Sprinter Allyson Felix chases elusive dream

Aug 25 2011 - 8:07pm

LOS ANGELES -- It figured that Allyson Felix's apartment in Playa Vista would reflect her personality.

Soft blues and earthy browns. A spare sense in the furnishings. Everything perfectly in its place except Chloe, her 4-year-old Yorkshire terrier, who drew a mild rebuke from Felix for investigating a visitor.

A kitchen she keeps so neat and clean it was hard to believe that it ever gets used.

"I cook here," Felix insisted, between bites of the salad and turkey sandwich her brother, Wes, had brought for her lunch. She rattled off a list of her specialties. "Red enchiladas. Lightly breaded catfish. Steak. Chicken. Cinnamon rolls. German dirt cake.

"I've got to make sure I'm keeping weight on."

Felix needs the strength a dozen extra pounds of lean mass have added, making her a size 2 instead of a 0, if she is to bear up under what is being asked of her, under what she is asking of herself. "She is a little teeny mouse among the elephants," said Brittany Ricketts Dixon, her high school track teammate.

Yet the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Felix is the one with the burden of lifting a sport staggered by the weight of its own doping problems, the track athlete whom NBC has chosen as a poster woman for the 2012 Olympics.

She runs with the weight of expectations that have accompanied her since making indoor and outdoor world championship teams at age 17 and winning an Olympic silver medal in the 200 meters a year later.

And, beginning Saturday at the World Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, she will take on the added burden of a rare and demanding double, trying to become the first woman to win -- or even win medals in -- the 200 and 400 meters at worlds, as well as run both relays.

The challenge seems even more daunting in a season when Felix has proved more vulnerable at both distances.

"She is still a kid," said her coach, Bob Kersee, explaining Felix needs more time to master the 400.

"I feel old," Felix said.

She is 25, in her ninth season of competing against the best in the world. She has won an unprecedented three straight outdoor world titles in the 200, but, frustratingly, back-to-back silver medals in the race at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics. Without an individual Olympic gold medal while running just one event, she may boldly try for two next year in London.

"It is time for me to step out of my comfort zone," Felix said.

For Felix, a little discomfort on the track is what will have to do as attention-getting outrageousness. There will be no nine-inch fingernails, trash talking opponents or posing for men's magazines. She may have a high six-figure Nike contract, drive a Mercedes sedan and look like a model at awards galas, but her flash comes mainly from her charismatic smile and how quickly she gets from one point to another.

"She is humble, gregarious, gracious," Kersee said. "When you get to know Allyson, you would want her to babysit your children."

She is also the one who dropped everything a month before the 2008 Olympics and made a wearying 72-hour round trip from Europe to Los Angeles to be maid of honor in Dixon's wedding. Felix had to leave before the reception to fly back for her next race.

"That meant so much to me," Dixon said.

Loyalty. Trustworthiness. Consistent high achievement. And a religious faith that underpins everything she does.

So you might think Allyson Felix is too good to be true. If you ever have thought about her at all, that is. Such is the diminished state of track and field in the United States that its stars are largely unnoticed.

"Sport is not sport anymore," Kersee said. "It's drama, entertainment. ... And there are people now who hate our sport, who don't think we have genuine, clean, nice athletes.

"Eventually the recognition will come to her. And when it does, it will last a lifetime."

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Allyson Felix still was looking for a comfort zone when she came to a track tryout her freshman year at Los Angeles Baptist High School. Her family had just returned to California after three years in Denver, and her adjustment to the private school wasn't easy.

Felix had legs thin as stilts and was wearing basketball sneakers when she ran 60 yards so fast L.A. Baptist coach Jonathan Patton didn't believe his watch. She ran again, and the result was the same.

"What's your name?" Patton asked her.

It also was Felix's introduction to track. She would qualify for the state meet as a freshman and win her first of five state titles in the sprints as a sophomore.

"She had assurance that comes from abiding by a higher code," Patton said.

Her father is a minister and professor who recently added a doctor of theology to his three master's degrees. Her mother is a third-grade teacher. Wes, now her manager, graduated from USC. Their home in Santa Clarita was a place where faith and respect reigned.

"I was a disruptive child," she said, impishly.

Whoa: tabloid stuff? Not exactly. She did nothing more than show a little sass and vinegar and get what she calls "slap-happy."

"She was a little firecracker," Dixon said.

That side of Felix is invisible to all but her close friends. Kersee sees it when she comments on what he calls "my crazy workouts" by giving him the "Jekyll eyeball."

What other reaction is appropriate when Kersee follows you in his truck down San Vicente Boulevard in tony Brentwood, checking times at the points he has marked in red spray paint on trees or the curb, yelling if you aren't covering the three miles fast enough?

And that was nothing compared to some of the things Pat Connolly asked of Felix.

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Just before Felix ran her first outdoor worlds in 2003, she decided to turn pro rather than take a track scholarship at USC, where she nevertheless enrolled. Adidas, her first equipment sponsor, paid the tuition.

Less than a month after the 2003 Paris worlds ended, federal agents raided the BALCO lab in northern California. The raid unleashed a cataclysm of doping evidence about track athletes that led eventually to the jailing of the sport's biggest star, Marion Jones, and the discrediting and suspension of several other champions, including Kelli White, stripped of her 100 and 200 titles from the 2003 worlds, and Jones' coach, Trevor Graham.

Such was the environment the God-fearing Felix was plunging into.

"I was stunned," Felix said. "You heard about drugs, but to me it was like, 'Nobody is really doing that.' "

Graham, not yet implicated in BALCO, had been among the pro coaches recruiting Felix, but she did not want to move to his training base in North Carolina.

Felix chose Connolly, a three-time Olympian. She is best known for coaching 1984 Olympic 100-meter champion Evelyn Ashford, who was 19 when she took a surprising fifth in the 100 at her first Olympics in 1976 and 35 when she won a relay gold at her fourth in 1992.

"When you see the tremendous potential Evelyn and Allyson had, you want to be patient," Connolly said. "Even if you are amazingly talented, if you don't go the Marion Jones route."

"It took Evelyn nine years to reach her best. I was training Allyson for eight years down the road."

After 2004, it didn't seem Felix would need to be patient. She won the U.S. Olympic trials at 200 and then Olympic silver, setting a world junior record of 22.18 seconds in the Athens final.

Yet it was a trying year for Felix, who chafed at Connolly's training ideas and need for control. Their foundering relationship ended over a contract issue and Connolly's reluctance to move back to California from Virginia.

Felix switched to Kersee, who also had recruited her earlier. In their first season together, 2005, she won her first world title in the 200. Battling strep throat that left her at 105 pounds in 2006, she would not break the 22-second barrier until her final race of 2007, with a time, 21.81, that remains her personal best.

"I thought it would be easier to run fast," she said.

That she hasn't done it easily may not be a bad thing. In an era when exceptional performance provokes doping suspicion, Felix's times have not raised doubts.

The problem is such accomplishments don't attract attention the way a world record would. But the women's world records in the 100, 200 and 400 -- 10.49, 21.34, 47.6 -- all were set in track's doping high times of the 1980s, and they seem unapproachable.

"It's frustrating they are so out of reach," Felix said. "But the reality of it is they are not my goal."

Her goal was -- and is -- an individual-event Olympic gold medal. That she didn't win one in 2008 remains the greatest frustration of her career.

Felix came to Beijing with talk of three golds, in the 200 and two relays. She also arrived exhausted after three months that had included the death of her boyfriend's father, her college graduation and the whirlwind trip to be maid of honor.

After losing the 200 to Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown for the second straight Olympics, Felix lost it emotionally, sobbing on her mother's shoulder.

"I was heartbroken," she said, "To work four years and be beaten by the same person, it felt like there wasn't much improvement."

A year later, when she beat Campbell-Brown for the third straight world title, Felix said she would love to trade all three for Campbell-Brown's Olympic gold.

"It was a little bit of a joke, but I definitely don't put the world championships at the same level as the Olympics," Felix said.

That's why you have to wonder about the double, especially next year.

The schedule makes it more difficult, with the 400 preceding the 200 at worlds. Yet that is the order at next year's Olympics, and it was the order when Valerie Brisco-Hicks of the United States (1984) and Marie-Jose Perec of France (1992) became the only women to win both at the Olympics.

She has promised to stay in a comfort zone in 2012. "It looks like a selfish year to me," she said. No weddings, graduations, nothing that would distract from trying to win at least the 200 at the Olympics.

And if there is no individual gold, if she winds up after 2012 -- or another Olympics in 2016 -- like figure skater Michelle Kwan, who won five world titles but no Olympic title, who won infinite and everlasting respect for her graceful handling of disappointment? It is not hard to imagine Felix finding comfort in such recognition.

"I have thought about that," she admitted. "I'm going after it with everything I have, but if it doesn't happen for me, I'm going to be OK.

"I have learned that track doesn't define me. My faith defines me. I'm running because I have been blessed with a gift."

Allyson Felix should define track and field. The sport is blessed to have her.

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Year-by-year highlights of Allyson Felix' career:

(age in parentheses):

2003: At age 17, she made U.S. team for indoor and outdoor worlds in 200 meters. Won U.S. indoor title. Ran fastest 200 ever (22.11 seconds, at altitude) by a junior (19 & Under).

2004: Won Olympic silver medal (youngest 2004 track and field medalist) and won U.S. Olympic trials in 200. Set World Junior Record (22.18).

2005: Won world and U.S. title in 200. Had world's fastest time (22.13). Unbeaten in 10 finals.

2006: Despite lingering strep throat and hamstring injury, ran personal bests in 100 (11.04) and 200 (22.11)

2007: Won second world title at 200 and ran on gold-medal U.S. 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays. Broke 22 seconds in 200 for first time with 21.81 that remains personal best. Broke 50 seconds in 400 with time (49.70) that remains personal best.

2008: Olympic silver medal in 200, gold with 4 x 400 relay. Won Olympics trials in 200. Broke 11 seconds in 100 (10.93) becoming one of just eight women to be sub-11, sub-22, sub-50 in 100, 200, 400 in career.

2009: Won 200 at worlds, becoming first woman with three golds in sprint event in history of the meet. Ran on gold-medal 4 x 400 relay. Unbeaten in seven finals at 200.

2010: U.S. indoor champion in 400. World Indoor Championships gold on 4 x 400 relay. Unbeaten in five finals at 400.

2011: Won U.S. title at 400, becoming first woman with national titles at 100, 200, 400 during career.

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