Kenny Harrison Born: February 13, 1965 (Milwaukee, WI)
Graduated: Brookfield (WI) Central High School, 1984; Kansas State University, 1988
Fifty-nine feet, four inches… To put that in perspective, imagine standing on second base of Major League Baseball stadium and peering toward home plate. Now, imagine taking off across the field toward the pitcher’s mound and continuing on to home plate. Here’s the scenario: you have to leap at the front of the pitcher’s rubber and have three jumps to touch home plate. Could you do it? For most athletes, the imaginary situation outlined above is just that: imaginary. There are only a handful of athletes who have ever approached such a feat in the history of track and field. And 2015 Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Inductee Kenny Harrison’s name is at the top of the list.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harrison was a natural born athlete. His time in Kansas helped develop that natural talent even further. Recruited to Kansas State University as a triple jump and long jump specialist, Harrison didn’t disappoint once he stepped on campus.
It didn’t take long for Harrison to become one of the most decorated track athletes in K-State history as Harrison racked up All-American selections in both the long jump and triple jump in his freshman indoor season. He racked up another five All-American selections in both events in indoor track and added four All-American selections in outdoor track during his K-State career. Harrison won three NCAA National Championships, including the indoor long jump in 1986 and the indoor triple jump in 1988, and he became the first Wildcat to win an outdoor NCAA National Championship since 1970 when he won the outdoor triple jump in 1986. Harrison added seven Big 8 outdoor championships in the two events before graduating when he turned his attention to professional training in the triple jump.
The triple jump is an especially difficult sport to master. What seems as easy as a hop, a skip, and a jump, is extremely difficult when put into practice. And, the difficulty is magnified when tasked with doing the feat at an elite, world-class level. The grueling task of one legged take-offs and landings are especially hard on athlete’s bodies, as Harrison can attest to.
During the height of his professional career during the 1991 season, Harrison was ranked number one in the world in the triple jump and had his sights set on Olympic gold in 1992. But, the punishing nature of triple jump sidelined Harrison right as he was hitting his stride. In 1991, he suffered a fatigue fracture to his left shin. The next year, Harrison was injured entering the U.S. Olympic trials with a damaged left knee and back pain, which kept him on the sideline for the 1992 games.
The setbacks and injuries only fueled Harrison’s fire as his set his eyes on Olympic gold again in 1996. During the Olympic trials, Harrison dominated fellow American and one of his chief rivals for Olympic gold, Mike Conley, by nearly half a meter on his way to winning the meet. Harrison’s domination continued when he arrived in Atlanta for the Olympics and this time, nothing was going to get in the way of his ultimate goal.
Winning his qualifying group by nearly half a meter, Harrison only needed one attempt in qualifying to make the finals. In the finals, he performed masterfully. Harrison’s first jump in the finals of 17.99 meters was good enough to win the gold, but Harrison finished out his jumps and rewrote Olympic history. With flawless technique on this third jump in the finals, Harrison hurled his way down the runway and exploded off his left leg. He seemed to glide through the air between both his first and second jumps before once again blasting off his, this time on his right foot, into the pit of sand. Following a perfect landing, Harrison pumped both fists and let out a primal yell. He knew what he had accomplished was something special.
Of the 55 triple jump attempts for the Olympic finals in 1996, only nine managed to exceed seventeen meters. Kenny Harrison had the top two marks and his jump of 18.09 meters (59 feet, four inches) broke both the American record and the Olympic record set by Harrison’s rival, Mike Conley, four years earlier in Harrison’s absence. Harrison’s jump in Atlanta was good enough for second in the history of the triple jump where it remains today.
Few athletes in the world have approached the accomplishments of Kenny Harrison and his runway to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame was far from smooth. But, through sheer will and determination to be his absolute best, Kenny Harrison placed his name alongside some track’s all-time greats and today, alongside the all-time greats from the state of Kansas.