ON THE toughest of training days, when repeat sprints painfully take their toll under the central Texas sun, Sanya Richards reaches for motivation and finds a name. Allyson Felix. "I think about her all the time when I'm working out, because she has such great talent," says Richards. "And such fast times." Richards drives her arms and pushes harder, chasing a distant ghost. Half a continent away, Felix works at UCLA on a weathered orange track framed by eucalyptus trees. She, too, knows where to find her best race. Sanya Richards.
This is an article from the June 30, 2008 issue
"I love running against her," says Felix. She extends her long, liquid stride until her heels clip the back of her tights.
They are not good friends (nor enemies, either), yet each understands the other better than any outsider could, sharing outsized talents and rare ambition. They will compete against each other at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, which open this Friday in Eugene, Ore., yet they will not run against each other. Both in Eugene and at the Beijing Games in August they will be fighting separately for the tiny and exclusive slice of fleeting fame awarded to the queen of Olympic track. They will be compared without facing off.
Each had hoped to run both the 200 and the 400 meters at the trials and the Games. Felix, 22, won a silver medal in the 200 at the 2004 Olympics when she was just 18. She has since twice won the world title at that distance and last summer at the worlds in Osaka, Japan, won three gold medals, taking the 200 and running on the 4√ó100 and 4√ó400 relays, flaming a split of 48 seconds flat on the latter, one of the fastest relay legs in history.
Richards, 23, set a U.S. record of 48.70 seconds for the open 400 in 2006 and in that same year was ranked second in the world in the 200. Last summer, despite a debilitating illness called Behcet's syndrome, she made the world championships in the 200, ran with Felix on the 4√ó400 relay and dominated the 400 on the late-summer leg of the international circuit, after splitting a pair of 400 races with Felix.
They would have been favored to win four medals between them in the two individual events. But the Beijing Olympic program overlaps the 200 and 400, making a double too risky. Early in 2007 Richards petitioned the International Association of Athletics Federations, track's governing body, for a change in the schedule that would enable the 200-400 double. Michael Johnson completed that double at the 1996 Olympics, as did Marie-José Pérec of France. After her performance in Osaka, Felix added a petition of her own.
Both were turned down. "Another example of track and field shooting itself in the foot," says Clyde Hart, who coaches Richards and coached Johnson in 1996. "There's absolutely no reason not to make that double possible unless you're trying to make it possible for more people to win medals."
However, Pauline Davis-Thompson, who ran on the Bahamas' gold-medal-winning 4√ó100 relay and is now a member of the IAAF Council, says, "We would love to have made that change, but the petition was not made in a timely manner. The schedule was [already] set. I wish it could have been done. The sport is suffering now because of morally bankrupt individuals [a reference to steroid scandals], and these two young women can lift the sport."
THEY NOW must lift it in different ways. Felix will run the 100 and the 200 at the trials and attempt to win four medals (including in both relays) in Beijing. Richards will run only the 400, and in addition to a likely selection in the 4√ó400, try to secure a spot on the very competitive 4√ó100 relay. Even though they will not compete head-to-head in Eugene, they will extend a palpable rivalry that led to an unexpected outburst last summer in Osaka.
Felix had just routed the field in the 200 final, running a personal best of 21.81 seconds. Alluding to the buzz generated by Richards's petition to change the Olympic schedule, Felix's track agent, former hurdles star Renaldo Nehemiah (also Richards's agent in 2005), vented to U.S. media in the belly of the stadium. "When people are talking about everyone else," he said, "and you're still the best combination sprinter in the world, bar none, it's insulting."
Nehemiah's flare-up caught all parties off guard. "It blindsided me," says Richards. "I feel it was unwarranted. I had a legitimately great 2006. It's not like somebody handed me something."
Felix, who struggled with injuries and illness of her own in 2006, said, "Renaldo got excited. I was as surprised as anybody."
In the intervening months, Nehemiah has backed off only slightly. "My words were not directed at Sanya Richards," he says. "I felt like my client was getting overlooked, and she had all the medals."
Likewise, some people in the Richards camp feel that on occasion Felix gets cut slack by the U.S. media that Sanya does not. "Allyson can run terrible races without anybody commenting on it," says Richards's father, Archie. There is little to separate the two sprinters. Both took swift routes to professional track; Felix straight from high school and Richards after two years at Texas. Both are bright, telegenic and polished. One difference: Felix was born in the U.S., while Richards emigrated from her native Jamaica at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
They share the marketing pie. Richards runs for Nike, Felix for Adidas. Richards, according to her marketing agent, Lowell Taub, has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Nutrilite, AT&T, Q-Ray bracelets and Hershey's. Felix has contracts with Visa, PowerBar and Master Spas, but according to her business manager, Todd Provost, the larger plan for her is to wait for big opportunities that might develop after the Games. "We plan on striking while the iron is hot, immediately after the Olympics," says Provost. It is notable that NBC, in commercials promoting its coverage of the Games, has made Felix its featured women's track athlete.
Both Felix and Richards face athletic challenges. Felix, whose 200-meter grace evokes that of Wilma Rudolph, has struggled for consistency in the 100. On May 9 she ran a personal best of 10.93 in Doha, Qatar, the best time by a U.S. woman in the event this season. But she has not broken 11.06 since then, while struggling with poor starts.
"The reason Allyson runs so well in the 200 and the 400 is she's got that Seabiscuit personality, where if you put her alongside somebody, she takes over the track," says Felix's coach, veteran Bobby Kersee. "But in order for that to happen, you've got to get into the race at the beginning, and in the 100 meters her start has not let her do that. But it's coming."
Felix's training also was stunted by a trying stretch in mid-May. The father of her longtime boyfriend, Olympic hurdles hopeful Kenneth Ferguson, died of lung cancer while Felix was in Qatar. "She stayed up all night with me on the webcam, crying together," says Ferguson. Four days before the May 18 Adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif., Felix flew to Detroit for the funeral, and then two days before the meet, sat for three hours in the sun at her graduation from USC. (She earned a degree in elementary education).
FOUR YEARS AGO in Athens she was a teenager on a joyride. "Now it's all about the competition," said Felix after a recent workout at UCLA. "This time I feel more professional about it." Felix commutes 20 miles each way to UCLA from her home in Santa Clarita and draws strength from a close and deeply spiritual family that includes her parents, Paul and Marlean, and older brother, Wes.
"My goal has never been to be the big name out there," says Felix. "If it comes to me, that's fine, because I want to be a role model. But my goals are on the track. Four medals is a personal thing."
Richards, who is engaged to New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, would recognize much of Felix's life. Each Monday her father drives her the 100 miles from Austin to Waco, where she trains for three days with Hart. The other days she trains in Austin. Richards's mother, Sharon, serves as her track agent.
As Richards sits for an interview near the track at Texas, her arms and legs are spotted with dark patches that look like oil slicks. They are the remnants of skin lesions caused by Behcet's, an immune system disease that was diagnosed in Richards last spring. Behcet's causes not only surface lesions but also painful mouth ulcers, and Richards fought the illness for the entire 2007 season.
Friends recall watching her train with bandages wrapped around her arms and thighs to soothe the sores. "There were times when the mouth ulcers were so bad that they grew outside her mouth," says Sharon. One day Hart instructed Sanya to run a workout with a paper cup clenched in her teeth so that her lips didn't become stuck together. She lived on chicken broth. "Try to run eight repeat 200s in practice on broth," she says. When she couldn't talk, she wrote Hart messages on a pad. The disease flared up at the most inopportune times—most notably before the U.S. nationals, where a weakened Richards finished fourth in the 400 and missed the worlds team in her best event (though she ran on the winning 4√ó400 relay).
"There were times when I felt really fit, but I didn't have the strength base I had in past years because I missed so much training," says Richards, whose 2007 best of 49.27 was still the fastest time in the world that year. "I was just praying the illness would go away."
Doctors prescribed several medications through the spring and summer. "None of them helped much," says Richards. Last fall she found a Behcet's specialist in New York City who prescribed medication that has kept her symptoms in check since a bout on New Year's Eve. "I did go out," says Richards, laughing. "Train hard, party hard."
More seriously, 2007 sobered Richards. "I learned a lesson," she says. "I didn't win when it counted." Accordingly, she has chosen not to risk excessive fatigue by doubling in the 100 (her personal best, run last fall, is 10.97, which would be competitive). "I want so badly to get that 400-meter gold medal," she says. Richards plans to run the 100 in Europe before the Games to increase her chances of being selected for the Olympic 4√ó100-meter relay.
There, and in the longer relay as well, she would share a baton with Felix. Enjoy it. They will come no closer to meeting on the track with medals at stake.
Ten Stories to Watch
With trips to Beijing at stake, a beleaguered sport comes home this week to Eugene, a.k.a. Track Town, U.S.A., where adoring fans will be wrapped up in these and other events
U.S. mile record holder Alan Webb is struggling. Can he find his stride in Eugene, where he famously broke Jim Ryun's high school mile mark in 2001?
Brad Walker and Jen Stuczynski (above) are soaring—and within hailing distance of the world records held by Sergey Bubka and Yelena Isinbaeva.
Olympic and World Championship silver medalist Lauryn Williams thrives at big meets, but nine U.S. women have run faster in '08. Who gets left home?
Olympic 400 champ Jeremy Wariner (above) has a new coach and a young pursuer, LaShawn Merritt, as he chases the world record held by Michael Johnson.
Showman and two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson (above), who made the shot put cool, will duel with Christian Cantwell and Reese Hoffa.
World champ Tyson Gay (above) has enough on his mind with Usain Bolt's emergence. But here he'll have to fend off Wallace Spearmon and a slew of others.
Shalane Flanagan (above) set the U.S. record in May in her 10K debut; Kara Goucher won bronze at the '07 worlds. The U.S. has never been this good.
Nebraska senior Dusty Jonas has high-jumped a world-leading 7'8 3/4". Women's 1,500 fave Shannon Rowbury (above) has cut 11 seconds off her PR this year.
A LOT OF LAGAT
Running for the U.S. for the first time, ex-Kenyan Bernard Lagat won the 1,500 and 5,000 at the '07 worlds. Now he wants a shot at the Olympic double.
Steroid talk clouded the '04 trials, and a repeat would do likewise. Bad start: Legal battle of banned sprinter Justin Gatlin is looming.
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