Even the best sports careers blow past like a rushing train, the roar of a distant whistle yielding to the screech of wheels on metal rails yielding to a fading whoosh in the distance yielding to silence. Here and gone. Poof. A high school blue chip recruit signs, plays, get drafted, turns pro and retires in barely longer than you were in high school and college – if he’s successful. An Olympian makes one team and comes into our homes in primetime, perhaps does it once more, or twice more if he or she is truly supreme. And then disappears. They are pieces on an assembly line, chugging past, generation upon generation.
In the spring of 2003, I flew to Los Angeles on assignment for Sports Illustrated, to profile 17-year-old track and field sprinter Allyson Felix, who had gained sudden and spectacular relevance when she ran 22.11 seconds for 200 meters at a meet in Mexico City (on the Smith-Carlos track), the fastest time in history for a junior (19-under) athlete. In the span of those 22 seconds, she went from being a potential star to an actual star.
We met at the track at her small private high school: Los Angeles Baptist. I watched her run and lift more weight with her skinny arms than I could push on two good days. (Her legs were skinny, too: Her nickname was "Chicken Legs"). There I met her parents, Paul, a minster; and Marlean, a third-grade teacher; and Felix’s older brother, Wes, then a 400-meter runner at USC (and now her manager, a job he’s done for more than decade). It was a warm afternoon and the four of us sat in folding chairs on a shaded hillside overlooking the track. They were – and are – a delightful family – wise, thoughtful, caring. Felix was predictably wise beyond her years, yet appropriately shy at the same time. At this moment, they were a little overwhelmed: Allyson had signed a letter of intent to run at USC, but also was likely to receive lucrative shoe company offers to bypass college. (The family ultimately chose the latter route; Allyson graduated from USC but turned professional and did not run in college).
I wrote a four-page story that appeared in the June 9, 2003 issue of SI. Tim Duncan was on the cover, and above the banner, the line: “Allyson Felix: At 17, She’s America’s Next Great Sprinter.” This paragraph appeared high in the piece, describing coach Jonathan Patton’s reaction to Felix’s first high school practice:
She was a shade under 5'6", slender as a sapling, and she wore floppy shorts and clunky Gary Payton-model basketball shoes that looked like bricks on her feet. Yet when Patton blew his whistle, she took flight. Patton punched his watch at the finish and examined the time. Too fast—the cones must have been in the wrong place. But one after another the rest of the girls ran, and their times made sense. The cones were right.
There is huge risk, and responsibility in reporting and publishing a story like this, which elevates – and also burdens – high school athletes. Meeting this lovely family and this engaging teenaged runner, it’s only prudent worry to how it might turn out.
It turned out fine. Friday night in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, Felix, now 35 years old, won the bronze medal in the 400 meters. Hang on here while I charge my keyboard before typing her resume. Tick. Tick. Tick. Okay here we go: The Tokyo bronze was her 10th Olympic medal in five Games dating back to 2004, when she was just 18, tying the (deservedly) legendary Carl Lewis for most track and field medals by an American athlete and breaking Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey’s record for most Olympic medals by a woman. Felix ran 49.46 seconds, second-fastest of her career (49.26 is her PB) and her fastest since 2015, before the birth of her daughter, Cammy (by Caeserean section, in 2018, just to elevate the degree of difficulty in coming back). She will run Saturday in the 4X400-meter relay, which is favored to win and a near-lock to medal, barring baton issues, which are rare in the 4X4.
Broader view: She twice won gold medals in both the 4X100 relay and the 4X400 relay (2012 and ’16); the only other woman to have done it is Chandra Cheeseborough of the U.S. at the partially boycotted ‘84 Olympics.
There’s more: For much of her career, she was a willing, but cautious presence – always friendly and charming, but rarely controversial. In the last three years, since becoming a mother, she has publicly challenged longstanding practices by which shoe and apparel companies punished women whose careers were interrupted by motherhood, spoken forcefully in support of Black Lives Matter, and testified before Congress about racial disparities in child mortality. She has matured not just as an athlete, but as a person, and this often does not happen. Often, in fact, athletes regress into the cocoon of fame and wealth.
On the other hand, she has always been mature. My friend and colleague, longtime Olympic journalist Phil Hersh, ran into Felix at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, while both were en route to the 2003 World Championships. Felix was still that 17-year-old I met in Los Angeles three months earlier. Hersh wrote: “She was 17 then, a freshly minted graduate of Los Angeles Baptist High School. By that age, most star athletes have been coddled and swaddled, their every need met by someone else, their inability to cope with the ordinary tasks of daily life already compromised. Felix had flown from the West coast to Paris by herself, collected her bags by herself, found her way to the correct bus by herself. Such things aren't easy, even for experienced travelers, in the fog created by jet lag.”
And a distinction here: While Felix was not openly controversial or opinionated, she was always present for us to see, sometimes fighting powerful emotions but never fully suppressing them. As gifted as she was, and as hard-working, she was always irrepressibly human.
At her first Olympics in 2004, she took a silver medal (at age 18) behind Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica, four years her senior, and accepted that finish with joy. Four years later in Beijing, Campbell Brown beat her again, and that one hurt. Felix talked to us with uncommon grace and then walked partway down a subterranean tunnel at the Birds Nest Stadium, dropped her head onto her mom’s shoulder and wept in heaving sobs. Five years into her career, and at age 22, she had grown tired of waiting. (It’s okay to say any medal is a good medal, but that is just not always true for the very best athletes).
In 2012, she attempted a 100-200 double at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, but was seemingly beaten at the line in the 100 by training partner Jeneba Tarmoh. Again Felix was brave in public, but found another shoulder – this time Wes’s – on which to cry afterward. (That 100-meter result was changed to a dead heat, and Felix made the team when Tarmoh declined to participate in a runoff to decide the spot; it was all very controversial). In London, Felix finally won her 200-meter gold and covered the long backstretch on a gold medal-winning 4X100-meter relay that set a world record which stands today.
She kept evolving athletically. Before those same 2012 Olympics, I met her at the UCLA track after a workout. Everyone knew that Felix was creeping upward toward the 400 meters, even as she clung to the 100 and 200. "[Coach] Bobby [Kersee] wants me to run it," she said, shaking her head. "I don’t like it at all." We talked about her rivalry with Sanya Richards-Ross, and about her boyfriend (now husband). At the 2016 Olympics, she lost 400-meter gold to Shaunae Miller-Uibo (who also won in Tokyo, in a spectacular personal best of 48.36 seconds). Felix was at the end of a long season in which she suffered a nasty calf injury, and there was no holding back tears.
She seemed finished at that time, her career already impossibly long, but instead not only carried on for the longest, pandemic-riddled half-decade in Post-World War II Olympic history, but made it the most impactful five years of her career. On Friday night in Tokyo, she was banished to Lane Nine after not winning her semifinal heat. Running blind, she reached the final 100 meters on even terms with Jamaica’s Stephenie Ann McPherson and willed herself to the line for bronze. Another of the fundamental Felix Truths is this one: As kindly as she presents, that is also exactly how tough she is, on the other side of the same coin. No woman has run faster, older.
But if you squinted, you could see those clunky kicks and the baggy shorts. The chicken legs. The years blowing past, full beyond reality.
Indeed: The cones were right.