BLACKSBURG -- Standing on her toes, Queen Harrison rummaged around the top shelf of her bedroom closet and pulled down two pairs of shoes: pink high heels and plaid, cloth boat shoes.
"How can you pick these," she said, holding up the boat shoes, "over these?" She looked at the heels and shook her head, wishing she had a choice. In the corner of her closet, about 30 other pairs of heels were piled in a blue, rubber tub -- a reminder of the sacrifices she is making this season in the name of her Olympic goal.
She can't wear heels because she has genetically bad feet -- bunions in her case -- and heels would only worsen them. She can't eat junk food. Or stay up late chatting with her roommate, as she is wont to do.
This is the hard way. She embraces it because she sees its results. She also knows the pitfalls of life's easier route and everything it took from her.
A Hermitage High graduate, Queen developed over the past two seasons from a young woman who excelled at hurdling to an excellent hurdler, one of the world's best.
Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Virginia Tech, she has a personal-best time in the 400-meter hurdles -- 54.69 seconds at the NCAA East Regional on May 31 -- that ranks first in the NCAA and fifth in the world. Her 100-hurdle time of 12.7, also run May 31, ranks second in the NCAA and ninth in the world.
Two gold medals at the NCAA championships, which begin today in Des Moines, Iowa, might just be an appetizer for the rest of her summer. She will run both hurdles events at the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month in Eugene, Ore.
Competing at the Olympics in Beijing would be the ultimate payoff for her sacrifices. It also would be the first meet her father has ever seen her run.
William Harrison has been incarcerated for possession of cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute since 1998. (In connection with William's arrest, Queen's mother, Alicia Wingate, received a 21-month sentence for felony withholding information on a crime and was released in 2002.)
Queen still writes letters to her father every two weeks. He has apologized to her dozens of times. In her room, she keeps a blue binder containing about 40 of his letters from the past year and a half. She said she isn't angry with him, nor with her mom, but never asked him that big question: Why?
"I'm not really ashamed at all," she said. "People feel like they need to do what they have to do to support their family. I pretty much know the reason. I felt like he made a decision to take the easy way out."
During a difficult workout or a big meet, she sometimes thinks about her dad sitting in the stands in Beijing. "Just him being proud of me really is enough to keep me going," she said. "He's one of those guys who expects greatness."
William is scheduled to be released Aug. 6 from Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security facility in New Jersey. Eleven days later, the Olympic women's hurdle events begin.
. . .
No, it's not a nickname. Her full name is Queen Quedith Earth. William named all nine of the children he fathered with Wingate. (He has 14 other children from six previous relationships.)
He chose the names based on the traditions of The Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. But Wingate said her family regards The Nation of Gods and Earths not as its religion but as a lifestyle of "being righteous to decent people."
Queen's siblings have equally uncommon names. Her sisters are Graceful, Zuequal, Muun, Princess and Empress. Her brothers are King Master, Victory and Goldin, whose full name surely is one of a kind: God Goldin Zig Zag Zig Allah Harrison. Graceful and Zuequal also have the official first name of Queen, so Wingate refers to Queen Quedith Earth simply as Quedith.
William wanted to teach his children athletic discipline. He was a paratrooper in Vietnam, and every morning before school, he had the kids wake up at 6 a.m. for a regimented workout: running, jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups. "We couldn't slack," Goldin said.
Queen's memories from these years are vivid. There she is with her dad at Stewart's, the local ice cream shop. Pick any flavor, William would say. There she is, squirming while he tickles her -- the reason he calls her Squeezie. There's William at a family reunion, lining up the kids for a race and watching Queen dust the boys.
Everything changed when she was 9. On Dec. 8, 1998, her parents were pulled over in rural east Texas because William wasn't wearing a seat belt. The two narcotics task force officers who stopped them became suspicious and searched their 1988 Mazda two-door.
Hidden in the panels, they found packages containing about 5 pounds of marijuana and 22 pounds of cocaine. William later said a man named PJ offered him $4,000 to $5,000 to drive the car from Philadelphia to Houston and back, but William indicated he'd take full responsibility for the car's contents.
He received a 14-year sentence, stiffened because the court determined he faked insanity during legal proceedings. A Supreme Court case in 2005 changed federal sentencing procedures, and William in January had his sentence reduced by three years.
William's caseworker at Fort Dix did not return a message seeking comment. Wingate declined to discuss the situation. "It really doesn't have anything to do with Quedith," she said.
. . .
With their parents locked up, Queen and her siblings moved from Fallsburg, N.Y. (about 100 miles north of New York City) to Richmond. They lived together in a big house. Graceful, the oldest, was in her mid-20s and ran the show.
Queen started running track and, as a freshman, immediately impressed Hermitage coach Walter Spain. "She just did it with such ease," he said. She breezed through high school competition just as easily as she strolled Hermitage's halls, chatting with anyone, though she rarely shared details about her dad.
"Everybody knew Queen," best friend Leeand Diggs said. She was homecoming queen, prom queen and even had a part in the school musical.
Things got tougher at Tech. She hurdled in high school but loved the triple jump. Her coach at Tech, Lawrence Johnson, wanted to make her a full-time 400 hurdler. She struggled with the transition, sometimes trying to talk her way out of workouts. "She was a bargainer last year," Johnson said.
Still, she won gold in the 400 hurdles and silver in the 100 hurdles last year at the Pan American Junior Championships in Brazil. Johnson told her she'd need to make changes to take the next step: the Olympics.
So she stopped eating McDonald's and stocked her kitchen with granola bars and fat-free yogurt. She forced herself to get in bed before midnight. She started telling Johnson, "I don't ever want to be regular at anything."
"What's really surprised me is how I was able to have so much discipline," she said.
Her brother Goldin sees a new seriousness in her eyes, the type of look their dad used to get when he pulled his glasses down the bridge of his nose, and all the kids knew he meant business. William watched Queen run on television at last year's NCAA nationals, at which she finished third in the 400 hurdles and fifth in the 100 hurdles. He called her right after her races, his voice filled with pride. "You could have beat those girls!" she remembered him saying.
When he gets out, regardless of whether she runs in Beijing, he will see, in many ways, the same Queen Quedith Earth he left here on the outside. But now she is tougher for all these years and changes, already having come so far, and in full control of how much further she can go.
Contact Darryl Slater at (804) 649-6026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer David Ress contributed research to this story.