Faith, father help guide Felix to success on the track

Friday April 25th, 2008

It is early morning at the large cafeteria hall of the Sunrise Ministry in Auburn, Calif., and Professor Paul Felix is giving an Olympic performance in the face of poor conditions. The volume on his body microphone is jumping from faint resonance to raised screeching to silence, and the veteran pastor isn't fond of his handheld mic. "Can we fix this?" he asks. "I like to talk with my hands."

At the front table, the soft-spoken daughter who otherwise tried to emulate the man with the booming voice, smiles at the irony. After all, Allyson Felix usually lets her feet do most of the talking.

In four months, the sprinter may be the female track star of the Beijing Olympics, running three distances -- including two relays -- with a chance to win three gold medals. But on this morning, she is the youthful, beaming, 22-year-old Sunday-school teacher who has just introduced her dad at the church's annual father-daughter breakfast.

"My family has always been there to make sure I understood what we were learning in church," she tells people. "My running is a gift from God; My success is not of myself. I know that my actions on and off the track should be a reflection of God, because people watch what you do and what you say. My father taught me that."

It is the first time Allyson has had the occasion to introduce Paul, who suspects ulterior reasons for his increasing demand. "I realize that when people ask me to come and speak these days," he says, "there is usually another motive, because they can ask me to bring my daughter."

It is understandable. In 2004 Allyson won a silver medal in the 200 meters at the Athens Olympics when she was just 18. Last summer she became the second female (after East Germany's Marita Koch in 1983) to win three gold medals at a world outdoor championship. Felix won the 200 meters and ran legs on the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays. She may run the open 100, as well, at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., this summer. With the Beijing Games beckoning, she seems only on the cusp of her potential.

When she speaks of her faith, she doesn't come across as an athlete who blindly attributes a winning shot or lucky punch to a higher power, but as one whose lifestyle choices have ennobled her to achieve them. She maintained a full course load at the University of Southern California, where she graduated last year with a degree in elementary education. In the winter she teaches Sunday school to students in third through sixth grades. "My beliefs calm my heart and my mind," she says. "I understand why the journey is more important than the medals."

Go to the home in Santa Clarita, Calif., that Allyson shares with her older brother, Wes (also a sprinter and USC grad) and you won't see a single medal or trophy. Those are on proud display at her parents' house a few blocks away.

In hearing Paul, you understand why Allyson gives such thoughtful answers and keeps celebrations to a minimum. In an age of fist-pumping and self-congratulations, her humble and studied comportment come from the father who earned three masters degrees, taught ancient Greek and became president of the Los Angeles Bible Training School. On this April day he speaks lovingly of the infant he and his wife nicknamed "Shug," a diminutive of sugar.

"It is a great calling," he says, "to be fathers our children can pattern themselves after." He calls the Bible "the one authorized textbook for raising children" and admits "we live in a culture that often doesn't value women for the right reasons."

Later Paul tells the parishioners, "she can win all the medals she wants, but if my daughter isn't walking in the truth, then the medals don't matter that much."

It is a word of both caution and hope for a sport that, for years, has had trouble walking in competitive truth.

The track world needs Felix at a time when the BALCO drug scandal is still rippling through it. Marion Jones, the five-time Olympic medalist whom Allyson once idolized, has admitted to steroid use and is now serving a jail sentence for lying to a grand jury. The list of coaches and athletes caught in this and other drug webs reads like an all-star team. Justin Gatlin, the defending Olympic champ in the 100 meters, is under IAAF suspension. And even cheery Maurice Greene, the gold medalist in the 100 at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was recently implicated in press reports.

Mindful of public cynicism track has endured, Allyson recently volunteered for an enhanced drug-testing initiative of international officials that will incorporate blood testing and increase the frequency of her out-of-competition tests before the Beijing Games.

"I understand where track is," she says, while signing church programs and table placements for people at other tables. "I have to live up to that. And I have to live up to my dad."

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