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With History on the Line, Allyson Felix Did What No One Expected From Her

TOKYO — In a career that spanned almost two decades, which started in her teens and barreled on forever—through five Olympic Games and four U.S. Presidents, from a prodigy to a star to a mom—Allyson Felix made the impossible her expectation. She stared at one of the most difficult tasks in sports—collecting Olympic medals not in a short burst or two but over time, cycle after four-year cycle—and laughed at age, sponsors and nonbelievers.

On Friday, under the bright lights inside a stadium that doubled as a sauna, the sprinter added something beyond the seismic history that elevated her place in Olympic lore. To everything, to the six Olympic gold medals and three silvers and a bronze, the athlete who made success expected created the most unexpected ending. Her final Olympic 400 was both a contrast and a fitting conclusion, fitting because of that very contrast.

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Felix may not pay that much attention to outsiders, but she wasn’t going to lie on Friday, either. She had heard everybody, all the “chatter,” the folks who pointed to her age (35) and her times and her performance at the U.S. trials and figured that this Olympics would mark something of a victory lap, a chance to wave goodbye, the baseball star who can no longer hit but tours the country tipping caps one last time before adoring fans. Felix believed that not one person in track and field expected her to make the 400-meter final, other than her family and Bob Kersee, her coach who’s basically family, too.

Whether that’s true or amplified for motivation, Felix wasn’t wrong. She needed one medal to match Carl Lewis for the most in U.S. track history and become the most decorated female athlete in the history of Olympic track and field. But most track experts did not expect her to summon a performance that turned back the clock, especially in the 400 meters. If she did snag another medal, the prevailing notion went, perhaps it would come in a relay.

It’s not like anything else lined up in her favor. Not the global pandemic that extended her training and made her a year older. Not the state of emergency in Tokyo that meant families of athletes could not travel here, which meant that Felix was forced to leave her precious two-year-old daughter Cammy behind. Not the heat that made National Stadium into a giant soup bowl, the broth made with perspiration from all over the world.

Not even the race itself. Felix had still made the 400-meter final, despite everything. She said that she expected to. But she could not expect to win, or even necessarily medal, not after she drew the dreaded Lane 9 and not with so many other favorites. She wrote openly on her social media pages about the nerves she felt. She wondered aloud if she could still run as fast—medal fast—as she needed to. And yet, that seemed to fade during the introductions, when the announcer gushed about Felix over the stadium loudspeakers and she simply stared straight ahead, as if preparing for a long march.

This begged a question: Into history, perhaps?

Finally, she gave a quick wave, and then something that seemed revealing happened. Her face twisted into a sort of half-smile, half-smirk, like she knew what the rest of the world would find out soon enough. She walked slowly to that dreaded lane, hands on hips, body swaying back and forth. She bounced up and down. She did a few bunny hops, which Cammy surely appreciated.

One rival in particular was introduced around then: Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the sprinter from the Bahamas who tangoed with Felix in Rio, who edged the American for gold with a perfectly timed dive at the finish line. If Felix noticed, she did not show it. The final individual race of her Olympic career was about to begin.

On your mark … Felix kicked her legs, as if shaking out any last-second nerves, leaned forward and bounced. Then she kicked again, upward, as if aiming for the scoreboard. Get set … she swiped one hand on the ground, then the other, like she wanted to rid them of sweat.

The next second, the gun sounded, and in a stadium empty except for officials, journalists and other athletes, that shot echoed from one corner to the next, traveling around the track with the fastest women at 400 meters in the world.

Felix’s start portended even more doom; something else, this time self-inflicted, that only decreased her odds. It’s tough to tell where any one runner stands early into the race, since competitors are staggered at the start. But Felix looked stilted coming out of the blocks, and some of her competitors seemed to pass by her on the second turn.

And yet, after all those unexpected events, after the extra year of training and the oddest of circumstances and the worst lane and the poor start, Felix reached the final straightaway—and found a gear she had long thought to have ceded to Father Time.

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Her performance in the final 100 meters was timeless. The spindly sprinter once known as “chicken legs” to her high school teammates churned like, well, history was on the line. Her stride, even at 35, looked effortless, as she chugged toward the finish, sliding past competitors, until she found herself in third place. But in the final stretch, the last few meters, she seemed to stagger slightly, needing to hold on, which … she … did.

That’s the unexpected ending. Not that Felix added another Olympic medal. But that she won a second career bronze now, in 2021, after everything, despite everything.

If the first Olympics post–Usain Bolt seemed like a showcase mostly for the next generation, Felix emerged as if to say, not so fast and I’m still fast all at once. Miller-Uibo won the gold. Marileidy Paulino grabbed the silver. Felix ran the race in 49.46 seconds, her fastest time in six years, her fastest time after giving birth—and the fastest-ever for a woman over 35.

In a rare twist, given the history, her bronze held more meaning than most medals won, period, this Olympics in track and field. She lost gold by a dive in Rio, and that felt like devastation. She lost gold by a few meters in Tokyo, and that felt like elation. Context matters. It’s the difference between expected and unexpected, a crushing silver vs. a remarkable bronze.

Sure, there’s someone out there, the no-participation-trophy type, saying that a bronze is not a big deal, that it’s technically a loss. That same person, surely, understands what it’s like to be the third-best in their company at something, let alone at their job, let alone at their job in their state, let alone at their job in their country. Oh, and the job is impossibly hard. A participation trophy this was not. As if proving that point, Felix all but collapsed on the track. But in that moment, something else revealing happened: She was smiling.

When asked later to rank this medal relative to the others, she declined. Who would blame her? There are too many to choose from; imagine picking a favorite child from a lineup of 10 brilliant, colorful children. But she did admit to the differences, to the pandemic, her age, the doubts. For four Olympic cycles now, she focused on her performance, her speed made greater by her tunnel vision, by defining herself as an athlete first and foremost. But that changed also in the lead-up to these Games.

That changed when she went in for a routine pregnancy check-up in November 2018. Felix was 32 weeks at that point, but her doctor shared some sudden news: She needed to leave, immediately, for the hospital. There, more doctors would discover a severe case of preeclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to organs, like the liver or the kidneys. It can be fatal to mother and baby under extreme circumstances. That day, she had an emergency C-section. That day, she also had Cammy, this beautiful baby girl who weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces at birth and spent the first month of her life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

When Felix became a mother, her calculus changed. Everyone’s does. But not everyone is sponsored by Nike, the company that offered Felix a reduced contract—70% of what she made before—once she became a mom. Felix being Felix, she just created her own brand, Saysh. She leaned deeper into activism, fighting for moms and the Black community. And, so, when she thought about this 400-meter race compared to all the others, she did not simply think about performance. She thought about who and what she now represented. She thought about Cammy, who she was surprised to later learn had stayed up way past her bedtime to watch her race.

That call, the one to her daughter, meant more than matching Lewis. It meant more than winning a medal in a fifth Olympics, or a track record better than Father Time. It meant more because she clawed back to second place at the U.S. trials. It meant more because she said things like, “There were a lot of moments where I was doubtful I would be able to feel like myself again.” It meant more because it was less expected. It meant more because young female sprinters approached her here in Tokyo, as if they needed to pay homage, like they wanted to remind Felix that it was her picture on their bedroom walls.

More than 90 minutes dragged by before Felix had moved from the track into the hallway beneath the stadium. That’s maybe 100 meters. She had already called home and FaceTimed with her family. One day, she’d tell Cammy everything, about integrity and why there’s little that’s more important, about Black lives and why they matter, about moms and why they rule.

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She stepped in front of a microphone, her accomplishment so noteworthy the crowd of reporters assembled there had waited the length of a feature movie for her take. They simply had to talk to her, because she alone could make sense of everything. As she answered questions, the Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce walked behind Felix and tapped her, one relatively new mom to another, a sign of the highest respect.

Felix won the race to context, too, although at a far slower pace. “This one is different,” she told the sweaty group assembled before her. “Really special.” She mentioned how she couldn’t just focus on performance here, because it’s hard for her to find joy when she does that. On Friday, “I had joy,” she said.

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