Allyson Felix: Olympic gold at last for athlete of uncommon grace

Allyson Felix had known only disappointment at previous Olympics. But in winning the 200 meters Wednesday, Felix found that the setbacks had led her to a place even more 'special.' 

By , Staff writer

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    Allyson Felix (2nd r.) crosses the finish line to win gold ahead of Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (r.) in the women's 200-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Wednesday.
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When Allyson Felix crossed the finish line first in the 200 meters at the Olympic Stadium Wednesday night, there was not a single fist pump, nor was there a visceral scream of vindication. There was just her smile, broadening in the realization of what she had finally accomplished, and three words not even spoken aloud: "Thank you, Lord."

For Felix, that constituted a victory celebration.

No matter that this was the biggest moment of her professional career. No matter that eight years of her life had been singly focused on this one achievement. No matter that an Olympic gold was the one missing piece in a résumé that has seen her heralded as the greatest female 200-meter sprinter of her generation. 

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When that moment of fruition came, it was still the same Allyson Felix – the woman whose rapturous stride is only the most obvious expression of an inner grace.

The daughter of a preacher and a third-grade school teacher, Ms. Felix was raised to recognize that there is more to life than sprinting. Motivated by strong faith, Felix often says her sprinting is "a gift from God," and that she does it to praise Him. She downloads sermons to listen to when she is on the road, and before every race, she and her mother say a prayer – even if it's over the phone.

Speaking of the Scottish missionary and Olympic sprinter whose life was chronicled in "Chariots of Fire," she told ESPN the Magazine: "Eric Liddell said that when he ran, he felt the joy of the Lord through him. I always think, 'It cannot just be you'.... That's not all there is."

After turning pro at age 18, Felix still got a degree from University of Southern California, doing the work between and sometimes on the way to events. Before Beijing, she agreed to be part of a program by the US Anti-Doping Agency called "Project Believe," in which 12 athletes agreed to increased testing in an effort to help the agency improve its methods for catching drug cheats. 

"When you get to know Allyson, you would want her to babysit your children," her coach, Bob Kersee, told the Chicago Tribune.

But for the past four years, she has struggled and made no attempt to hide it. "Anything besides winning is utter failure to her," brother and agent Wes told ESPN, and for two consecutive Olympic Games, she had not won. 

First there was Athens, and Felix was the up-and-coming 18 year old who sprinted to an unexpected silver – the youngest track and field medalist at those Games. Under the stadium and away from the cameras, she still cried, crushed at losing.

Then came Beijing and another silver – again coming second to the same woman, Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown. When she saw her parents in the crowd after crossing the finish line in Beijing, she dissolved into tears right there on the track.  

But on Wednesday, those tears became something more than a bitter memory. They became part of a journey that, while perhaps not the one that Felix had imagined, led to someplace that was sweeter for the struggle. 

"The moments that motivated me were losing on the biggest stage," she said after the race Wednesday. "Now I am able to say that I embrace that journey because that's what brought me here."

That journey has included three world championships (though she once quipped that she'd be happy to exchange all three titles for one of Campbell-Brown's gold medals). It also included the debacle of the Olympic trials, when Felix thought she had failed to qualify for the 100 meters, then found out she had tied teammate Jeneba Tarmoh and had to race a runoff, and then finally that she had made the team because Tarmoh pulled out. 

In the 100 meters here, Felix posted a personal best of 10.89 seconds, finishing fifth. But really, the 100 meters was all about making her faster at the start of her 200 meters. 

Felix is, by almost universal consent, beautiful to watch run. For the track and field purist, Felix is Tennyson in track shoes – her stride something transcendent in its grace – a long, lissome sweep of the legs between bounds. While many sprinters appear to be churning their legs like Saturday-morning cartoons, Felix hangs in the air between each footfall like an antelope in full flight.

But that stride has been "blessing and curse," Felix said Wednesday, noting that it takes time to find that signature rhythm, and by the time she does, others have sometimes put her too far in the rearview mirror. Wes added Wednesday: "If you look at all the races she's lost over the past few years, she's lost them in the first 60 meters – she let the others get too far ahead and couldn't catch them."

On Wednesday, she didn't need to. Running the 100 "was huge for me," she said. "It helped me to be aggressive and know that speed would help in the 200 – and it did."

When she crossed the finish line in that joyous serenity embodied in her craft, she looked for her parents.

"Tonight, I saw them and it was just complete happiness," she said.

Tomorrow, she will receive her gold medal in the Olympic Stadium, and the loudspeakers will play the music from "Chariots of Fire," as they always do during the medal ceremonies for the London Olympics. It could hardly be more fitting for a woman who, like that Scottish missionary, found her fulfillment in the glory of something greater.

"It was all for a reason," Felix said. "It kept me motivated and made this moment so special."

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