Track star Allyson Felix focuses on singular challenge of the 400 for the Rio Olympic Games
LOS ANGELES - In further confirmation of her status as American track and field’s most (or only) transcendent superstar, Allyson Felix was scheduled to appear at England’s Oxford Union last month.
The four-time Olympic and nine-time World champion was set to join three U.S. presidents, four British prime ministers including Winston Churchill, and the likes of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama among others in appearing at the self-proclaimed world’s “most prestigious debating society.”
The appearance, however, was postponed, another victim of the freak training accident that ultimately derailed what was supposed to be the crowing achievement in the career of the greatest American sprinter of her generation, the centerpiece of what her longtime coach Bob Kersee called Felix’s “legacy year”: an attempt at sweeping the 400 and 200 meter gold medals at the Olympic Games.
Felix’s historic pursuit ended at the Olympic Trials where, after winning the 400, she finished fourth in the 200, clearly still hobbled by an ankle injury that kept her off the track for nearly a month during a key training period this spring.
In refocusing this month, Felix didn’t have to look hard to find a new challenge.
“I think this year became a challenge in itself,” she said. “And it’s a different challenge. It’s one I wouldn’t have chosen. I would have rather just had everything go perfectly, but I think that’s just kind of life sometimes. You hit these bumps in the road, and you have get creative and have to figure out how to figure it out. But I think one event (at the Olympics) is going to be challenging. I think that the difference is going to be me trying to attempt the double with a lot of people in the past. This is a true challenge A different kind of challenge.”
The year’s original challenge had been to join a club even more exclusive than the Oxford Union guest list. The combination of Felix’s already golden resume and her attempt to become only the fourth person, the first in 20 years, to win both the 400 and 200 in the same Summer Games made her second to perhaps only Michael Phelps as America’s most marketable Olympic athlete. She has deals with Visa, ATT, Gatorade, and Proctor Gamble, for which she is the star of a Bounty national ad campaign.
The real clean-up job, however, was left to Kersee and a team of doctors and physical therapists to pick up the pieces left by an accident and an injury that nearly shattered Felix’s season.
It had already been a rough year.
“It seemed like everything was coming at me,” she said.
Felix’s beloved dog Chloe died. Then mid-April she was wrapping up a core workout in which she does pull-ups while also raising her knees up to her chest with a medicine ball between her legs. With the exercise complete, Felix dropped the medicine ball and jumped down thinking she was clear of the ball. Instead she landed in such an awkward way that she initially thought she had fractured her right ankle.
“I had never seen my ankle that big before, just immediately,” Felix said. “When it happened there were a number of thoughts that were running through my head. It was just a scary moment. Especially I had never had anything like that happen before. I think that made it even scarier for me.”
For much of the spring Felix spent almost as much time in the pool as Phelps. And when she wasn’t in the water she was on a bike or working with a therapist. She just wasn’t on the track.
“We weren’t able to do much for the 200 at all,” Felix said. “I was only on the track for about a month before Trials. I couldn’t quite push out off the right ankle, so I might have gotten in the blocks once or twice before Trials.”
Although running with a noticeable, if slight, limp, Felix’s strength carried her through the 400 rounds, her world leading 49.68 victory in Trials final capping the first weekend in Tracktown.
Kersee called it the most special victory of her career.
“Without a doubt,” he said.
The 200 would be another story.
Struggling with the ankle in both the start and around the turn, Felix finally mounted a late charge down the homestretch in the 200 only to just miss catching former Oregon NCAA champion Jenna Prandini for third place and the final spot on the Olympic team.
“I’m definitely still dealing with some pain,” Felix said a few days later. “But I think kind of the biggest thing with the Trials was just the time I had to have off from the track and the time I was not able to work on (the 200), a lack of speed work, I think that was my biggest issue that was most apparent that made me feel not like myself. And I think in the 400 I was able to get away with the amount of strength work that we did early on and in the (200) you just can’t do that.
“I feel like two more weeks and it’s a different result.”
Despite the injury, Prandini held Felix off by a mere hundredth of a second.
The narrow margin only added to Felix’s frustration. She was asked how long it took her to get over the 200.
“I’m not moving on yet,” she said.
“I think it’s just different for everybody. I think for me waking up the next day was worse because it’s setting in, something that you had hoped would happen for so long, it’s not a possibility anymore. And I think the hardest thing for me was that it’s not that I didn’t feel like I wasn’t capable. I feel like I ran out of time. I think that’s harder to deal with but that’s just sports. It’s just what happens so you just have to regroup and move forward.”
So Felix, for much of her career a reluctant quarter-miler, now turns her attention exclusively to the 400.
“I just regroup and I go after the 400,” said Felix, the 2015 World 400 champion. “I think it just looks different then what I had imagined. I had I hoped to go after the double and it’s kind of like something hits you and you just refocus and the goals just change.”
The 200 has always been Felix’s signature event, and for years she saw herself as a 200/100 specialist. She was fifth in the 2012 Olympic 100 final before winning a 200 gold in London to go with her three World 200 titles.
“I still to this day ... I don’t particularly like it,” Felix said of the 400. “It’s not fun for me. What I’ve grown to like about it is the challenge. I always like to see what I can do and how I can push myself.
“Bobby has always loved the 400 of course with Valerie and he always talks about everything she’s done,” Felix continued, referring to former Kersee pupil Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who at the 1984 Olympics became the first person to sweep the 400 and 200 titles. “I think his love for it kind of encouraged me to go for the challenge of it.”
Some of that challenge in Rio will come from Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas, the runner-up to Felix at last year’s Worlds (49.26 to 49.67). Miller followed up a 49.69 clocking in Nassau in April with a 49.55 victory at London’s Diamond League meet last week, a mark that replaced Felix’s Trials clocking as the world leader.
Then there’s the clock and history.
Perhaps as much as any event, the women’s 400 has been tainted by the specter of performance enhancing drugs. East Germany’s Marita Koch owns five of the seven fastest times in history, including the nearly 31-year-old world record of 47.60. Thirteen of history’s 16 fastest times were posted by Soviet bloc athletes in the 1980s.
But many in the sport believe Felix, whose personal best came in her Worlds victory, is capable of reaching the remaining three times in the not so sweet 16: Marie-Jose Perec of France and Australia’s Cathy Freeman’s marks - 48.25 and 48.63 - from the 1996 Olympic final, and Sanya Richards-Ross’ decade old American record of 48.70.
“Bobby believes that I can, and I typically go with what he says,” Felix said. “I feel like there’s some more left there so I don’t know what that looks like, but I definitely feel like I can improve for sure.”
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