In a year that likely will represent her best shot at becoming an Olympic hurdler, Kellie Wells came home Friday to Chesterfield County, where she has already overcome plenty of hurdles.
Wells laughed often and drew cheers throughout an upbeat, 40-minute presentation to several hundred students at James River High School, where she became the Rapids’ first individual state champion.
“It’s crazy to think I’m back in the place where it all started,” said Wells, who now lives and trains full time in Orlando, Fla., as she prepares for the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June in Eugene, Ore.
While Wells and her athletic accomplishments remain the focus of her youth in Chesterfield, she recently revealed a dark chapter from her childhood.
Wells blogged last summer that while she was a teen, her mother’s fiancé, Richard “Rick” Gomes, abused her mother, Jeanette Wells, and Wells. Wells also said Gomes raped her when she was 16.
Gomes was never charged with any offenses related to the allegations. In May 1999, several weeks after Wells said the rape occurred, Gomes, 38, was killed in a car crash on Old Bon Air Road in Chesterfield. Jeanette Wells, 43, also died, as did Thomas F. Kenney IV, 20.
Wells mentioned the alleged abuse during her talk Friday and urged the students to persevere.
“I could have given up,” said Wells, who added that much of the credit for her finishing her James River career on a high note — and earning an athletic scholarship to Hampton University — went to Vatel Dixon, the Rapids’ track coach.
“He saw a light in me that … I didn’t see in myself,” she said. “If you give yourself 100 percent, there’s always somebody there to help you.”
As Wells spoke, Dixon stood off to the side, occasionally rubbing his reddened eyes. Afterward, he shook his head frequently and seemed to still be fighting tears.
“She’s kind of like my daughter,” he said. “I always get the call. She always thinks of me. We’ve shared a lot of wonderful times together. We’ve shared a lot of tears together.”
Dixon said he was devastated when he read Wells’ blog last summer. The two have not discussed her writings, and Dixon doesn’t plan to ask her.
“It just hurt me tremendously,” he said. “Don’t want to talk about it.”
Instead, he’d rather focus on the positive aspects of her life, including her bid to represent the United States at the London Olympics. Wells was a serious contender to make the U.S. team in 2008 but was derailed by a serious hamstring injury.
She has been successful in the U.S. and abroad in recent months and is a favorite to earn one of the U.S. roster spots in Eugene. If she qualifies, she will turn 30 before the London Games start — a relatively advanced age for track and field athletes.
Dixon has been telling Wells since she was a teenager at James River that she had Olympic talent.
“Coach Dixon always said it,” she said, “but I never believed it. Now it’s so close.”
Regardless of whether it happens, Wells already has an eye to the future. She is laying the groundwork to start a nonprofit foundation for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
“Hopefully,” she said, “by the time I’m finished, that will be my job.”