At last, Felix solves Olympic puzzle

LONDON -- There were no tears for Allyson Felix, and no capering around in celebration, either. After a decade spent chasing the perfect 22 seconds, what she most needed to do was exhale. Deeply. Twice.

Her gold-medal time of 21.88 seconds in the 200-meter Olympic event Wednesday wasn't a personal best in the stopwatch sense. It was the culmination of a painstaking couple of years during which Felix tweaked and experimented and hunted for the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle she left out where she could see it every day, waiting to be solved.

She finally pressed them into place: coming out of the blocks without too much of a deficit; building velocity through the curve into the top of the homestretch; opening up her stride -- which stretches out and then ripples like a satin ribbon in the breeze -- at just the right time.

Felix had managed to do it everywhere but the Summer Games, which in her exacting mind meant nowhere. She is a humble person who takes nothing for granted but often insisted she would trade her three world championship gold medals for one at the Olympics.

"The moments that motivated me the most were losing on the biggest stage and never forgetting that feeling," she said. "Now I'm able to say that I embrace that journey, because that is what has pushed me all these years."

At the 2004 Athens Games, Felix was a raw talent who nonetheless expected to win and was surprised when she discovered she should have taken a victory lap after finishing second. In Beijing in 2008, she had insufficient defenses to withstand the pressure of expectation and outside demands, and believes to this day that was the fractional difference between gold and silver. After both races, she wept.

Last year, understandably enticed by her own versatility, she raced the 400 and 200 at the world championships. The latter suffered.

This season, at 26, Felix finally had the confidence to speak up and define her terms of engagement with her sport. She convinced her famous coach, Bobby Kersee, that she needed to return to the speed-based training she has loved since she laced up a pair of basketball shoes at Los Angeles Baptist High School and went out for the track team. It helped that she is talented enough to have the luxury to run the 100 as a means to an end and still excel at it.

"When she was younger, she wouldn't have told Bobby, 'This is what I need,'" her brother and manager, Wes Felix, told ESPN.com a few hours after the race.

Installing Wes at the gateway of her world a couple of years ago was the first step in Allyson's self-definition. Her older brother -- once a promising runner in his own right -- has been the buffer between her and the outside world since they were small children, the one who can look into her huge eyes and take her emotional temperature in an instant. He was the only person who understood the sport and in whom she could invest absolute trust.

When Wes referred her to a strength coach he had known at the University of Southern California, she went unquestioningly. If he told her an interview or a sponsor appearance was important, she did it. Allyson asked Wes to not even consult her about opportunities he turned down. She trained. He did the rest.

On Wednesday night, Wes sat with their parents, Paul, a minister and professor, and Marlean, a schoolteacher, in seats 12 rows up and perhaps 60 meters from the finish. Marlean is normally wracked with anxiety when she watches her daughter's races, but not on this occasion. "I had a peace with it this time," she told ESPN.com. Perhaps this is because the close-knit family knew Allyson had controlled every element she could and was primed to lift her hands from the track and let go.

There was no one else in her line of vision when she crossed the finish line. Felix slowed to a walk and let out a long breath. She exchanged quick hugs with the other medalists -- bronze medalist Carmelita Jeter of the U.S. and runner-up Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica -- and two-time defending Olympic champion and fourth-place finisher Veronica Campbell-Brown, the sight of whose back and shoulders has been floating in Felix's subconscious for eight years now.

Then Felix strolled deliberately around the track, twice the distance she had just run, stopping along the way to hold up a U.S. flag behind her slender frame. She exuded pride but no ego. When she spotted her family in the stands, she hopped down into a photographers' pit to make her way to them, dry-eyed and satisfied at last. "It was just complete happiness," she said.

One of the most remarkable things about Felix is neither of her two crushing moments of loss at the Olympics sent her into a tailspin. There was no joy in those results, yet she retained her delight in getting faster and stronger and driving to be higher on the podium.

The signature composition from the "Chariots of Fire"' soundtrack is played at every medal ceremony here and passed the point of overexposure long ago, but it couldn't be more appropriate for Felix. She feels about her gift the way Scottish runner Eric Liddell did, and tries to walk the walk as well as run the curve.

As actor Ian Charleson said in the movie, standing under an umbrella in the pouring rain, "Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within." Felix tapped that might, and finally breathed freely.