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Starting Line 1928: Alisa Harvey

Starting Line 1928 is an oral history project documenting the lived experiences of female distance-running pioneers. This is the fourth episode of the podcast. We hope you’ll listen, and hit the “subscribe” button on your preferred podcasting app so you never miss an interview. And if you have suggestions for pioneers to profile, or want to join this effort, email us at startingline1928@gmail.com. In the meantime, thanks for listening, and being a part of this unfolding story.

Alisa Harvey’s impressive running career spans decades and distances. The first time she qualified for the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials was in 1988, in the 1500 meters, when she was still a student at the University of Tennessee. The last time she did so was in the 800 meters in 2008—at age 42.

Alisa Harvey running on a track
Photo Credit: Christopher Frost

In between, she won gold in the 1991 Pan American Games in the 1500 meters. She qualified for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials by running 2:49:28 in her debut at the distance. And, she’s notched countless victories in road races, including the Fifth Avenue Mile and the Army Ten-Miler. 

At 56, she might no longer be able to match her personal best of 1:59.72 in the 800 meters, but Harvey still competes at a high level, chasing Master’s records on the track and the roads. And, she’s coaching athletes who range from ages 10 to 95, aiming to help them pursue the same long-term success she’s experienced. 

“I’m still at it and enjoying it—slowing down but loving it and trying to stay healthy,” she said.

Harvey grew up in newly desegregated northern Virginia, and loved running from the time she began competing in the Hershey Hall of Fame summer track series at age 10. Growing up, she watched the summer Olympics and had two athletic idols: sprinter Wilma Rudolph and gymnast Nadia Comăneci. 

She wanted to be both, and she had reason to hope. On the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, she was always the best girl in both the flexed-arm hang and the 600-yard dash (where she beat most of the boys, too). In between track meets, she’d teach herself gymnastics moves in the basement. 

She made the gymnastics team at Jefferson High School, but soon realized running was her passion, and prioritized track. The sport gave the self-described “loner, a by-myself kind of girl” a sense of identity and purpose. “I wasn’t known for anything else but my running. That’s what I kind of latched onto,” she said. “I didn’t have many extras, like summer camps or lots of material goods, but I did have my running and my legs and a TV set and goals.”

She started out in sprints, 100 and 200 meters, and was good enough to place top three in most of her races. She also dabbled in the long jump and high jump (a feat, since she’s only 5’2”). At a meet in the middle of the season, the team’s star 800-meter runner was out of town. Harvey reluctantly stepped up in her place—and won. 

Alisa Harvey racing the 2006 New Balance Games
2006 New Balance Games
Photo Credit: Victah@Photo Run

“I was always very competitive,” she said, a trait likely passed down from her mother, and enhanced by growing up with two older brothers. “I enjoyed winning more than finishing top three, and I did it with such ease, the coach noticed.” 

From then on, middle distance became her sweet spot. She also excelled at blazing new trails and breaking down barriers. 

Her sophomore year, there weren’t enough women to form a cross-country team—but she and three other runners went to all the meets anyway. Though they couldn’t score points, Harvey made it to the state meet, and the coach gave her the school’s MVP award over all the boys. The next year, enough girls signed up to make a full team. “It just takes pioneers, sometimes, to get things going,” Harvey said.

She also noticed how few Black students there were in many spaces, including the homecoming court and the cheerleading squad. She went out for cheerleading, knowing that as a former gymnast and current track star, she’d be difficult to pass over. “I made it, the varsity team. I only did it one season, but after that, there were other Black cheerleaders,” she said. “Things got better because people just said, you know what, Alisa can do it, why not? What’s the big deal?”

As her successes piled up, Harvey realized running might offer her yet another gift: a chance at a college education. She set her sights on the University of Tennessee early, and after a rough start—the coach who recruited her left, and her grades suffered—Harvey excelled. 

She ran on a national champion 4×800 meter relay team in 1984 and won the 1986 NCAA Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship at 1500 meters. Her senior year, she clocked times of 2:01 in the 800 meters and 4:08 in the 1500 meters—good enough to qualify for the Trials. 

When her NCAA eligibility was up, Nike offered her a $12,000 contract and a spot on the Athletics West Track Club to prepare for the chance to make the Olympic team. At the Trials, she made the finals, but fell short of the squad that would head to Seoul for the Games. 

2008 US Indoor Championships.
Photo Credit: Victah Sailer@Photo Run

However, one of her career highlights would come just a few years later, at the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba. There, she won gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters. She lost only to the hometown hero Ana Quirot, with an audience that included Fidel Castro.

Despite several more attempts, Harvey never made an Olympic team. But as a pro-athlete, she continued forging new pathways, including having a baby. That was far from typical in 1994, when her oldest daughter, Virginia Hill, was born. 

“The running community wasn’t quite ready,” Harvey said. Her contract with Nike had already expired, so that wasn’t an issue; still, her manager dropped her, and many others questioned her choice. 

Harvey wasn’t an athlete who could run during pregnancy. Instead, she did workout videos starring Kathy Smith, who at the time was pregnant with future Olympian Kate Grace. Still, she dedicated herself to returning to top form afterward—and she did, making the Trials again in 1996.

In recent years, she’s been heartened by watching runners like Alysia Montaño and Allyson Felix speak up about the challenges of having children and returning postpartum. “That was a go-girl moment for me, for sure,” Harvey said. Of course, she’s disappointed that companies still put barriers between athletes and motherhood. “But I’m glad they were vocal enough to come back at them. I think that’s why things continue that way for too long, because we don’t say anything or don’t do anything.”

A divorce, a move back to Virginia, and a job at a running store inspired Harvey’s move up to longer distances, including 10-mile races and marathons. She’s won the Army Ten-Miler four times, and in 1999, ran 2:49:28 in her first marathon in Richmond, a time that qualified her for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials at age 35. “I was very strong in my 30s—probably my prime days, I would say, even more than my 20s,” she said.

Harvey coached for a while at George Mason University, and now enjoys helping everyone from high-school athletes to older adults achieve their own running goals. Good sleep, proper nutrition, and listening to your body have allowed her to thrive for years, and she passes those messages along.

Photo Credit: Christopher Frost

She’s always trained at lower volumes and higher intensities, and finds she needs a little more rest as she ages. Still, she’s clocked American and world Master’s records at the 800 meters and the mile, and finds the pursuit of more inspires her—up next, it’s the 55 and older categories.

Despite some difficult experiences along the way—including brushes with sexual misconduct, racism, and disordered eating that she discusses in this interview—Harvey remains grateful for all running has brought her, and proud of her accomplishments. Others have also taken note—in 2019, she was inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame

What’s more, running has long given her the chance to serve as a role model for those who might come after her. When women see another successful woman, and especially a Black woman, that makes a big difference in what she can envision for herself. 

“Because of my presence in sport, my success in sports, I got a lot of newspaper articles, I got a lot of visibility,” she said. And from early on, when she saw discrimination or injustice, she used that platform to do something about it. “Even in my high school days and in my later days, I’m still not gonna stand for it.”

Note about the author: Cindy Kuzma is a freelance writer, author, and podcaster based in Chicago, and part of the leadership team for Starting Line 1928. She contributes regularly to Runner’s World, Women’s Running, SELF, and many other print and online outlets; is co-author of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries; and co-host of The Injured Athletes Club podcast.