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East St. Louis native, Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper Nelson returns home to inspire youth

After retiring in 2018, Dawn Harper-Nelson moved back to the region to expand her family. She said she knew months into her pregnancy that she was not done with track.
File Photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Dawn Harper Nelson returns to St. Louis after retiring from her running career and aims to connect to people through her speaking engagements.

As a pre-teen, Dawn Harper Nelson dared to dream of being among the top runners competing in the Olympic Games.

“As a young kid, I knew that I did want to step outside of East St. Louis and see what I was made of, and compare myself to the rest of the world,” Harper Nelson told host Don Marsh on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. In her Olympic career, she became a gold and silver medalist.

She recently relocated to O’Fallon, Illinois, after retiring from her sport – and brought back her achievements with her, most notably the gold Olympic medal she won in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

“I refuse to lock [the gold medal] away just yet, because I love to bring it out and let people see it, take pictures with it, wear it – I won it for us all,” she said.

Women in sports

Harper Nelson addressed issues facing women in sports, referencing unequal treatment in pay, penalties and the stigma associated with women’s behaviors during the game. Marsh asked her about Serena Williams’ recent outburst during the U.S. Open, and Harper Nelson said that while she understands the coach’s job, it was an example of how women are treated harsher for showing their anger during the sport. 

“The thought of [women] needing to be ‘lady-like’ when we’re [competing] needs to go out the window,” she said. “I’m an athlete right now; I’m not worried about your feelings. I’m going to do it the right way, as in not cheat, but if I’m going to grimace and scream and have these grunts and look stronger than my opponent, I should not be judged.”

Activism and athleticism

When it comes to expressing political beliefs while playing a sport, Harper Nelson said that as long as an athlete is not harming anyone or taking away from the game, they should be able to do so freely. She emphasized that athletes are still human, even with their uniform on.

“When I put on this uniform to play, I don’t think that I necessarily put aside everything that I believed right before I put on the uniform,” Harper Nelson added. “When the whistle blows or the gun goes off in my race, I’m giving you everything that I have.

“I don’t think that you should penalize me or say, ‘Keep your mouth shut, you’re not human right now, you don’t have any voice’ – and it’s like, but I do.”

Coming home

After running around her entire career, Harper Nelson said she’s now “trying to be lazy and do nothing for a while” as she readjusts to life in St. Louis. But she still plans to travel for her speaking engagements and aims to inspire youth and others.

She emphasized that giving a genuine effort to achieving her goals led to her happiness.

“If you want to listen, I have something I want to say to you,” Harper Nelson said with regard to her speaking engagements. “Athletics has given me the life that I’ve afforded to live, but the journey behind it can touch people that have never competed before … it’s so much about overcoming obstacles, being knocked down and saying, ‘If I stay here, I will never be all that I’ve been called to be.’”

On Thursday, she will be a guest speaker at the Aha Women’s Speaker Series, which highlights women’s achievements in the region.

What: Aha Women’s Speaker Series
When: 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4
Where: Stifel Theatre, 1400 Market St., St. Louis

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.