When her hamstring tore, it sounded like the pop of a firecracker. It felt like a gunshot.
It happened at the 100-meter hurdles semifinal of the 2008 Olympic Trials. On Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, Kellie Wells stood in lane four, her teammate and friend Damu Cherry to her right in lane five. Eight athletes took their marks. Set. Go. (Search: 2008 Olympic Trials)
Wells exploded off the blocks with her characteristic grunt. Other hurdlers screamed. They all covered the 13 meters to the first hurdle in exactly eight steps. Wells attacked the first hurdle tied for first, extending her right leg parallel to the ground, driving her upper body forward and down, skimming the top of the 33-inch-high barrier. She snapped her right foot to the ground and whipped off the 8.5 meters to the next hurdle in three steps. The athletes were close enough to touch fingers, hook hands. By the fourth hurdle Wells was alone in first place, devouring the space between barriers to open a slight lead.
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A hurdles race is about rhythm. Three steps-attack, three steps-attack. All that matters is how fast you take those three steps. When she reached hurdles 8, 9, and 10, Wells felt a downhill sensation take over. At such speed, her eyes played tricks on her. Each hurdle appeared so fast, there seemed barely room to clear it. Three steps-attack, three steps-attack. After hurdle 10, there were just 10.5 meters—five steps—to the finish line. But hurdlers cannot simply race to the line. The depth of American women hurdlers is so great and the margins of victory so slim they must hurtle themselves through it, leaning at such a pitch that they can topple into somersaults. Wells threw her head and shoulders forward and crossed the line in second place behind Cherry. Steps after the line, she looked up at the clock. Not only had she qualified for the finals, but she had also run 12.58 seconds, a PR by .13 seconds, huge in a sport where the world record is 12.21.
Wells slowed down, ecstatic. And that’s when she heard it. The sound of a grade-three hamstring tear, a complete rupture of the muscle. She collapsed, writhing with pain as her right leg cramped. Medics rushed out. They tried to straighten the leg, get her to stand, to walk. Please God, it hurts too much. They loaded her onto a stretcher and sent her to the ER. No, I have to run! During the MRI, the technician piped in the results of the final: Lolo Jones, Damu Cherry, and Dawn Harper were going to Beijing.
After the scan, Wells lay on a hospital bed while the doctor delivered his verdict. Her injury was so severe she may never run again. If she did run, it was unlikely she’d ever run fast.
Is this a joke?
The track had been her refuge, her friend, her mate since childhood. Through all the horror, it had been there for her. Had it finally betrayed her?
Kellie Wells, 29, does not have a professional hurdler’s body. When she lines up at events, she’s easy to pick out; she’s the small one. At 5'4" and 125 pounds, she is shorter and lighter than most of her competitors, who typically stand at least 5'5". Her lithe frame is muscular, tight, and without a trace of fat, but to the uninitiated seems fitting more for a dancer than an attack machine. But that’s exactly what she is.
She is one of many. Though she captured both the Indoor and Outdoor Championships in a breakout 2011 performance, when Kellie Wells takes the blocks in Eugene this June for the Olympic Trials, she will be testing herself, and her repaired hamstring, against one of the strongest fields in history. The women’s hurdles is stacked with talent that includes Lolo Jones, winner of the 2008 Trials; Dawn Harper, 2008 Olympic gold medalist; and Danielle Carruthers, second in the 2011 World Championships. “We’ve never had this depth in the women’s 100-meter hurdles,” says Gail Devers, 45, two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter sprint, multiple world champion in the 100-meter hurdles, and self-professed grandmother of women’s hurdling. “We are six, seven, eight deep, and unfortunately, only three can make the team. The field is wide open—it’s going to be an all-out battle of who’s on it that day.”
But other than size, there is something else that separates Kellie Wells from the other machines. Raw emotion. The excitement of a kid. When she wins, she screams and jumps and falls and pops up again and hugs TV reporters. “She runs with her heart every time she steps on the track,” says Devers. “Sometimes she leaves it on the track, but every meet she does her best, and that touches the heartstrings.”
When Kellie Wells takes the blocks in Eugene this June for the Olympic Trials, many running fans will be rooting for her redemption. Should she win, they will undoubtedly be swept up in the excitement that Wells will express.