LONDON -- A little less than a year ago, Allyson Felix lined up to run the final of the 200 meters at the track and field world championships in Daegu, South Korea. Four days earlier she had finished second in the final of the 400 meters, coming up. 03 seconds short of catching Botswana's Amantle Montsho at the finish. That wasn't shocking; Felix ran a personal best of 49.56 seconds and committed a costly tactical error at the midpoint of the race by waiting too long to respond to Montsho's first move just shy of the 200-meter mark. She spotted Montsho too much real estate and couldn't run her down. It was a disappointing silver medal, but an acceptable one.
But the 200? That race is Felix's baby. She had made the team in the race that sprinters call the deuce when she was 17, just graduated from Los Angeles Baptist High. She won the 2005, '07 and '09 world titles and silver medals at the 2004 and '08 Olympic Games. Hence, what happened that night in Daegu was stunning. Felix was sluggish from the blocks -- not all that unusual -- but then at the point in the race where she has been running down 100-meter specialists for years, she failed to catch Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica (who has twice won Olympic gold when Felix took silver) and Carmelita Jeter of the U.S. in the stretch and took the bronze medal. "I didn't have that extra gear that I usually have,'' said Felix. Her third-place time was 22.42 seconds, a clocking that she had bettered 39 times in her career, including once when she was a high school senior.
In the weeks and months that followed that race, Felix kept Track Nation in suspense about the composition of her Olympic year double, but in many ways the decision was made as she cried in a small officials' tent just off the Daegu track. She was missing her speed. And despite a long and distinguished career at the age of just 26, she also was missing an individual Olympic gold medal. So for much of 2012 she has concentrated on the 100 meters, even running it at the Olympic Trials (where she finished in a controversial dead heat with training partner Jeneba Tarmoh and won the Olympic spot when a distraught and exhausted Tarmoh declined to run a special runoff after the Trials).
Felix reached the Olympic final in the 100, and finished fifth in a personal best of 10.89 seconds. But her planning was never about winning a medal in the 100 meters. It was about using the 100 meters to restore her speed and enable her first Olympic individual gold medal in the 200. On Wednesday night at the Olympic Stadium in London, Felix will run in the 200-meter final. Her yearlong plan to rediscover her speed has worked; on June 30 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, she won the 200 in 21.69 seconds, the sixth-fastest time in history, faster than Marita Koch, Marlies Gohr or Heike Dreschler ever ran.
She is a prohibitive favorite tonight (4 p.m. ET). "Allyson Felix will win by miles,'' says NBC track analyst Ato Boldon. On Tuesday night Felix earned her place in the finals by cruising to an easy win in one of the three semifinals. Tellingly, her semifinal time, in an accelerated jog, was 22.31 seconds, .11 faster than her bronze medal time in the final at the world championships. "I'm feeling good,'' said Felix after the semifinal. "Just have to execute my race in the final.''
What is intriguing is that Campbell-Brown is back, and suddenly a potential threat. She has struggled much of the year; her best is just 22.38 in May, and she finished only third in the Jamaican trials. But her stunning bronze medal in the 100 meters, in a season's best of 10.81 seconds, indicates that VCB has peaked at the right time. Still, she has never run faster than 21.74. (If VCB were to win, she would be the first woman in history to win the 200 meters three consecutive times).
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the 100 meters in 10.75, but she's never run faster than 22.10 and is much more an explosive short sprinter who lacks the elite speed endurance to take down Felix at her best. Likewise for 100-meter gold medalist Jeter, whose PB is 22.11. Sanya Richards-Ross, who won a fulfilling 400-meter gold medal on Sunday night, is playing with house money, but she's never run faster than 22.09 seconds.
It's possible to debate those names endlessly, but they're all running for silver. If Jeter can medal, she will be the first U.S. woman to medal in the 100 and 200 since Florence Griffith-Joyner won both sprints in 1988. My picks:
1) Allyson Felix (USA)
2) Veronica Campbell-Brown (JAM)
3) Carmelita Jeter (USA)