Allyson Felix on running above it all
This story on No. 16 athlete Allyson Felix appears in the 20th anniversary issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
She went out for the track team on a whim. Allyson Felix loved basketball, so she wore long, baggy shorts and Gary Payton Gloves to her debut tryout -- a 60-yard dash on a high school track in suburban Los Angeles. It didn't take long to see that she was something special.
"At first, [coach Jonathan Patton] thought his clock was wrong," Felix says. "So he remeasured the distance and had me run it again and again. It was three or four times, and then he was like, 'OK, you're actually kind of fast.'"
Ten weeks after that tryout, Felix became the only freshman to qualify for the California state meet. Almost immediately the comparisons to Marion Jones began. In 2001, Felix became the first sophomore since Jones in 1990 to win a California state title in the 100 meters. In 2003, Felix broke Jones' national high school record in the 200. But in 2004, their paths and legacies diverged. Felix won silver in the 200 at the Summer Games in Athens, just as questions of doping were beginning to form around Jones.
Felix mostly stayed quiet about the PED drug scandals that enveloped her sport. But now at age 32, with six gold and three silver medals to her name, she's been feeling empowered to speak her mind.
"Going back, what makes me most proud is looking at the people that I competed with and the era that I competed in, knowing that I did it the right way," says Felix, who has never failed a drug test. "I may not have the most gold medals or all the records, but I know in my heart that I competed against a lot of people who ... It wasn't a fair field."
Fairness came into question in a different way in 2016, when she lost the gold in the 400 meters at the Rio Games. Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dove across the finish line to beat her by 0.07 of a second, a controversial but legal move that upset many track fans.
Felix said she had no idea about the dive -- which Miller and her coach say was an unintentional result of reaching for the finish line -- until her brother, Wes, showed her a picture of it on his phone. "Then it was crazy because it's just like a storm of being asked about it," Felix says. "But at the end of the day, I don't have the gold medal, so who cares?"
Felix handled the questions with grace, rallying to lead the United States to gold in the 4x100 and 4x400 races. Although she'd hoped for more in Rio, she now regards those Games as the height of her career, not only because she came back to win the relays but because she ran so well despite a devastating ankle injury just before the U.S. trials.
"I always think, 'OK, there's some child somewhere watching,'" she says. "Let's pull this together and just keep pushing."
Ramona Shelburne played softball at Stanford and, as a reporter in L.A., covered Felix's rise.