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Photo by Rick Rickman/ZUMA Press/Newscom
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Photo by Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics
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Sisters Kellie, 13 months old, and Tonni, 7, at a park in Chesterfield Photo courtesy Gloria Woody
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Although Wells specialized in hurdles, she ran other events—including the 4x100-meter relay—at Hampton University. Photo courtesy Hampton University Sports Information
The field had a gap in the third lane where Kellie Wells was supposed to be. Her blocks stood empty, and the race, won by Lolo Jones in 12.29 seconds, looked out of balance in its asymmetry.
The statistics for 2008's U.S. Olympic Trials final for women's 100-meter hurdles are stark and unsympathetic. At the bottom of the list showing her competitors' recorded times, Wells' result is punctuated, instead, by just three big letters: DNF.
Did. Not. Finish.
Like a horse scratched before the Derby, or an asterisk by the name in a history book, three initials can contain a life story. For Wells, DNF could have meant she had run for the last time. At James River High School, the track star was so excellent overall she placed in the high jump, her least favorite event. In her college conference, Wells also dominated the hurdles despite being shorter and lighter than most of the other women.
But 2008 is only part of the 30-year-old Wells' story. This month she hopes to write the rest of her amazing comeback — from sexual abuse and a horrific injury — to an Olympic medal in London. This time, no DNF.
The Hamstring Tear
In Eugene, Ore., at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Wells had just won the semifinal with a personal record, 12.58 seconds, but managed to rupture her hamstring muscle — certainly a season-ending injury, if not a career-ender. She was taken by stretcher off the track and told the prognosis, as well as the final race results, in her hospital room. The outlook for her running future was bleak.
"I wanted to quit a bunch of times," says Wells, who now lives and trains in Florida. But her coaches, friends and family helped keep her spirits buoyed. During 2008 and 2009, she couldn't run. "I worked — I had a job," Wells says. "I hung out with friends and tried to stay happy. I had to take some time off to let my body heal."
After time and physical therapy, competing again became a viable option. Wells came back on the scene in 2010, placing sixth in several races, at speeds just under 13 seconds — respectable times, but not as competitive as they needed to be for Wells to become an Olympian.
"When she first got hurt, I didn't know the extent of the injury," says her younger brother, 27-year-old Jason Wells, who lives in Richmond. "It was like, ‘Let's move on.' I don't think we ever had a doubt that she would get herself back."
Wells' older sister, Tonni Wells-Ratcliff, a spin-studio owner and Brazilian Blowout executive in Southern California, had to have a hard conversation with Kellie, who was wavering. "I had to say to her, ‘Either shit or get off the pot,'" Wells-Ratcliff recalls. "The next year, she started doing it. I even notice, between 2008 and this year, the difference in her face."
In 2011, a switch turned on. Wells first became the U.S. champion in indoor 60-meter hurdles. And at the USA Track and Field Championship in Oregon, the site of her injury three years earlier, Wells tore off the blocks, leaping hurdles like there was no tomorrow.
Winning with a personal-record time of 12.50 seconds, she collapsed onto the track, screaming, this time in joy. An NBC camera was right on her, but Wells didn't care. ("At the end of the race," she explains, "it's just second nature.") Captured on video, she shrieks "yes!" and jumps and cries in a moment of pure ecstasy. With this win, she was the American women's hurdle champion.
It's not as if everything was magically perfect after winning nationals. She broke her right arm in a hurdling mishap a few months ago, and in the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Wells stumbled on a hurdle and fell, not finishing the race.
The same year, she also took a step that was empowering but left her painful childhood open to the public.
Wells, who is an active tweeter (@kelliewellz) and blogger ( kellie-wells.com ), decided to write about what happened to her when she was a child and teenager. After her parents divorced in 1990, Wells' mother, Jeanette, became involved with a man who progressed from molesting Kellie as an 11-year-old girl to raping her during her sophomore year of high school. Wells' sister, who was away at Christopher Newport University, and brother knew that the relationship between their mother and her fiancé was volatile, but Wells didn't admit to anyone what was happening to her for a few years.
When Tonni Wells-Ratcliff found out the real story, she was nine months pregnant and living in Wisconsin. Wells was in high school 1,500 miles away. "It about put me into early labor," she remembers. "I had noticed a shift in her, that she was very angry." But Wells-Ratcliff didn't know why until one "crazy" conversation on the phone with her sister, calling from the often tense and chaotic household, with "screaming in the background." After Wells blurted out her words about the abuse, "the room went black."
Wells and her brother moved to their father's house. "We went through a lot, just moving in with our dad," Jason Wells says. "We lived under his roof but did our own thing. She had her own life, with friends and with track. It's basically a place where we slept. It just wasn't an ideal place to live for us."
Their mother and her fiancé were killed in a car wreck just a week after the kids moved. Wells happened to pass the accident on the road but didn't recognize the car.
Despite the emotional rifts already present in the family, Wells-Ratcliff says her mother's death was the final blow that pushed everyone apart. "My mom was the glue for the entire family, even the extended family," she says, and the three siblings all reacted differently — Kellie becoming angrier, Jason retreating into silence and Tonni racked with guilt for not being there to help.
"I guess it probably made me more defensive," Wells says of the abuse and the trauma of her mother's death. Her high-school track coach, Vatel Dixon, describes the teenage Wells as "bull-headed." She'd come late to practice sometimes and not give it her all — as the fastest runner on the team, Wells didn't have to work as hard as other runners to meet time goals.
Growing up near Manchester High School in Chesterfield County, all three Wells kids ran in a neighborhood track program by the time they were 5 or 6 years old. Even then, Wells showed a special spark, indicating her prowess at sprinting the track's straight-aways. By middle school, she was jumping hurdles, and as a freshman at Manchester, she was building a big reputation. Her sophomore year, she transferred to James River High School.
"I ran a very tight-knit program," Dixon says, remembering when Wells came to James River. "We bumped heads quite frequently. Now I know why she had trouble with male [authority] figures."
The respect issues were coming to a head. Wells knew she was indispensable to the team, which had the county's worst record before she joined. She often competed in six events, wherever Dixon needed someone, and she'd place in four or five of those events.
In her junior year, James River was undefeated, and Clover Hill was coming up on the schedule. It was a meet the Rapids expected to win. But Dixon benched Wells, saying she needed to apply herself more during practices. To Dixon's chagrin, James River lost — it would have been an even better lesson for Wells if
they had won, he says — but his prize runner gained a different outlook.
"From that point until this moment," Dixon says, "we've been like father and daughter."
Wells notes now, "It was the best thing that could have happened. It helped me stay grounded and to not have an ego problem."
Running also helped her make friends in her new high school, eating dinner at Subway or Arby's or the buffet at Pizza Hut.
The siblings, who have grown closer in recent years despite living far apart, continue to lament their mother's death.
High-school graduation, college days, all the track meets and the Olympic trials — "I feel like I've had some epic moments," Wells says, all of which her mother missed. Still, "she's with me every day. Of course, I really miss her."
The World Stage
In college, Wells narrowed her focus to the hurdles, both indoor 60 meters and outdoor 100-meter hurdles.
Wells says, "I don't know if I chose it or it chose me. I've kind of been a daredevil all my life."
Hampton University came calling after Wells won the 100-meter hurdles in the state high school championships, placing her in a great position competitively. Unlike in high school, Hampton would pose a real challenge to Wells, with its talent-packed track and field program.
It's also in college where Wells made her closest friends.
"When I get married," Wells says, "my bridesmaids will be those girls."
They've stayed in close contact since college and sometimes see each other "out on the circuit," as Wells calls it.
Olympic teammate Dawn Harper, the 2008 gold medalist, is a very familiar face to Wells. A UCLA alumna, she beat Wells by .01 seconds in this year's world championship, and she's a protégée of legendary hurdler Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Wells also considers Joyner-Kersee a mentor, along with Gail Devers, who competed in five Olympics and is also known for her long, decorated nails.
Harper and Wells have something else in common: Despite their achievements, they are not Lolo Jones, the media's golden girl. Jones has not won an Olympic medal, despite high expectations in 2008. She's also beautiful, has posed nude for ESPN and recently made news by announcing on Twitter that she is a virgin.
In video of the 2012 trials, the camera lingers on Jones, even though she placed third, with Harper and Wells finishing first and second. Wells isn't even in the frame until well after the race.
"They're very nice girls," Wells says diplomatically. As she's two years older than Harper and only a couple of weeks older than Jones, they got to know each other in college meets. As for Jones' fame and her amplified camera time, Wells quips, "If you're watching Lolo run, you're watching me run, and I'm doing my job very, very well."
The London Scene
Wells still has family ties in Richmond and pays occasional visits — "I'm a shopper, so my aunts and I go shopping," she says. Wells-Ratcliff jokes that all three siblings inherited their mother's love of fashion: "I have shopping issues; Kellie has shopping issues."
But Orlando, Fla., is home, where Wells lives with her Yorkie, Sebastian.
She trains at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla., with Dennis Mitchell, who spotted her at Hampton before her 2006 graduation.
Her exercise regimen includes lifting and running, and takes three to five hours a day. Although Wells loves competing, practice is still not her favorite thing. She sticks with it by remembering that "I know I'm training for a particular reason." Before meets, Wells zones out. She puts her phone on silent, and she listens to gospel music.
Harper and Wells especially are considered very much in the hunt for medals, but they'll have to face Australian Sally Pearson, the favorite, who ran the 100-meter hurdles in 12.28, just .07 seconds short of the world record. When Bulgarian Jordanka Donkova set the record, Wells was 6 years old.
Wells says she doesn't have any special preparations for London, where she'll live in the Olympic Village and planned to attend the Opening Ceremony on July 27. "It'll be the same girls I've been racing all year." She talks like there's more suspense in the ceremony, which rumor says will top the Beijing extravaganza. Some of her mother's siblings plan to be there when she competes in her heat on Aug. 6; Jason and Tonni will be watching stateside, most likely on a streaming webcast. The semifinals and finals will be held the following day.
She plans to take in some of the other sports, especially gymnastics. Wells says she has a rooting interest in 16-year-old Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas, a fellow Virginian and all-around champion at the U.S. Olympic gymnastic trials. Another James River graduate, Shannon Taylor, will compete on the U.S. field hockey team.
Aside from track victories, Wells says she wants to establish a foundation to help battered women and children, and on the less serious end of the scale, she hopes to meet President Obama and the first lady, and get to stand on the sidelines during a Washington Redskins game.
She also hopes London will just be the beginning of her Olympic career: "I want to do the next Olympics and the year after, so that makes it 2017." A bit like Devers, who was still winning races at age 40.
Her mother, dad, brother and sister all ran, and Wells says she may have inherited her speed from her mother's side. "I've learned it over the years," she says of her chosen specialty. "I don't know if there's a hurdle gene." But chances are, if scientists ever isolate a hurdle gene, Wells would have it.
Wells upset Pearson in a July 14 race in London, only the second time in 34 races Pearson has lost.