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Allyson Felix finally strikes gold on banner night for US track and field

Her life has played out in the eight lanes of a running track for more than a decade now. There was a dirt oval in southern California when she was a freshman in high school where a part-time track coach was stunned to see her run so gracefully in clunky basketball shoes. There was the ancient surface in Mexico City where she ran so fast in the 200 as a 17-year-old that the entire sprint world took notice. There were stadiums in Finland, Japan and Germany where she won world championship gold medals; and others in Greece and China, where she took Olympic silvers.

Her career has spanned multiple generations of American track athletes. When Felix first pulled a Team USA uniform over her head for the world championship in the summer of 2003, Marion Jones and Maurice Greene were the two biggest American names in the sport; both have been gone for years (Jones disgraced, Greene respected). Her current Olympic teammate, 21-year-old long jump bronze medalist and potential triple jump medalist Will Claye, was 12 years old. BALCO was a business, not a scandal that would rock multiple sports, including hers. One of her best friends was 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin, and he did four years for doping. She is an elder stateswoman at the age of 26, with both a child's smile and cold worldliness. It is not wrong to say that she has seen it all.

But on this night, she saw only a finish line in the distance, and perhaps London's undersized Olympic cauldron beyond, and she drove forward. It is difficult to know precisely when Felix put away the Jamaicans and Jeter, perhaps 60 meters from the finish, or even less. Don't ask her.

"I don't even know what happened," she said after the race. "I have to go back and watch the race."

Campbell-Brown, who had deprived Felix of gold in both 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing, faded first and would finish fourth. Fraser-Pryce was the last to drop and Felix ran through the line, dipping a little awkwardly as a punctuation mark and winning her first Olympic gold medal in her third Games.

Her winning time was 21.88 seconds, far off the scorching 21.69 that she ran five weeks ago in Eugene, Ore., at the Olympic Trials, but it matched the fourth-fastest 200 of her career and it was run into a slight headwind. Fraser-Pryce, who has won consecutive Olympic 100 titles, took the silver in 22.09, and the winning margin of .21 seconds was the largest in an Olympic final since Gwen Torrence of the U.S. beat Juliet Cuthbert of Jamaica by that same margin in 1992.

Jeter comfortably took the bronze ahead of VCB in 22.14, and after her silver in the 100, she became the first U.S. woman since Florence Griffith Joyner (1988) to medal in both the 100 and 200 at a Games. (Also, in the post-race press conference, she addressed her relationship with former agent Mark Block, who is two years into a 10-year suspension for his involvement with doping athletes. "Mark Block is close friend of mine," she said. "I love him dearly. I love his family" -- Block is married to former Ukrainian sprinter Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, who was connected to BALCO fonder Victor Conte and hit with a two-year doping suspension in 2011. "He comes to my meets because he's a great friend of mine.")

In Wednesday's race, Felix stayed erect past the finish line, smiling but little more. She did not cry, as she had after losing in Beijing, but neither did she explode in joy. "I was very excited," she said afterward. Yet she looked relieved. "It was a flood of emotions," she said. She was in this way too true to her personality. When she cried after previous defeats, she did so privately, collecting herself before speaking publicly.

There was a sweet symmetry to Felix finally winning gold on one of the most successful nights in U.S. Olympic track and field history. American athletes won seven medals -- three gold (Felix, Brittney Reese in the long jump and Aries Merritt in the 110 hurdles), two silver (Lashinda Demus in the 400 hurdles and Jason Richardson behind Merritt in the 110 hurdles) and two bronze (Jeter and Janay DeLoach in the long jump). It was the best night for Team USA on the track since Aug. 6, 1992, when Americans won nine medals on a single night in Barcelona.

It also kept the U.S. team in the hunt to achieve its lofty pre-London goal of 30 medals with three days of track and field competition remaining. (One small caveat: While Americans have avoided getting swept under by a wave of Jamaican sprint medals, as happened in 2008, through three head-to-head events, Jamaican sprinters have five medals and Americans four. That margin is likely to be even wider Thursday night when Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake are very likely to finish one-two in the men's 200.)

But through a short epoch of global championships, Felix has remained a reliable constant.

"She deserves this," said longtime sprint coach John Smith, who trains Jeter (and whose athlete, Kevin Young, was one of those who won a gold medal in Barcelona on that historic night two decades ago). "She deserves it very much."

At her first Games in Athens, Felix was thrilled to take second behind Campbell-Brown. But she followed that with a world championship in Helsinki in 2005, and then two years later, at the worlds in Osaka, she won another 200 title in a personal best time of 21.81 and ran on U.S. gold medal relays in the 4x100 and 4x400. She seemed likely to finally nail down an Olympic gold medal in Beijing.

Yet it did not happen. She was slow from the blocks, never threatened Campbell-Brown and famously cried on her mother Marlean's shoulder in the basement of the Birds Nest stadium. But: "I knew there would be one more," she said last spring.

The road to London was uneven. In 2011, she attempted a withering 200-400 double at the world championship in Daegu, South Korea, and got a silver in the 400 and disappointing bronze in the 200. The distance training -- including long runs from her training base at UCLA nearly out to the Pacific Ocean to the west -- had sapped her natural speed.

"It was very weird for me to be in a race and feel like that," she said in the spring. "It's strange even to watch it. My speed just wasn't there. I reached for that extra gear and it wasn't there. That's my signature thing, that extra gear. That's what I do."

With coach Bob Kersee, Felix rebuilt her engine in 2012. She ran two indoor 60 races in the winter, rare for her, and three high-level 100 races in the spring. While the media guessed at whether Felix would run the 200/400 double or the 100/200 double, Felix seemed to lean all along toward the latter, because the 100 sets her up for the 200. She famously dead-heated with training partner Jeneba Tarmoh for third place at the Olympic Trials, and while many suspected Felix might give up her 100 spot to concentrate on the 200, she said, "I never considered that. This the Olympics."

She finished fifth in the 100 final at London with a personal best of 10.89 seconds and carried that speed to the 200. She floated -- sorry -- to a 22.31 in her semifinal on Tuesday night, .11 seconds faster than her third-place time -- behind Campbell-Brown and Jeter -- in Daegu, despite very minimal effort. It was clear that she was ready to win.

She prepared for the race by calling on memories: "I thought about the journey, about being in Beijing, and seeing my family," she said. "I thought about the last four years. And the four years before that." But also by reminding herself of the one vital component of her race: "I just knew I had to be aggressive," Felix said. "I just knew I had to go." This was exacerbated by her starting position in lane seven, two from the outside in London (where lanes two through nine are utilized), with faster sprinters like Fraser-Pryce and Campbell-Brown inside her.

Felix wins when she stays close to the speedsters and struggles when they get away. On Wednesday night, they did not get away. In the middle of the homestretch, Felix's parents, Paul and Marlean, and her older brother, Wes, who acts as her manager, saw her take the lead and begin to pull away. They are an exceptionally close family. When Felix was interviewed by Sports Illustrated for a feature story as a high school senior in 2003, her parents joined her for the interview, sitting beneath shade trees next to a running track.

Again this time, like in Athens and Beijing, they found her in the basement of the stadium. This time it was different. "This, time," said Paul Felix, "she won."