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Thirty Questions, Part 2

Gone in 20 Seconds

Allyson Felix finally has the gold medal she always wanted. Now what?

As she rounded the curve, Allyson Felix was all alone. She couldn’t see anyone. Not the other sprinters in the 200-meter dash at the London Olympic Games. Not her family in the stands. Not her coach. No one. She said when you’re in the race, the rest of the world is blotted out. And even if she could see, Felix didn’t have a second to swivel her head. Still, she could feel her competitors on her neck. She always starts slow — in the first 80 meters, she has to remind herself to pick up her knees and drive — but after a few strides, she uncoils into that full, elegant gait. And she always finishes with a burst. Good thing, too.

Track is a cruel sport. Elite Olympic athletes train for a decade, with just a flash of time to legitimize their efforts. They get a chance once every four years. Those fleeting moments — in Felix’s case, the time it takes to fire off a short e-mail — occur under intense scrutiny. Then, they’re whisked away again. Most aren’t heard from for another four years, assuming they’re fortunate enough to qualify for another Games.

Last August, less than a week after winning her first gold medal at her third Olympics, Felix met with Grantland for the first of a series of conversations about life after the Games. During the first visit, she discussed her previous Olympic experiences, the buildup and pressure of the event, and accomplishing a lifelong dream at 26.

In 2004, and then again in 2008, Veronica Campbell-Brown caught Felix at the curve. Things were different in London. She crossed the finish line first, in 21.88 seconds, and said a thankful prayer. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser earned silver and Carmelita Jeter came in third. Campbell-Brown, Felix’s nemesis, finished fourth. “I don’t feel like I’m any different because of it,” Felix said in August. “I feel like there’s a lot left to accomplish. I guess to go down in history, you can’t do it without having an individual gold medal. This is my signature event. I just felt like I had to have it.”

You can go from next to ex in just one Olympics. That nearly happened to Felix. The 2004 Olympics in Athens had been more about the experience than anything else. She was the prodigy, the next Marion Jones — when Jones was still viewed as a clean athlete. After graduating from Los Angeles Baptist High School, Felix bypassed running collegiately at USC — though she still attended school — to go straight to the professional circuit.. She was 18 years old and precocious, but her wins were predicated on talent, not technique. Watch out, experts said, if she ever meshed the two. With little experience, she still managed to nab silver in the 200 in Athens. Her coronation at the Beijing Olympics four years later never happened. She finished second again, behind Jamaica’s Campbell-Brown again. Felix had improved her time from four years earlier. But so had Campbell-Brown.

She was devastated and downtrodden. “That was the real disappointment,” Felix said. “Having been pegged as a favorite and falling just short there.”

She returned home and trained. Isolation is another cruel characteristic of track. There are no teammates in competition, only competitors. Often it’s just coach and athlete, athlete and coach. Felix had started training professionally under the demanding former Olympian Pat Connolly. During a layover, Felix once worked out in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport as onlookers cast curious glances. Felix joined legendary coach Bob Kersee after Athens and trained with other Olympians including Joanna Hayes and Michelle Perry. She won three world championships in the 200, but couldn’t fill the void of not capturing gold on the biggest stage. She experimented with the 400, along with the 200, the race she has dubbed “my baby.” She dropped the former in favor of the 100, where a fast start means everything. That led to a frustrating predicament at last summer’s U.S. Olympic trials, when Felix and training partner Jeneba Tarmoh finished tied for third in the 100 and U.S. track officials had no elimination process in place to decide who would advance to the Olympics. Tarmoh withdrew from a controversial runoff proposed to decide the dead heat, allowing Felix to race in London’s 100.

“I knew the 200 was still to come, so that was my main thing,” Felix said. “It was kind of disappointing at trials that that was happening. I didn’t ask to be in that situation. Jeneba didn’t ask to be in it. And we were thrown into it because there weren’t plans to deal with it.”

Kersee shielded her from the media controversy, and Felix clocked a scorching 21.69 seconds at the U.S. trials.1 On the day of the 200 race, Felix woke up, ate breakfast, watched some of the Games, and caught up on a few episodes of Scandal. She made sure to stay in a flat by herself, outside of Olympic Village.

“It wasn’t the best situation to be in where you have your biggest race coming up,” Felix said after staying in the Village at two prior Olympics. “In the Village, you have your own room, but it’s a suite situation, kind of like college where you share the bathroom. It was just hard to sleep.”

The day dragged on in anticipation of the race that night. Equal parts joy and relief washed over her when she crossed the finish line. “It’s like you’re constantly thinking about going after this medal and if it doesn’t work out, it just seems like everything is going to fall apart,” she said. She stood on the podium and reminded herself to savor the feeling, that it wouldn’t last long.

Felix’s grandmother, Susan Felix, is 94. She was told that Felix had won the race before watching to contain her excitement. She posted a new Facebook status: “Hallelujah. Thank you Lord.”

After accepting her medal, Felix conducted a few interviews and underwent the mandatory drug testing. She joined her family. She took an ice bath and made one special request. She asked her brother, Wes, a former track star at USC working as her agent, for some Ben & Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Chunk ice cream.

Track and field came to the forefront in the States when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics. Carl Lewis claimed four gold medals there, including wins in the 100 and 200. Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee would later earn medal after medal. Before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Reebok revved up its prominence with the infamous Dan & Dave campaign, highlighting the competition between decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson and transforming them from anonymous figures into household names. (Dan & Dave failed to live up to the hype — Johnson could only secure a bronze medal in the decathlon, while O’Brien didn’t even qualify for the Games in ’92.) Michael Johnson set records in the 200 and 400 four years later at the Olympics in Atlanta. Jones burst onto the scene at the Sydney Olympics. It was 20 years of high time for track and field.

But the sport has mostly stagnated — in momentum, marketability, and popularity — ever since. Several top athletes, like Jones, entangled themselves in doping scandals. American male sprinters hold no answer — or even a challenger — for Usain Bolt. Interest in the sport has suffered. Swimming and gymnastics have lapped track in the Olympic arms race.

“In America, it’s just not big at all,” Felix said. “It’s a lot different from the past generations. A big thing is, we haven’t had an Olympics here. Atlanta and L.A., I think that really pulled people into the sport. And it’s just a disconnect. It’s hard to watch track. Just our whole season, like professionally, you have to know where to tune in. If you’re an everyday person, it’s going to be hard to follow. It has a long way to go.”

Felix, who is sponsored by Nike, is hoping to bridge that gap. She was one of track’s most recognizable faces in London, but what does that really mean?

“It’s a sport that I love and there’s such huge participation,” Felix said. “At the high school level, it’s one of the most participated sports. And there’s just this huge drop-off after college because you’re not just sprinting for fun and there’s really nowhere to go from there.”

That face was being fretted over for an Essence magazine photo shoot. She’s had just over a month to get comfortable with the idea of forever being identified as Allyson Felix, Gold-Medal Winner by the time we meet again in mid-September. She’s returned home and spent a few days with her family and friends. It’s been a whirlwind, split between media obligations and the conclusion of track season — a couple of races in Europe. Though nothing will compare to the thrill of the Olympics, she established a course record of 22.35 seconds in her final 200 race of the season at the IAAF World Challenge in Croatia, cruising past Aleen Bailey and Charonda Williams. “It was a nice way to end off the season,” Felix said.

The time represented an extended victory lap, an unfamiliar pose for Felix. She recalled the hopefulness after Athens and the despair after Beijing. She saw her family right after the race in China and felt like she’d unraveled before them. She vowed never to feel that way again. Felix was unsure whether she would have had the same motivation to win in London if she hadn’t lost the 200 in Beijing.

“That’s what I always wonder,” Felix said. “I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I think maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did now. I would like to think that I would, just because I feel like I have a pretty good work ethic, but I’m not sure.”

The realization had begun to set in: Felix did what she set out to do. Her goal was accomplished. Then the weirdness came. Strangers who recognized Felix would hug her for no reason, exultant over her success. “It’s kind of funny; people feel like you’re part of their family,” she said. She planned a vacation, her first real time off in months. Felix still struggles to verbalize what winning gold means. She doesn’t even keep the medal at her home. “I’ve never really been big into, like, displaying things like that,” she said. “It’s just never been my thing. I like the accomplishment, but it’s never for the medal or anything like that. To me, it’s just knowing that you did it.”

Her parents keep it safe for her. If they have company over, they’ll pull it out and proudly show it off. Felix only asks for it when she has a speaking engagement. She’s got more than one gold to choose from — along with her gold, two previous silvers, and her first gold, earned in the 4×400 in Beijing, Felix also claimed gold in the 4×100 and 4×400 relays in London.

Felix
Highlights from London’s 200 played on a massive monitor at Playa Vista Elementary. Felix was the guest of honor for a jog-a-thon in March. She sat waiting in a room while the students cheered her first-place finish. Felix has seen replays of the race only once in the seven months since the Olympics, and only because she’s been forced to do so for a media session. She’s critical of herself, even that 200. She can only think about what went wrong. There is no right, even with gold in hand.

She greeted the students and delivered her message about the importance of exercise and diet. It’s the same message she delivered in Chicago at a February event she emceed with Michelle Obama for an initiative to improve nutrition and increase youth activity. Felix still can’t believe the First Lady knows her name.

The students dispersed outside in preparation for their jog. A young girl approached Felix. She asked her a question Felix has heard before:

“Are you one of the fastest women in the world?”

“I’m one of them,” Felix replied.

She returned to full training in December. Those long, grueling workouts at UCLA have begun again.

“It’s kind of weird, because I feel like I haven’t necessarily been in this position before,” she said. “I’ve [accomplished goals] other than the Olympics, but I’ve never met all of my goals. So, I think the biggest thing is just kind of figuring out how to stay [motivated] and making sure that I’m working as hard as I was last year. That’s been the big challenge. I’m always kind of second-guessing myself, just making sure that the effort is the same.”

Felix acknowledged that while winning was satisfying, it isn’t the transformative experience one might assume.

“Your expectations are Maybe this is going to be a life-changing thing and nothing will ever be the same after this accomplishment, but I think the reality of it is that a lot of it has been the same,” Felix said. “You get back, you get into your routine. You shift goals, have new things you want to accomplish. But I think one of the big lessons is you can’t put your whole happiness in trying to accomplish that one thing because it may not be what you had expected. I’m not saying it’s not all great, but your life just goes on.”

So, Allyson Felix has achieved the gold-medal dream. But she has more races to run. Next comes the World Championships in August, and later, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I feel like it doesn’t end there,” she said. “I remember feeling like if I accomplished everything I wanted to, maybe I would retire or I’d be done. But you just shift and reevaluate. [If] you’re still enjoying it, you’re not done. You just look toward the next thing.”

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA's prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams