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Allyson Felix dropped onto her back and looked up at the sky above Olympic Stadium, her breath depleted but her hope of winning a medal still filling her heart.
When she saw the scoreboard and realized she had finished third in the women’s 400-meter race Friday night, she thought not of having made history by winning her 10th Olympic medal and becoming the all-time leader in medals among female track and field athletes, or of tying Carl Lewis for the most Olympic track and field medals won by an American.
The Los Angeles native, who turned her recovery from an emergency caesarean section into a crusade for better medical treatment for Black women during pregnancy and equitable treatment for all female athletes, thought instead of having made a journey that has been like no other and produced a unique reward.
“It’s really hard for me, when I don’t win, to still have joy,” she said. “Tonight, I have joy.”
Felix, 35, defied age, doubts, and the obstacles thrown before her by the coronavirus pandemic to finish third in the last individual race of a singular career that spans five Olympics. When the track at UCLA closed, she trained for the one-year-delayed Tokyo Games by sprinting through the streets outside her Santa Clarita home. She and husband, former sprinter Kenneth Ferguson, packed up their 2-year-old daughter Camryn and went to Arizona for a while so Felix could train. She also returned to her old high school, L.A. Baptist, now called Heritage Christian School in North Hills, and ran on the track that had been named for her.
“It’s really hard for me, when I don’t win, to still have joy. Tonight, I have joy.”
Allyson Felix said of winning bronze in the 400 meters, the 10th Olympic medal of her career.
She heard others downplay her chances of reaching Tokyo, much less reaching the final here, but she ignored the noise. On Friday, as always, she listened only to the voice inside her own head because it has always guided her so well.
“Just fight, fight,” she said of what she was thinking down the stretch. “I know that coming home, I was in Lane 9. Nobody thought I was going to be here. Nobody thought I was going to be in the final, probably besides Bobby [Kersee, her coach] and my family. I’m a fighter. The last couple years it’s what I’ve done. I knew I just needed a chance.”
Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas, who had outleaned Felix at the finish line to win the 400 at the 2016 Rio Games, dominated on Friday and won in 48.36 seconds. Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic set a national record with a runner-up finish in 49.20 seconds. Felix ran a season-best time of 49.46 seconds to add a bronze medal to her collection of six gold medals and three silvers. She can add another medal on Saturday, when she expects to be part of the U.S. women’s 1,600-meter relay squad.
“It was amazing to just see her come out and put it on the line in such a great race,” said Gabrielle Thomas, who ran the anchor leg on the U.S. women’s silver medal-winning 400-meter relay team on Friday. “I think her legacy is showing you can do anything. Just her grace and poise and commitment to excellence is such an inspiration to everyone.”
Felix’s commitment was tested often but never wavered.
A wide-eyed teenager who won a silver medal in the 200 at the 2004 Athens Games, she became smoother and more confident with each Olympics. The 2012 London Games were her personal playground: she won gold in the 200 — her only individual Olympic gold medal — and in the two relays.
She grew from a spindly-legged kid into a woman, a preacher’s daughter who saw her talent on the track as a gift and developed the voice and assurance to repay those blessings to the world. Through the Women’s Sports Foundation and Athleta, the clothing company she signed with after Nike said it would cut her pay by 70% because her pregnancy had cut her competition schedule, she directed a $200,000 grant to pay for female professional athletes' pay for childcare and other support services. She has spoken before Congress about the need to erase the racial disparities in maternal mortality rates and has worked with the March of Dimes.
“It’s definitely been a journey for me to get to the point where I guess I had the courage to do so,” she said of her advocacy. “I think that just comes with experience in life and I feel grateful to have this platform. Happy I was able to get to this place because there is so much that needs to be done.”
She doesn’t rank her 10 medals in order of which was most important to her, she said, but the bronze medal she won on Friday will hold special significance.
“This one, it’s just so different,” she said. “Like honestly, it’s my first bronze medal. Oh man, it’s hard to decide. Because I feel like all the other ones, I was really just so focused on the performance, and this one, it’s so much bigger than that. That’s all I can kind of explain it as, is that I was out there running but I felt like I was a representation for so much more than just trying to get down the track.
“It was just much bigger than running. It was much more than just whatever the clock showed. It was the fight to get back, it was proving to myself that I could get back. It was getting over all that adversity to get here. It just seems like the last couple years things have just come at me. I feel like I’ve evolved as an athlete and as a person and I’ve grown and this was just very special, to have it all come here.”
After the race, Felix was able to Facetime with Camryn, who will be 3 in November. “She kind of gets it now,” Felix said, smiling. “When I’m running, she’s always like, ‘Mama’s at work. Mama’s running.’ She’s kind of into it. She likes to cheer.”
Felix’s work on the track is nearly over. Her work in the larger world has just begun and she surely will be a champion at that too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.