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Mississippi’s man of gold shines

[8/31/04]The dew on the grass would just begin to evaporate in the summer morning heat when Otis Harris’ shoes came stomping across in front of the rusted bleachers.

Harris once practiced his running by sprinting up, down and around the football field at Hinds AHS in Utica. Hinds had no track for Harris to prepare for his meets, but that never stopped him.

He worked tirelessly to improve himself, even from the start of his career in ninth grade. Little did that skinny high schooler know the path would lead to the Athens Summer Olympics just eight years later.

“As a small-town kid from Edwards, Mississippi, and going to a high school that didn’t have a track for us to practice on, for me to go from there to the Olympics is definitely a dream come true,” Harris said.

The son of minister Otis Harris Sr., he was taught the value of hard work and dedication from a young age. He was part of a tight-knit family of five in a town of just more than 1,000 located about 20 miles east of Vicksburg.

Harris, now a senior at the University of South Carolina, takes pride in his family as much as he does his spirituality. Prior to the 400-meter dash in Athens a week ago, Harris knelt in prayer with fellow American medalists Jeremy Wariner and Derrick Brew.

“I understand that it takes more than just hard work and determination to get someplace,” Harris said. “A lot of people say luck, but I don’t really believe in luck. I just believe that if you trust and believe in God and you work hard, that he will bless you and help you reach your goals.”

The trio then broke the huddle with a yell of “U-S-A” and headed to the start line. Once the gun went off, Harris broke out to the early lead.

“I figured if he was leading beyond the 300 mark, he’d probably win it because his strength is in the second 200,” said former Hinds AHS track coach James Battle, who has watched the race several times since.

Curtis Frye, Harris’ track coach at South Carolina, attended the Olympics as the women’s assistant track coach. He worked with Harris before the race to come up with a game plan of pressing around the turn when most 400 runners relax their pace.

“When he came off the turn and accelerated up the straight, I thought (Wariner) would break at that point because they’re not accustomed to running that hard there,” Frye said.

But Wariner would not relent, passing Harris and finishing with the gold medal. Harris placed second just .16 seconds behind and Brew took third for an American sweep.

Harris said he has no regrets about taking home a silver medal.

“When we came out, I just knew that those guys were going to get medals,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the guy that didn’t get a medal. That’s what I used as my motivation, and that helped me not get nervous. Because I knew when they shot that gun, I was going to go and get mine.”

The trio, along with Darold Williamson, blew away the field on Saturday to take the gold medal in the 4-by-400 relay.

With a pair of Olympic medals already around his neck, Harris plans to compete in several races in Europe in the coming month before returning home in October. Awaiting him will be a parade and a meeting with the governor as the state’s only Olympic athlete.

“That’s the most rewarding feeling, I think, to be from the area and represent Mississippi, represent the state that I’m from. I’m so proud of Mississippi,” Harris said. “Sometimes the state is overlooked, so I just love to get out there and say, Hey, I’m from Edwards, Mississippi, and I came here to represent the people back home.'”

It’s been a long road for Harris.

He won the Class 2A state championship in the 100-meter dash as a junior at Hinds AHS in 1999. He followed that in the summer with the first of two gold medals in the 400 at the Junior National Olympics.

“He’s a special kid,” said Battle, who coached the War Dawgs to three consecutive state championships while Harris was on the team.

Battle, who retired in 2003, said now he’ll get to brag about his former runner.

“As a high school coach, you can look around Mississippi and you can say, How many high school coaches got a silver medalist?'” he said with a laugh. “Not a whole lot of them now. It’s pretty special.”

Harris turned his running prowess into a track scholarship from the University of South Carolina. He wanted to stay in the Southeastern Conference, and he hit it off with Frye.

“He wanted a Christian background, he wanted a family-oriented program, and he wanted a program that dealt with mile relays and would give him a chance in the quarter-mile, not the 800,” Frye said. “We were far enough away, but close enough that he could grow.”

Both Frye and Harris said he got better each year he was at South Carolina. Harris won the SEC title in the 400 last season and finished as the NCAA runner-up in the event.

“He’s improved as a person, as a runner. He’s improved his leadership and his spirituality,” Frye said. “All areas of his life have improved.”

In July, Harris competed in the U.S. Track and Field Trials and finished second to Wariner to qualify for the trip to Athens a trip he’ll now treasure for the rest of his life.

“I’m just thankful for what God has brought me in the last year,” Harris said. “Running earlier this year, a lot of people would have seen me and thought, This guy is not going to be a medalist.’ It’s definitely a blessing, and I’m just happy to go out there and do what I did.”