A determined Kori Carter was the surprise winner of the 400-meter hurdles at the world championships last year. Photo courtesy of USATF
Kori Carter, who turns 26 in early June, is excited about her future, and her passion for hurdling isn’t waning.
Kori Carter battled back tears as she marched toward the Mixed Zone at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
The U.S. boasted a strong field of competitors in the 400-meter hurdles, and the difference between second and fourth was less than half a second. But Carter was the one on the outside looking in, as her time of 54.47 put her behind trials champion Dalilah Muhammad (52.88), Ashley Spencer (54.02) and teen sensation Sydney McLaughlin (54.15).
Only the top three qualified to represent the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I was devastated,” Carter says. “I remember going to the Mixed Zone, and I was trying to put on a brave face and do interviews. I wasn’t crying, but my body was rejecting the fact that we had failed, to the point I couldn’t breathe.”
She admittedly went into a funk for a few months, the pain so palpable she couldn’t bring herself to even watch the Olympics.
Then Carter reassessed everything and realized something.
"I missed the Olympic team by one spot, so it wasn’t like I was doing terrible,” Carter says. “(But) not making that team made me think, ‘Do you need to make some changes?’ ”
A California native who starred at Stanford, Carter enjoyed her training partners, and she appreciated being around family. But her coach at Stanford, Edrick Floréal, had accepted a position at the University of Kentucky. Given their connection, Carter believed Floréal could help her take her hurdling to another level.
“I was comfortable (in California), but I sort of got to the point where I said, ‘I can stay and be good or move and be great.’ ”
After contemplating the move with her agent, Carter immediately got a phone call from Floréal, which, in her mind, wasn’t a coincidence.
Carter made the decision on a Wednesday and was in Kentucky by Friday.
Along with other world-class athletes, Carter challenged herself to raise her proverbial game: She integrated yoga and more weightlifting into her regimen, and she altered her diet to eliminate bread and pasta. She became leaner and stronger.
She developed an especially strong friendship with Kendra "Keni" Harrison, a former 100-meter hurdles world record holder and NCAA champion at the University of Kentucky.
“I’ve been training with Kori, and we push each other,” Harrison told Excelle Sports. “We all have really high standards. We like to reach our goals, and to have such a strong group of teammates, I think that’s why we are successful. Watching them run and get their job done pushes myself to go out there and do what I can.”
Despite the adversity, Carter also continued to get support from the USA Track & Field (USATF), especially with international competition opportunities and medical assistance.
“Even when I wasn’t doing well, I felt they saw my potential and kept me in the family,” Carter says. “It would have been very easy to just count me out, given my performance.”
Carter calls Harrison, "one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever met” and insists that her friend constantly challenges her.
“She supported me every step of the way on my journey, and we hold each other accountable,” Carter says. “That was really helpful to me.”
About a year ago, at the U.S. championships, Carter finished third in the 400 hurdles and qualified for the IAAF World Championships in London. There, in a surprise finish, Carter posted a winning time of 53.07, finishing nearly a half second faster than Olympic champion Muhammad.
After the race, Carter frantically searched for her family.
“I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done that without them,” Carter says, also mentioning "Coach Flo," her agent and close friends. “You don’t get to the podium by yourself. I know I make sacrifices, but they also make sacrifices to help me get there.
“It was worth it!”
Carter, who turns 26 in early June, is excited about her future, and her passion for hurdling isn’t waning.
"I want to do this until the wheels fall off,” she says. “I think it’s such a blessing to do what I love, and people pay me and I get to travel and see new places.”
Besides, Carter has so many more goals to accomplish.
“As you mature, I get a better understanding of how to approach the race,” she says. “You have to keep putting in the work. I don’t think there’s ever a time to relax. As soon as you blink, there’s another girl running a crazy time.
"It’s always about, ‘Yes, we accomplished this, but we have to keep pushing and remember how we got here.' ”