Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
This is dangerous territory here -- standing behind a young sprinter and nudging her forward to the front of the stage as the exemplar of all things just and right in sports: SI's Sportsman of the Year.
Sprinters have burned us so often. Not just sprinters, but sluggers and cyclists, too. You know who. And you know how they did it. But what is sport if not a place where we lodge our trust and hope for the best? A place where we keep coming back, fingers crossed, no matter how often our faith is betrayed?
It is that, or we just turn away.
Begin on the last night of August. It is stifling in Osaka, Japan, on the floor of a stadium hosting the World Track and Field Championships. Near the end of a long night of racing, Allyson Felix, 21, blazes to a gold medal in the 200 meters. She runs 21.81 seconds, a personal best by a whopping three-tenths of a second and the fastest time by a U.S. woman in eight years.
Before the meet is finished, Felix wins gold medals in two relays, completing one of the most impressive championship performances by any woman in U.S. track and field history. She wins with style, floating gracefully, rather than powerfully (a distinction that may serve her well in beating back the whispers that she uses drugs), as if the track is a bed of hot coals and she is trying to keep from burning her feet.
She is shooting for more. It is Felix's plan to attempt to win four gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games by doubling in the 200- and 400-meter open races and running the same two relays she raced in Osaka. (Another young, gifted U.S. sprinter, SanyaRichards, is expected to pursue the same double.) Richards was a distant fifth behind Felix in the Osaka 200 and lost to her in their only head-to-head 400 while winning the Golden League's season-long 400-meter title. Both women will need a Michael Johnson-esque schedule change to attempt the double because the current timetable does not allow for a practical double.
For Felix, there is more to chasing history than simply running fast and winning races. It is 2007 and she runs in the long, dark shadow of Marion Jones, the last superstar U.S. female sprinter whose entire legacy became dust when she admitted last fall to using steroids. And with Jones's legacy went another small piece of whatever trust the masses have left in track and field.
Into this world came Felix. The story is oft-told: A new face will rescue a once-mainstream sport that has been marginalized by media overload or scandal. Or in the case of track and field, by both. Jones was going to save track. Justin Gatlin was going to save track. Now it is Felix, or Richards, or world 100/200 champion Tyson Gay. Or miler Alan Webb.
Felix is best positioned to do the job. She first reached the major leagues of track and field in 2003 when she was a senior at tiny Los Angeles Baptist High School. (Note: The limelight will find you if you are good at anything). She ran a startling 22.11 seconds at an international meet in Mexico City and later that year made the U.S. team for the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
She is both old and young, turning 22 on November 19, but has already participated in three world championships and one Olympics. (Felix won the silver medal in the 200 meters at Athens). She never competed in college, and instead turned professional at age 17. But despite competing from April through September every year, she will graduate in December from USC with a degree in elementary education. In more than four years as a public performer, she has not made a misstep.
Case in point: After Felix dominated the 200 meters last year at the worlds, her agent, former hurdler extraordinaire Renaldo Nehemiah, became excited and essentially took the position Felix was sticking her performance in Richards's face after Richards -- Nehemiah's former client -- and her support team had talked up a 200-400 double. To be fair, Nehemiah is generally a class act. Maybe Felix was steamed at Richards. But when she squared up to the microphones, she took the high road and uttered one "payback'' -- with a full-on smile.
Felix's spectacular season came one year after Gatlin's stunning drug positive. (Which he is still fighting). Felix and Gatlin were close friends, if not a couple. (If they were, they protected it well). They supported each other in athletic and personal endeavors. Suddenly, for Felix, that support was gone. Yet she delivered the best season of her life and one of the best ever by a U.S. female sprinter.
Allyson Felix is a seasoned and decorated international performer who competes with style and class. She does not embarrass herself or her deeply spiritual family: father, Paul, mother, Marlean, and older brother, Wes. She helps carry a sport on slight shoulders and does not complain about the load. She is a sportsman to her core. There is much that she has done, and much more to come.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.