outcome."
Delivering when he was supposed to, Evans became UK's first 2014 SEC outdoor champion. Behind him, UK is fifth with 21 points in men's standings through three days, while the women are currently in ninth with 13.
It wasn't an ideal day -- Floreal said Saturday started without the "zeal" the Wildcats had on Friday -- but it was another step in the growth of a program.
"Like I always say, character is not what happens, but it's what happens after you get your butt kicked," Floreal said. "We lost some points, but we're going to be OK. In the end, we're still in a building stage trying to put ourselves in position. And I think we're a contender, but we're not there yet. We've still got some stuff we've gotta figure out. We still gotta get a little bit tougher, a little bit grittier."