His girls are running fast, pulling ahead down the stretch, prompting Danny Harris to clap and holler and rise up on his toes as he watches from the edge of the stands.
“Go,” he tells them. “Go.”
When his final sprinter crosses the finish line, clinching gold for Gabrielino (Calif.) High in the 400-meter relay, Harris hops over the railing so he can join the team on the infield.
“This is heaven,” he says a few minutes later. “I mean, I love athletics. At any level.”
The latest chapter in Harris’ unusual saga — “my journey,” he calls it — has in some ways brought him full circle.
Thirty-four years ago, he was a young hurdler at Perris (Calif.) High, trying to figure out how good he could be. The answer, it turned out, was very good.
Still a teenager, he took silver at the 1984 Summer Olympics and won the first of three NCAA titles. Through the rest of the decade, he ranked among the world’s best, challenging the great Edwin Moses for supremacy in the 400-meter hurdles.
But cocaine addiction brought him down at the peak of his career, leaving him banished from the sport. Harris landed on the streets, struggling to get clean, suffering through relapses.
“Did I expect to be back in the game?” he says. “No. But when you love it, you want to teach, you want to give something back.”
It explains why, at 51, he says he is now sober and is coaching at a San Gabriel Valley public school. And why he decided to cooperate with a documentary about his life.
“Crossing the Line,” which is making the rounds of film festivals internationally, doesn’t pull any punches.
“We weren’t just going to gloss over the cracks in his life,” director David Tryhorn says. “We didn’t want to trivialize his addiction.”
Or, as Harris puts it: “If I was going to do a documentary, it was important to me that I get butt-naked honest.”
The film chronicles his early success at the Olympics and at the college level. As a professional, he scored a historic victory in 1987, ending Moses’ nearly decade-long winning streak.
In the summer of 1988, Harris was expected to contend for gold at the Seoul Olympics but didn’t even make the U.S. team, finishing fifth in a trials race that saw an unprecedented five runners finish in under 48 seconds.
Stunned and embarrassed, he went home and tried cocaine for the first time. Just that quickly, it hooked him.
Maybe the most amazing thing about Harris’ career was that he continued to excel at an international level while secretly addicted to a drug that was anything but performance-enhancing.
It wasn’t until 1992 that a positive drug test got him suspended for four years. Track officials later reduced the penalty — and Harris actually climbed back up the world rankings — but a relapse ended his career for good in 1996.
“I thought that being an athlete was all I was,” he recalls. “I didn’t really know who I was as a person.”
His downfall became a cautionary tale — told by this newspaper and others — of life as an addict on skid row. There were times when he got clean and held down good jobs, only to lose control again.
More than a decade passed before he had successfully worked himself through treatment and transitioned from being the client of a downtown mission to working there as an executive assistant in 2008.
“Don’t get me wrong — what I went through was terrible on every level you can imagine,” he says. “But when I look back, it was my experience. I’m grateful that I went through it and came out the other side.”
In recent years, Harris has coached at a number of schools and built a clientele for his private coaching service. The father of one of his pupils nudged him toward the job at Gabrielino.
Word of his redemption has spread through the track world.
“That’s what life is about — getting up, falling down and getting back up,” Mike Powell, world record-holder in the long jump, said in “Crossing the Line.” “And that’s what he has done. It’s awesome.”
The Gabrielino job seems to suit Harris, who in his first season guided the boys’ squad to a league title.
Married and happily ensconced in this new life, he has no particular urge to dwell on the past. But he decided to make the film — and will occasionally talk about his troubles with young runners — for a simple reason.
“Maybe if others see my experiences,” he says, “they won’t have to go through what I went through.”
The coach teaches his students to run faster, but also admonishes them to be respectful and kind. He can be a stickler for technique, but also emphasizes school and family.
“Balance,” he says. “I had to learn that distinction the hard way.”
After the girls’ 400-meter relay, Harris walks over to the practice area to see the sprinters on his boys’ team. Barking instructions, he guides them through warmups and helps them stretch. His voice falls quiet as he draws them into a prerace huddle.
“It doesn’t matter what the end result is, as long as we do what we’re capable of,” he says. “Let’s finish what we started.”
©2017 Los Angeles Times
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