With 2020 Olympics postponed, sprinter Allyson Felix continues the fight

Instead of preparing for her fifth Olympics, Allyson Felix is living in uncertainty -- but she's determined to push through it, no matter how long it takes. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

IT'S ALMOST ALWAYS a bit cooler in Santa Monica than in the rest of Los Angeles. The marine layer lingers above the palm-tree-lined streets near the Pacific Ocean deep into the early afternoon. It's smart to bring along a sweater for when the sea breezes roll in.

That's one reason Bobby Kersee has trained his track and field athletes here, on the grassy median of San Vicente Boulevard, since before the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. On the hottest days of summer and early fall, they come here for long conditioning runs when they'd be melting on tracks further inland.

"This is my least favorite part," four-time Olympian Allyson Felix says with a sigh. She's a sprinter -- the most accomplished female track and field athlete in Olympic history, with nine medals, including six gold -- so long distances and long waits before competition aren't her thing. "Normally we're here in the fall."

But with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo postponed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Felix and Kersee, her coach, have shifted their calendar, back to what would typically be a summer or fall workout schedule.

And instead of training on the junior college track near her house in Santa Clarita, they're training on city streets or whatever green spaces haven't been closed by California's shelter-at-home social distancing ordinances.

"We were out on the track right after the orders came down," Felix recalls. There were only three of them there, and they were well over 6 feet apart. But letting them stay wasn't an option -- not even for one of the most decorated sprinters in history. "After the last rep of our workout, the sheriff came out and kicked us off the track."

"Obviously, it's really disappointing," Felix says. "But I think everybody else is going through this right now too. Across the board -- whether you're in athletics, whether you have a small business. Everyone is experiencing some type of loss or some type of disruption to your life."

The key, Felix says, is the attitude with which you approach these challenges.

It's taken her more than a year to get back to where she was physically before giving birth to her first child, Camryn, via emergency C-section in November 2018. She spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit with her daughter and another two recovering from the surgery. While she has made it back to her pre-pregnancy conditioning -- Kersee said he expected her to run lifetime bests in the 200 and 400 meters this season -- at age 34, there's no telling how long her body can stay at this elite level.

Another year might be the difference between winning medals at her fifth Olympics and just making the team. Another year means another year of everyone in her circle -- her husband, brother, coaches, friends, parents -- putting their plans on hold to support her dreams.

For Felix, it's important to look all those uncertainties in the eye. But it's just as important not to dwell in that place for too long -- to find new resolve and purpose.

"I'm used to fighting," she says. "That's what we've been doing. Now we just continue on. You get your focus and do what you have to do."

KERSEE HAS BEEN training athletes on this stretch of San Vicente Boulevard for so long, he's got the distances between blocks memorized. There's a stretch going north toward 7th Street that's perfect for a warm-up and cool-down run. The section headed east on 4th Street with the grass and palm trees is perfect for practicing starts.

On the first Tuesday in April, Kersee is putting Felix and her training partner, 23-year-old Australian hurdler Madison Gipson, through one of the usual circuits -- the same one he's used with legends like Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michelle Perry and Valerie Brisco-Hooks over the years.

Just watching the warm-up is exhausting. But with Los Angeles on lockdown, it's also some of the best live entertainment in the neighborhood. Families come out onto the balconies of their apartments to watch, little kids cheering on the runners as they stride up and down 4th Street.

Kersee, 66, doesn't yell as much as he used to, but he's still prone to the occasional curse word or bout of braggadocio. When the question comes up of how a 34-year-old Felix has been able to return to elite form so soon after giving birth, Kersee blurts out, "Because she has Bobby Kersee as her coach," and then laughs.

"I'm about to turn into an a--hole," he says, shaking his head. "And I don't want to do that anymore."

Kersee spent five weeks in the hospital last year with pancreatitis and is doing everything he can to keep himself from having to go back: face masks when he's within 10 feet of anyone, a bottle of hand sanitizer always in his pocket or backpack, gloves when he opens mail or packages at his house in Inglewood.

There might come a time when he doesn't feel safe going outside at all. But he's been Felix's coach since she was a shy 15-year-old from a tiny Christian school in the San Fernando Valley, coming out of nowhere to break Marion Jones' vaunted high school records in California. He committed to training Felix for as long as she wanted to compete after her pregnancy. And he's committed to training her now for as long as he's able to -- from a safe distance and away from the tracks, trails and parks that California has officially closed.

"She knows I've been through it in this sport," he says. "I've been to every Olympic Games since 1980. We had the boycott, then there were gas wars. It was nothing like this.

"But I think she just turned to me like, 'OK, well, I know Bobby and he's not stopping. He's not quitting. He's not going to get emotional about it. He's looking for another play.'

"When she was pregnant, I guess that was Plan B. I guess this is, unfortunately, pun intended, I guess this is Plan C."

Kersee estimates he's trained six or seven elite runners who became mothers. It takes a year or sometimes 18 months, he says, for the body to recover fully after childbirth. Felix's experience was especially difficult because she suffered from preeclampsia -- a serious, sometimes fatal pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure -- and had an emergency C-section.

When she did start training again, three months after giving birth, Kersee was in the hospital. So whatever work Felix could get in at the University of Michigan -- where she and her husband, Kenneth Ferguson, were living at the time -- was alone, on very little sleep, after pumping breast milk for Camryn on the way to the track.

"But she always does her work," Kersee says. "All the great ones, it's very simple. You have to hold them back. They don't need to be pushed.

"Every once in a while, I gotta shoot her an eyeball. But she doesn't need to be pushed."

Kersee doesn't say much when Felix is training. He observes, checks his stopwatch and occasionally waves his arm as she glides by to direct her to focus on her form. But mostly he's monitoring and plotting out what's next.

"Take it up to 7th Street. Let's goooooo!" he yells, wiggling his arms and legs like he's doing a TikTok dance. "Let's go! You've been locked up too long. Everybody's going stir-crazy."

Felix tosses her water bottle to the side and starts running. There's no use asking for more time or questioning his reasoning for such a short break.

"Yeah. No. There's nothing to say back to Bobby," she says.

Training an elite athlete to five Olympics would be a new feat even for Kersee, who has coached some of the greatest track and field athletes in history, including his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who competed in four Summer Games.

"Twenty years ago, you went to maybe one Olympic Games, you graduated from college, you got married, you had a baby and you're on your way," Kersee says. "Now female athletes are going further and further and further.

"I've been coaching women all my life. But you still don't know what a woman can do because they never allowed the woman to get to this spot before."

This summer, Felix was poised not just to qualify for Tokyo but to contend for medals -- giving her a chance to break a tie with Jamaica's Merlene Ottey for the most career Olympic medals in women's track and field.

While this postponement is a setback, Felix says she remains just as motivated to reach those goals -- even though it means another year of these training runs with Kersee.

"Honestly, I've always enjoyed training," she says. "When you wake up and you just don't want to go to practice, then it's time to walk away."

But she hasn't felt that yet -- mostly.

"I don't think I'll miss Bobby every day," she jokes about retirement. "There will be days where I'll want to come see who he has out there, and see if I can jump in to see if I can beat them. That's how I am and how I challenge myself. But day to day, I can do with a few less cussing-out sessions."

FELIX'S BROTHER WES is standing nearby, filming her workout. This is the first time he's gotten out of the house for anything other than groceries in a while too. He has represented Felix for 10 years, but he's expanded his clientele to other track stars like Sydney McLaughlin, Kori Carter, Kendall Ellis and Mary Cain -- Olympic favorites or hopefuls themselves. Since social distancing began, his days have mostly been spent on the phone, figuring out what all of these changes mean for his clients.

It's his job to worry about how the Olympic postponement affects their careers and business interests. His job to manage relationships with sponsors and to make sure everyone's family is healthy and taken care of.

"My initial reaction was just how hard I knew [Allyson] was going to take it, because I know how much she puts into it and what it all really means to her," he says.

"Then came my own disappointment of wow, this was something we have been working towards for a long time. And to see some of the things finally start to come together where, I think, Allyson was one of those top three names going into the Tokyo Olympics."

After years of being the quiet, noncontroversial champion -- revered for her class and accomplishments but often ignored because of those same attributes -- Felix had finally started earning more recognition when she began to speak out on issues related to black maternal morbidity and Nike's maternity leave policies. Former first lady, Michelle Obama, even tweeted at her last September, after she won her 12th gold medal at the World Championships in Doha, breaking Usain Bolt's record for most World Championship gold medals.

"It's been hard watching that conflict of, 'How do you do things the right way and still get the attention that you deserve?'" Wes says. "Like, if she went on TV and talked about her sex life, then she'd be this super exciting, polarizing figure that everybody loves and wants to talk about. Or if she got in trouble or dated a celebrity. All the things that, as a brother, I'm so thankful she didn't do.

"But we finally just got to where we said, 'Whatever, who cares? Just do you. Do what you're supposed to do. Be proud of the woman you are, and everything else is going to be whatever it is.'

"Then Cam came along and everything changed."

Felix wrote first-person essays for espnW and The New York Times, talking about her harrowing birth experience as well as her conflict with Nike, her longtime shoe sponsor. Felix split with Nike last year after she said the company offered her a contract worth 70% less than her previous deals.

In her essays, Felix directly called on Nike to change its maternity policies for athletes, and a series of New York Times stories in which female athletes spoke out about their issues with the company followed. In August, Nike amended its maternity leave policies to ensure that performance-based clauses were not invoked for pregnant athletes for at least 18 months, beginning eight months before the mother's due date.

Felix says she heard from dozens of current and former Nike athletes, thanking her for the role she played in pressuring the company to change. But she had little interest in reconciling with her former sponsor. "Once the policy was changed, we were going to maybe attempt to see if something could work," she says. "But it just got to a point for me where it was bigger than that. It was just almost like a new chapter, and I felt like I needed to go somewhere where I could really truly believe in the mission."

She has since signed an apparel deal with the lifestyle brand Athleta, but she has yet to sign with another footwear sponsor.

"I don't know if that's, like, a whistleblower thing," Wes says. "I don't know if that's just an older woman thing. I don't know. But from my standpoint, I feel like having one of the top names going into the Tokyo Olympics without a footwear sponsor seems pretty odd.

"It's not like nobody knows who she is. But it's like they don't want to have the bull's-eye on them."

Although the split with Nike has been costly, Felix says she has no regrets.

"If it's important enough that you've got to speak on it," she says, "then you've got to be willing to put yourself out there.

"I remember when I was talking to Wes about doing the op-ed, it came to a point where I was like, 'I don't know what's going to happen, but I just strongly feel that I need to do this.'"

If anything, speaking out has given Felix a new sense of purpose.

"Then this authentic thing just happens," she says. "A lot of people reached out to me through social media, just everyday people across all industries, saying they'd had similar experiences. That was so encouraging to me. It gave me that push to go forward."

THERE IS NO applause when Felix finishes her workout on San Vicente. The neighbors have long since gone back inside by the time she and Gipson finish their cool-down run. Kersee puts on his mask as they stretch, offers up some hand sanitizer and leaves them with instructions on what to do the rest of the day.

As remarkable as the current circumstances are, this is just one of thousands of these conditioning workouts Felix has finished over the years. She'll do another one tomorrow morning, and the next day, and the next.

"Everything has changed," she says in between breaths after the workout. "But nothing's changed at the same time, you know?"

Felix likes the structure of training. The focus it requires. The purpose she wakes up with each morning. The sense of accomplishment the work fills her with.

It helps to have Kersee pushing her, but she's been doing this long enough that she can do it herself if need be.

The previous morning, Kersee couldn't make it up to Santa Clarita for training, so Felix measured off some distances on the street outside her house, then had her husband time her with his iPhone while he held their daughter.

A woman with two dogs jogged past her as she measured off 50-meter sections of the road. A giant red truck drove by, taking forever to make a three-point turn at the end of the cul-de-sac. Felix waited patiently.

It was mostly quiet in that slice of suburbia, 30 miles north of Los Angeles, until a gardener fired up a leaf blower across the street -- the noise so loud it startled 15-month-old Camryn in her toy car.

The workout consisted of three 150-meter sprints up a hill, with a 10-minute recovery period in between. Each sprint was to be 19 to 20 seconds. Felix raised her hand when she was about to start and lowered it when she took off. That was Ferguson's visual cue to start the timer.

"All the way through!" he yelled as she sprinted past the parked cars jutting out into the street. "19.3! Good!"

It was not an ideal surface to be running on. The concrete will take a toll on her knees. But Ferguson is trying to look at the bright side of this new reality.

"When she got back from track practice [the day the Olympics were canceled], she was just shocked," Ferguson says. "I just found myself calming her down and trying to help her see the bigger picture. Like, 'You have another full fall season, and you just saved a year on your legs.'

"I really think she's gotten better each day. Because the other night, right before bed -- we were starting Season 3 of 'Ozark.' She literally got in bed and said, 'You know what? I feel really strong right now, and I'm just happy that I'm going to have a whole other cycle to do this all over again and add on to this year.'"

Ferguson left his extended family and his job in Detroit over the summer when he and Felix moved back to California so she could train with Kersee. He's the primary caregiver for their daughter when Felix is training, so the Olympic postponement means his life is postponed too.

"That's not a problem for me," he says. "I can always get back into the plant. I'm not losing any seniority or anything. It's just a blessing being able to help and be there full time with Cammy and do all that I can to support my wife.

"I wake up sometimes and just watch those two nap, and I'm like, 'God really answered my prayers, and everything just worked out the way it's supposed to.'"

There was no applause when Felix finished the workout in front of her house either. But there was Camryn. As soon as Felix lay down on her yoga mat on the front lawn to stretch, Camryn ran over and lay on her mother's chest. It took a minute for Felix to catch her breath.

"You've got to find the positive in this," she says. "Life is going to eventually get back to normal, so let's embrace the time that we have together now."