American sprinter Allyson Felix became one of the star athletes of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. A record-breaking sprinter in the 200-meter event, Felix is also the first American track athlete to enter professional ranks straight out of high school. She has been hailed as the new savior for an American track-and-field team blighted by rumors of doping, and she has found the sudden celebrity a bit intense. "You could say it's been a little busy, but it's all been good fun," she told Richard Luscombe of the London Observer. "Every-thing that's happened has been a blessing, something new and different, although all the attention takes a little adjusting to."
Born on November 18, 1985, Felix grew up in Santa Clarita, California. Her father, Paul, is a Baptist minister who had once been an excellent sprinter as a teen, and from her schoolteacher mother, Marlean, she inherited her long legs. Felix followed her older brother, Wes, into the sport, though she did not try out for a track team until her ninth-grade year at Los Angeles Baptist High School in North Hills. That March of 2000 date proved an apocryphal one: she was the first to make a run when the coach, Jonathan Patton, lined up the possible sprinting stars during tryout week. She ran it so fast that he thought he had mismeasured the distance, but then the other runners who came after her clocked in normal times. She ran it again at his request, and with the same result.
Felix went on to an impressive high school career almost immediately. Just ten weeks after that tryout, she qualified for a state meet, and among the notoriously competitive California high-school ranks—rife with outstanding athletes—managed to finish seventh in the 200-meter event. She was also the only freshman to compete at the state meet that year. She was such an early phenomenon that the Los Angeles Daily News ran an article on her that summer, and she went on to set records and take titles over the next three of her high-school years. She became the first sophomore to win the 100-meter state title since Marion Jones had done it in 1990, and won two other state titles in short distances. Each year, she shaved four-tenths of a second off her 200-meter time, and broke Jones's high-school record in April of 2003 at the Mount San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, California, running the 200-meter in 22.51 seconds.
Just weeks later, however, Felix turned in an even more impressive performance when she competed in the Banamex Grand Prix in Mexico City's Olympic Stadium. She broke her own record in the 200-meter, clocking a time of 22.11 seconds, which was a new world record in the under-20 category. The world record has stood since 1980, when Natalya Bochina of the Soviet Union ran it in 22.19 seconds. At the Banamex, Felix also matched Jones's best time in the 200-meter from the previous year, and beat Inger Miller as well, the 1999 world champion. Some of the speed was due in small part to the Mexico City's high altitude, and many of the runners achieved personal bests.
Felix emerged as the new American female runner to watch, just as Jones was taking some time off to have a baby. Both women were African Americans from California and had emerged as top sprinters while still in high school. But Felix—whom friends, acquaintances, and fellow competitors describe as both modest and a gracious winner—tried to avoid taking part in the "next" game. "I understand where people are coming from when they make the comparison, and I take that as a compliment," she told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service reporter Mark Gomez about the comparisons with Jones. "But I also want to be something different. I'm my own person."
Some weeks after her dazzling Mexico City run, Felix learned that her 22.11 was a U.S. national record time, but would not be posted as the new world junior record in the 200-meter because she didn't take a drug test within an hour after finishing. She learned this only in July of 2003, when she traveled to Paris for an international meet. "It does bother me a little bit, but not too much," she said in an interview with Daily News journalist Matthew Kredell. "I still ran the same time. It's unfortunate that I've been drug-tested so many times and, for whatever reason, it didn't happen at this meet."
After graduating from Los Angeles Baptist High School in 2003, Felix decided to turn professional. She began attending the University of Southern California, but did not run for its team. Instead she signed with Adidas, a deal that made her ineligible to compete in college events. The six-figure, six-year endorsement contract, negotiated by her father, also included her USC tuition. She continued to train and work with coach Pat Connolly, a former Olympic runner who coached Evelyn Ashford to an Olympic gold medal in 1984. At five feet, six inches, Felix weighed 125 pounds, but could leg-press 700 pounds. She noted that being the daughter of a Baptist minister also gave her an inner boost. "Prayer helps me. I pray before big meets," she told Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden. Laughing, she added, "I pray a little more before really hard workouts."
In June of 2004, while training for the Olympics, Felix found herself short of breath, and was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. She was allowed to use an inhaler, which is permitted under competition rules with a doctor's prescription. Athletes must undergo regular tests for banned substances, and there was a growing controversy over Marion Jones's involvement with a questionable nutritionist and nutritional-supplement company. The controversy put a cloud over Jones's 2000 Sydney Games achievement, when she won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter events and a relay event, and two bronze as well. Her outstanding performance had made Jones the first woman in Olympic history to win five medals in a single Games, but now detractors were wondering if she had somehow eluded regulations to achieve it.
Because of the whiff of scandal, the 2004 Games were heralded as a chance for several new up-and-coming runners and jumpers to shine and, in the process, revive the American reputation in the sport. Jones qualified only for the long jump, and many predicted that Allyson Felix would win a medal in the 200-meter dash. True to form, she took the silver, coming in second after Veronica Campbell of Jamaica, but Felix did set a new junior world record of 22.18 seconds. "Her Olympics are Beijing" in 2008, Felix's sports agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, told Houston Chronicle reporter John P. Lopez. "She's just scratching the surface."
At a Glance …
Born on November 18, 1985; daughter of Paul (a minister) and Marlean (a teacher) Felix. Education: University of Southern California. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Professional track athlete, sponsored by Adidas, 2003–.
Awards: Silver medal, 2004 Olympic Games, Athens, Greece, for 200-meter dash.
Addresses: Home— Santa Clarita, CA. Office— Allyson Felix, c/o USA Track & Field, One RCA Dome, Suite 140, Indianapolis, IN 46225.
Both Felix and her brother are University of Southern California students. An outstanding runner as well, he was the U.S. junior men's champion in 200-meter in 2002 and a world junior champion that same year in the 400-meter. "Wes and I help each other; he's a huge inspiration," Felix told Luscombe in the Observer article. "And I've got a life away from the track as well, which is also important. I like hanging out with my friends and watching movies."
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 17, 2000, p. AV2; April 20, 2002, p. S1; July 10, 2003, p. N1.
Houston Chronicle, August 26, 2004, p. 4.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 19, 2003.
New York Times, May 28, 2003, p. D6; July 6, 2004, p. D1.
Observer (London, England), June 15, 2003, p. 7.
Sports Illustrated, June 9, 2003, p. 52.
Time, August 9, 2004, p. 78.
"Allyson Felix," USA Track & Field, http://www.usatf.org/athletes/bios/Felix_Allyson.asp (October 13, 2004).
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