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By Bonnie D. Ford
Allyson Felix will never feel as if she has run a perfect race, but, on the last day of June, under overcast skies at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., she came close. Felix powered through the curve in the 200-meter final, her signature event, overtaking her rivals in what is normally the weakest part of her race. By the time Felix hit the top of the straightaway, she was alone and it was all over. Her stride opened up. In full flight, she looked almost relaxed.
Felix is often restrained in celebration, but not this night. She hit the finish line smiling. She clapped, hopped up and down, turned and gave a little fist pump toward the stands. Her ledger in the event is practically unparalleled — Felix, 26, is a two-time Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion in the 200 — yet she had never run it as fast as she just had, in 21.69 seconds.
It was a remarkable performance not only because of the time Felix clocked and because the woman who finished second, 2011 world championship silver medalist Carmelita Jeter, had also run a personal best. The race came after months of flux that began this past August, when Felix, depleted from racing the 400 at worlds, was dethroned in the 200 and finished a listless third. It came after a spring of ups and downs in which Felix settled on attempting a different double, the 100/200, the one nobody expected.
And it came after a maddening weeklong waiting game triggered when Felix and training partner Jeneba Tarmoh finished in a dead heat for third in the 100 only to discover that U.S. track officials had no process in place to decide who should be selected for the Olympics.
Uncertainty still hovered over Felix and Tarmoh when they crouched in the blocks for the 200. Two days later, Tarmoh would controversially withdraw from the runoff proposed as a solution for the 100. But Felix, who has a knack for maintaining serenity in the vortex and who was well-sheltered by her advisers, had a clear mind before the gun went off.
Everything she has done since last summer — returning to speed-based training, trying to refine her starts, rejecting the 200/400 double many assumed was the path of least resistance to Olympic medals — has been geared toward running the most flawless race possible, not in Eugene but in London.
The image that propels her is from four years ago in Beijing. A gap of 0.19 seconds, the difference between gold and silver, yawns chasmlike in her mind. Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown is on the other side of that abyss, just as she was in Athens. Again and again in freeze-frame, Felix sees her rival lean into the finish and spread her arms with joy.
"I feel like I can't escape it," Felix said, perched on a couch in a hotel lobby in Philadelphia this past April, a day after helping the U.S. women sweep two races in the Penn Relays. "I'm always thinking about that race, thinking about that final. So hopefully everything goes well up until then. "I definitely go back to that moment of getting second all the time. I don't think I ever really got over it. I think that I don't want to."
Keep reading for more on Allyson Felix's road to the 2012 Olympics.
Any drama that could befall an athlete has visited Felix in the past year. She has won, lost and tied on the biggest stages, and, each time, put the result away and looked ahead. The 200 in Eugene was barely in the books before Felix was asking her coach, Bobby Kersee, and her brother and manager, Wes Felix, whether she could squeeze any more speed out of the first 30 meters. She wants this to be the meet where she rounds the corner and doesn't see anyone between her and the finish line.
Confidence takes root
Four medals at the 2011 world championship — two relay golds, a silver and personal-best time in the 400, and bronze in the 200 to bring her career total to 10 — constitute success by most measures. But Felix viewed the meet as a failed experiment. Moments after she finished the 200, she blurted out that she never wanted to double up again.
"You can think you know what it's going to feel like, but, until you go through it, you have no idea," Felix said in Philadelphia. "My adrenaline really just kept me going through the whole week, and, as soon as I was done, it hit me. It was definitely very humbling."
More endurance-based training had prepared Felix for multiple rounds of the 400. But nothing prepared her for the heaviness in her legs in the homestretch of the 200, where she tried to tap into her usual horsepower and got no response. It was a disorienting sensation that evoked not panic, exactly, but something in that neighborhood.
"I was most afraid of, my 200 just isn't the same," she said. "I hate being in a race and not be able to do what I've always done; you know, go to that place and it's not there. I think that's what just scared me. It was the weirdest feeling in the world. I don't think I can remember another race that felt like that. It was almost like I was in this rhythm and I couldn't break it."
She sat down with Kersee and said she wanted to return to speed-based training and let the chips fall where they would. "We can tweak it a little bit," he answered.
Felix initially approached racing the 100 this season partly as a means to an end, a discipline that would force her into deconstructing her start technique and building in more efficiency to improve her 200. But it wasn't an empty exercise, either — versatile Felix was a three-time California state high school champion in the 100 and the 2010 U.S. champion. "The love for it was always there," recalled Wes Felix, but, after Allyson caused a global ripple by running a 22.12 in the 200 at a meet in Mexico City in 2003 at age 17, the longer sprint became her bread and butter.
Although Felix dominated the 200 at the world level for the next eight years, her racing template didn't evolve. She would virtually concede the first 30 or 40 meters, then mow down her opposition. Before Eugene, her personal best was a 21.81 at the 2007 worlds.
Nonetheless, she entered training for the 100 with the all-in mindset that she could medal in it at the international level. "I may be one of the very few people who thinks so," she said in April. "But, based on my training and some of the things we've seen, yeah, I think I can. That's the only way I would do it. I've already made up my mind, going into trials, whatever events I make it in, that's what I'm doing."
Felix had already begun working with a new strength coach, Andre Woodert, in Los Angeles last year, and he tailored her gym sessions toward first-step explosiveness, drive out of the blocks and more rapid early turnover. She still looks like a wraith compared with many of her rivals, but plyometrics, core work and targeted lifting began to make an incremental difference.
“I feel like I can't escape it. I'm always thinking about that race, thinking about that final. So hopefully everything goes well up until then. I definitely go back to that moment of getting second all the time. I don't think I ever really got over it. I think that I don't want to.” — Allyson Felix on finishing second in the 200 meters at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics
Within a week's span in early May, Felix justified her own optimism by winning the 100 twice, once on a rain- and wind-swept track in Kawasaki, Japan, in 11.22 and again in Doha, Qatar, in a career-best time of 10.92 seconds against a tough field that included Campbell-Brown and defending Olympic 100 champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, also of Jamaica.
A day later, after a whirlwind commute to the Olympic Media Summit in Dallas, Felix herself was pleasantly surprised, saying, "For me, the speed has always been there. It's been my start; I've always put myself at a huge deficit from the beginning. So, I think I was just more shocked that, finally, I'm strong enough to compete with these women and I can actually put my speed on display."
Her brother, watchful as always, saw confidence taking root. "With the 200, she knows what to do in every phase of the race," Wes said. "The 100 is not a completely comfortable situation for her — it's technical and completely unforgiving. She got to a place where she believed she could start with these women instead of having to run them down after 30 meters."
Track seasons are rarely uninterrupted yellow brick roads. In early June, Felix won the 200 going away at the Prefontaine Classic but had a bad 100 in New York. Then came the Olympic trials and perhaps the only outcome no one could have foreseen.
All that matters is gold
After she was mistakenly pegged in fourth place in the 100 in Eugene, Felix mustered all of her considerable grace and stood before reporters, hands on hips, eyes welling up, striving mightily to remain composed. "I definitely feel God has a bigger plan, and we always make plans and always think we know best, but sometimes that's not the case," she said.
The devout Felix lives by these words, but the predicament that mushroomed that evening had to do with a much more mundane plan, or rather the lack of one. She and Tarmoh, initially thought to be separated by one-hundredth of a second, had inclined their torsos into the line at precisely the same butterfly wingbeat. After reviewing photos, U.S. Track and Field officials admitted they had no established procedure to break a dead-heat tie that even a camera shooting thousands of frames a second couldn't untangle. Kersee, who coaches both women, declared he didn't want any discussion of the issue until after the 200 a week hence.
As incredulity spread, Wes Felix saw to it that his sister was sequestered from the media and other athletes. It was the biggest challenge he has faced since he became her manager a couple of years ago but also was simply an extension of his duties as her lifelong protector.
In the lead-up to Beijing, Allyson was a graduating college senior with a lot on her mind who found it hard to say no to friends and sponsors alike. She would never use that as an excuse for her loss to Campbell-Brown, but she also wanted to do things differently. Wes — joined by a publicist and marketing team — carefully controlled her travel and appearances this spring.
Days passed at the trials in surreal silence. As rounds of the 200 began, Felix walked past the assembled media in the interview zone, smiling but not stopping. Kersee strode alongside her, bodyguard-style, after the semifinal. "Bobby, how was the race?" a reporter shouted. Without looking to either side or slowing his gait, Kersee threw his left hand in the air and gave a thumbs-up.
"[Kersee] did a great job of not letting it get to us," Felix said, serene again after her elated reaction to the 200. "He kept us from you guys. I missed you guys the last couple days, but that was all his orders to keep us focused."
The next morning, with a decision on the 100 still pending, she calmly posed for a photo with relay coach Jon Drummond in a hotel lobby and told a reporter she was still awaiting word on a meeting. There was firmness in her tone about not sweating the things she couldn't control.
Sometimes fast and steady wins the race. "Two weeks out from the Olympics, she feels refreshed and excited," Wes Felix said last week. "She doesn't feel like this is the end of anything."
Diana Taurasi leads Team USA
ESPN.com senior writer Jim Caple and ESPN The Magazine senior writer Luke Cyphers contributed to this story.
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