America's most improbable track phenom, Allyson Felix, takes her quiet grace and perfect stride to London in pursuit of her first individual gold
Author CRISTINA ROUVALIS
PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES FOR USOC
FROM THE BEGINNING, Allyson Felix fit no one’s image of a track superstar. As a teenager, she was skinny, awkward. Her classmates called her “Chicken Legs,” a nickname that naggingly endures to this day. And when she decided to try out for the track team as a freshman at Los Angeles Baptist High School, she showed up wearing high-tops and baggy shorts. Felix might not have looked like much that day, but any doubts about her potential were put to rest then and there. The coach timed her on a short sprint and figured his stopwatch must be wrong. He timed her again and realized a prodigy had just stepped onto his track. She joined the team, blowing by other Division IV athletes to reach the state finals, then winning several state titles in her sophomore year.
Felix hasn’t looked back since. Today, she is one of the greatest runners on earth. The first woman to win three consecutive 200-meter world titles, she’s a bona fide celebrity in track-obsessed Europe. Even off-duty, she’s a striking spokeswoman for the sport, known to trade workout gear for designer outfits and stylish stilettos for a night out.
Now, with the London 2012 Olympic Games kicking off in July, the 26-year-old from Santa Clarita, Calif., is chasing the one prize that’s eluded her: an individual Olympic gold medal. By winning big in London, she also hopes to be recognized with Olympic greats such as Michael Johnson. That’s a lot of weight on Felix’s slender shoulders, but she carries it well. “I call her ‘Seabiscuit,'” says Bobby Kersee, her famous coach. “She’s like the little horse that no one thinks will win. But when you put her next to a big horse, she’s not intimidated, and passes them. She’s a thoroughbred.”
WHEN LINING UP at the start, the wispy Felix hardly looks menacing. Her spindly legs press into the blocks, dwarfed by her competitors’ rippling thighs. She looks less like a sprinter than a distance runner who accidentally wandered into the wrong event — that is, until the gun sounds for the 200-meter. Felix glides around the curve and down the homestretch, usually leaving other runners grimacing in her wake. On her best days, Felix says, running halfway around the track at almost 20 miles an hour feels as fluid and peaceful as floating. “She looks so relaxed, it’s almost as though she’s not putting much effort into it,” says Wes Felix, her brother and manager. “You can’t teach that.”
That effortless stride wasn’t evident when she was growing up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a third-grade teacher and an ordained minister. “She was a little clumsy up through middle school,” Wes says. “She barely won her races. I would have never guessed she would be an Olympian.” But as she grew into her 5-foot-6 frame, Felix honed her natural competitive streak. As a 15-year-old at the 2001 national championships in Eugene, Ore., she raced against Marion Jones, who had just won gold in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Felix lost. She returned to the hotel and sobbed. “Do you realize this is Marion Jones you are talking about?” asked her mother, Marlean. “Why not just run against the other high school runners?” It was no use.
Felix turned pro in 2003, but that didn’t stop her from enrolling at the University of Southern California to pursue an elementary education degree. Being a full-time student meant flying to international meets on weekends, writing papers on the plane and pulling all-nighters, then going to 8 a.m. practices before her first class. “It was overwhelming,” Wes says. “She never backed off her courseload, even during world championship and Olympic years.”
Though Felix racked up world titles, Olympic gold agonizingly slipped through her fingers twice. As an 18-year-old in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, she finished second. In Beijing, where she was the favorite coming off a personal-best 21.81-second victory at the 2007 world championships, she was beaten by Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown. It was a crushing loss. Even after winning Olympic gold in the 400-meter relay, Felix says she would trade all three world championship titles for individual gold in the 200. “It is the one missing piece,” she says. “It is the reason I run every day.”
Despite her achievements, she remains almost impossibly modest. During a recent appearance for the charity Right to Play, she traveled to the Middle East and talked to Palestinian refugee girls. “Hey, I’m Allyson. I run track,” Wes recalls her saying. (A spokesman for Right to Play couldn’t resist jumping in and saying, “Actually, she has won 10 world championship medals and three Olympic medals.”) While Felix happily talks to anyone who recognizes her, she doesn’t flaunt her accomplishments. “She is not one to say, ‘I ran a sub-22-second 200,'” says her best friend, Brittany Ricketts Dixon. “She definitely exudes grace.”
Given Felix’s rare combination of charisma and humility, Bobby Kersee believes she’s bound for lasting fame. “I tell all my athletes to be marketable, such that every mom in America wouldn’t be afraid for you to babysit her kids,” he says. “If I needed a babysitter, I’d call Allyson.”
AT THE LONDON 2012 OLYMPIC GAMES, Felix will battle not only the fastest women in the world, but also the perception that the sport she loves is dominated by steroidal superhumans. As the doping scandals have mounted in recent years, Felix has been an outspoken critic of steroid use, and she’s calling for frequent testing in the hopes of winning back a skeptical public. “It is a very pure sport,” she says of sprinting. “Just two people running against each other.”
In her quest for London gold, Felix works out four to six hours a day, ingesting 3,000 calories daily to keep weight on her size 1 frame. To bulk up, she lifts regularly, once telling a reporter that she had leg-pressed 700 pounds and dead-lifted 245. It’s a brutal regimen. “I come from the Vince Lombardi school of coaching,” says Bobby Kersee, “but she gets it done.” Besides, for all the rigor of Felix’s routine, Kersee sees his job ultimately as a simple one. “That stride of hers is God-given,” he says. “My job is not to screw up that stride.”
Pittsburgh writer and Hemispheres contributor CRISTINA ROUVALIS dreams of someday running a sub-200-second 22.
» When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, the 200-meter was not on the slate. It was added in 1900 in Paris, and American runner Walter Tewksbury won it in 22.2 seconds.
» In 1904 in St. Louis, the “Milwaukee Meteor,” Archie Hahn, won the 60, 100 and 200. In the last, he broke the Olympic record — and held it for a while. His time of 21.6 took 28 years to beat.
» At the 1936 Berlin Games, in what was widely seen as a repudiation of the Führer, African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 100, 200, relay and long jump.
» The women’s 200-meter made its debut in the London Games of 1948. Francina Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old Dutch mother of two, won the 100 and 200, the 80-meter hurdles and the relay. (She might have won more, but a rule limited women to just three individual events in track and field.) She eventually set 16 world records in eight different events.
» In 1960 in Rome, Wilma Rudolph set a new record for the 200, doing it in 23.2 seconds; she went on to win two other golds, making her the first U.S. woman to win three in one Olympic Games.
» In 1968, Mexico City’s high altitude helped pave the way for world records in all the men’s races under 400 meters, plus the long jump and triple jump. While the ’68 Games were the first in which the winners had to undergo a doping test, they are remembered most for the raised-fist “black power” salute of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze winners in the 200, during the medal ceremony. The two were subsequently kicked out of the Olympic Village.
» In 1984 in Los Angeles, Carl Lewis matched the achievement of Jesse Owens, winning gold medals in the same four events: 100, 200, relay and long jump.
» At the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games, Florence Griffith-Joyner—better known to her fans as “Flo-Jo”—took gold for the U.S. in the 100 and 200 meters, plus gold in the 4×100 relay and silver in the 4×400 relay. In the process she set women’s world records for the 100 and 200 (10.49 and 21.34, respectively) that still stand today.
» In 1996 at the Atlanta Games, U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson became the first man in Olympic history to run — and win — both the 200 and 400. His time in the 200 (19.32 seconds) set a new world record and earned him the title “World’s Fastest Man.” Alas, it was not to last: The record was broken in 2008 by the absurdly fast Jamaican Usain Bolt, who did it in 19.30 at the Beijing Games. —Compiled by Michelle Bangert