And then she felt something she wouldn’t have expected years ago, before she became a mother and started the fights that she believes will define her career, even more than medals and titles that have made her the most decorated track and field athlete in make of American history. It was joy.
Felix always wanted to leave athletics better than she found. She bid farewell Friday at Hayward Field where she ran leg two of the 4X400 mixed relay at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in the United States. The US quartet finished third and took bronze, losing a large lead on the home stretch of the anchor stage. The result on Felix would have eaten most of her career. In her prime, she was narrowly focused on winning. She has learned that the fight counts.
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Felix has always wanted to compete in front of American fans at a major global gathering, and she believes Friday night’s memories will tally with those of her career. She won 13 world championships. In her record-breaking eighth World Championship, which she contested over a record 17 years, Felix won her record 19th World Championship medal. These pair with her 11 Olympic medals, seven golds, three silvers and the indelible, unlikely bronze in Tokyo last summer as a 35-year-old mother less than three years from a birth that threatened her life.
“It’s a similar feeling,” Felix said. “For the past few years I’ve stepped outside of the clock and medals. I never thought this would be a place I would come to. But I have. It’s a representation for women, mothers, and I really felt that. It was an emotional day. I felt it all over from people telling me and messages. I’m really proud tonight. I feel fulfilled.”
At the end of the race, Felix didn’t do any laps of honor. She milled alongside her teammates Elija Godwin, Vernon Norwood and Kennedy Simon. She joined them on the bottom step of the podium and smiled as she accepted her bronze medal and a handshake from Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff. She first wore a Team USA uniform in 2003 as a 17-year-old prodigy. She recalls the heartbreak of not making the final of her event, the 200 meters. The sport would break her heart many times.
On Friday night, she wore her Team USA uniform for the last time as a 36-year-old mother and owner of a shoe company she helped found. Her daughter Camryn watched from the stands.
“It’s about being a fighter,” Felix said. “It doesn’t matter what you do. That’s the spirit I hope she passes on, the confidence I hope she has. You always stand up for what you think is right. I hope she doesn’t get into athletics. I encourage them to do many other things.”
As Felix reflects on the final chapter of her career, she can’t believe she made it. She gave birth to Camryn in 2018, a complicated birth that threatened the lives of both mother and child. Felix spent weeks alongside Camryn in the NICU. It was the first time she taught her daughter how to fight.
Nike, the shoe company she had sponsored throughout her career, wanted to cut her salary as she recovered. Felix had always turned away from social issues, but the birth of the Camryn changed her. She dropped Nike as a sponsor and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for equality and protection for pregnant athletes. She later testified before Congress about the systemic inequalities faced by black mothers. She has urged athletics governing bodies to provide free childcare at events. Companies, including Nike, have revised guidelines for pregnant athletes.
From the archives: As a runner, Allyson Felix declined to comment. As a mother, she felt she had to do it.
For the first 15 or so years of her professional career, Felix felt uncomfortable using her voice beyond sport. She stayed on track. In the past three years, she has become an example for others on how to deviate from this.
“When she went up against Nike, it was a person against a company,” said American sprinter star Noah Lyles. “I think some people don’t understand how big Nike’s influence is in the US [track and field]. That’s a tight grip. And for a woman – a black woman – to stand up against it and speak her mind and speak up for what she thinks is right, even have the courage to try, is something that I think young people should watch for years to come. “
Wadeline Jonathas, a 24-year-old member of the 4X400 mixed relay team who ran in the opening round, has competed with Felix for three years. Last week, out of curiosity, Jonathas researched the origins of the name Allyson and discovered what she thought was a perfect description. It meant noble.
“She really is a great person,” said Jonathas. “And I know sometimes when you’re really good, people think you’re not nice. But she is nice. She’s not just good. She’s nice.”
“She’s doing everything right,” said shot put world record holder Ryan Crouser, co-captain with Felix on that team. “A sort of definition of integrity.”
When Felix discovered a new part of herself away from the racetrack over the past three years, she looked to her old self. In her comeback at the 2019 US Championships, Felix couldn’t break 52 seconds. She failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and then finished second at the US Trials. She wasn’t expected to win a medal in Tokyo, and then she took bronze in 49.46 seconds, her fastest time since she was 29.
From the archives: Allyson Felix runs to eternity with bronze in the women’s 400 meters
Felix had one more race. She took over the baton from Godwin as the second leg with a lead. Staff in hand, clear path ahead, Felix went into the break one last time. Suddenly there she was, in that upright and sluggish stride, alone on the back stretch. The sun was setting over the foothills outside of Hayward Field. The stadium raged. She could almost see the last finish line of her career. She heard thunderous cheers.
“You’re in competition, but I felt the love,” Felix said. “I felt joy running tonight.”
Felix isn’t an emotional person and her outbursts surprised her. She received so many messages and heard so many stories. She spotted signs in the crowd. Over the past week, she realized that in the midst of training and racing, she didn’t realize the impact she was having on others in the sport. Felix left athletics behind on Friday night better than she found it.
“I put posters of you on my wall and on my sister’s wall,” heptathlete Anna Hall told Felix on Thursday as she sat next to her at a news conference. “My family talked about you all the time. … The way you have acted throughout your career is truly a great example for the rest of the girls in America to follow when they get into the sport. So thank you.”