A second chance: Olympian Danny Harris’ story of finishing his degree

ISU Olympian Danny Harris shows he still has skill in running hurdles. In 1984, the 18-year-old Harris ran in the Olympics, taking second in the 400-meter hurdles competition.

Alex Halsted

Danny Harris cannot quite describe the feeling of participating in the Olympics.

“Trying to describe what that feels like is trying to describe what it’s like to walk on the moon,” Harris said. “Unless you actually did it, it’s really hard to articulate.”

It was 1984, and at just 18 years old after his freshman year at Iowa State as a two-sport athlete in football and track, Harris found himself in Los Angeles for the Olympic Games.

Harris had been recruited to Iowa State primarily for football, and he was fast. In just his third 400-meter hurdle race during his first season, Harris broke the World Junior Record. 

At the Olympic Trials, Harris would fall to legendary 400-meter hurdle runner, Edwin Moses. 

At that point, Moses was in the midst of a 122-race winning streak. But Harris would qualify for the Olympics too and have another shot to beat his now fellow U.S. teammate. At the time, the moment was hard to believe.

“As an 18-year-old, sometimes we go into things not fully recognizing the magnitude of the situation, we just do the next thing that’s in front of us,” Harris said. “That’s what it was like for me.”

That next thing found Harris at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in that summer of 1984. The moments that followed would put Harris in awe. He remembers getting fit for his uniform, walking into the stadium and the arches of the coliseum.

Of course, Harris remembers the race. In that race, Harris would finish second again to Moses, accounting for just his second and final loss that year. But Harris, as a teenager, was standing on the podium with a silver medal in hand.

The moment was special, as Harris thought back to the people who had made his journey possible.

“That was for me and for my elementary school teachers for recognizing my athletic talent, my high school coach, my coach at Iowa State, Bill Bergan. And that moment right there I thought about all of them,” Harris said. “All those people that contributed to me to get to that moment.”

Knocking off Moses

After Harris took silver at the Olympics in 1984, he returned to Ames for his sophomore season on the football field. Prior to the game against Iowa, Harris hurt his knee.

Eventually, the decision was made that Harris should no longer player football. Instead, his focus shifted solely to track.

Through his Cyclone career, Harris won three national championships in the 400-meter hurdles, going 37-0 and never losing a collegiate match.

In 1987, Moses’ unbeaten streak in the race had stretched to 122 400-meter races. In Madrid, the two met on the track.

“My last practice that I had [before the race] was the best practice that I had ever had up to that point,” Harris said. “I ran 500 meters in 58 seconds and came back and ran 300 meters in 33 seconds and came back and ran 200 meters in I think 21 seconds.”

“Coach [Steve Lynn] looked at me and said, ‘You’re ready to run 47.5,’” Harris said. “I went out and ran 47.56.”

And finally someone — Harris — had beat Edwin Moses.

“That was a culmination of three years,” Harris said. “A lot of time spent at the Southwest Athletic Complex with Steve Lynn, a lot of strategizing, a lot of tough workouts, a lot of discipline, a lot of sweat, a lot of effort.”

Between his 37-0 collegiate career in the 400-meter hurdles, his Olympic silver and now his defeating of Moses, Harris was atop the track world. He was now well under the national spotlight.

 Times of difficulty

Now that Harris had knocked off Moses, he was a favorite for the next year’s Olympics in 1988. But prior to the qualifier, Harris hurt his knee. He would run, but finished fifth and missed the cut.

As another Olympic opportunity neared in 1992, Harris tested positive for cocaine. He was banned. After serving nearly three years of his ban he was reinstated.

When the next Olympics approached in 1996, Harris ran the world’s best 400-meter hurdle time while in Brazil. But after the race Harris tested positive for cocaine a second time and was banned from professional track for life.

“When you fall down, you have to continue to get back up. And that’s what I’ve always done,” Harris said of his difficulties. “It took a little bit longer than I would have liked, but my journey is not unique.”

In 1999, Harris was diagnosed with colon cancer. Harris would get better, and his life would begin to move in a positive direction.

 Finishing what he started

In 2008, Harris returned to Ames more than two decades after he had first arrived.

“In his particular case, he had fallen on a lot of hard times but clearly was one of the greatest athletes ever at Iowa State,” said Jamie Pollard, director of ISU Athletics. “He had an interest [in returning to Iowa State], and so we wanted to help facilitate that.”

Harris’ main focus was to finish what he had started. Previously, Harris had ended his Cyclone tenure after three seasons on the track.

“It was to finish what I started,” Harris said with a pause. “I promised my grandmother that I would graduate from college.”

Harris credits several people with helping him turn his life around and helping him get back to Iowa State. He said Pollard; Tom Hill, ISU vice president of Student Affairs; and many others played big roles.

“Our early conversations were that I wanted him to focus on the task at hand, and that was getting his degree,” Hill said. “Everything else was secondary.”

But during his time back in the Midwest, Harris also became an assistant coach for the ISU track team and helped mentor inner-city youth on staying on the right path.

In May 2010, Harris added college graduate to his achievements next to his long list of athletic accolades. He had finished what he had set out to complete.

“To have my degree from Iowa State means a lot to me, it meant everything to me, I didn’t want to take it from anywhere else,” Harris said.

Today there is no doubt Harris’s trip to Ames was well worth the several-year trip from his home in California.

“It was worth it,” Harris said. “Every second was worth it, the 1,800 miles that I drove was worth it, every day in class was worth it.”

The ISU athletic department continues to bring back former athletes like Harris to help them finish what they started. Pollard said seeing Harris and others graduate is rewarding.

“I’d say it’s neat because we talk about student athletes when we recruit them: ‘Once a Cyclone, always a Cyclone,’” Pollard said. “Not all of them make it. Many times when they don’t make it, they don’t make it not because they can’t.

“To give them a second chance at it is really rewarding.”

Despite any difficulties in his life, Harris is content with how it has turned out. After all, he is an Olympian and completed the promise he made his grandmother.

“When everything is said and done,” Harris said. “I went through what I needed to go through in order to get to where I am now.”