World Junior record holder and Olympic silver medallist at 19, Allyson Felix is one of the brightest talents of US sprinting. Kirby Lee portrays the Californian athlete who recently joined Bob Kersee’s training group.
It was a balmy and warm evening in May 2003 in Mexico City when Allyson Felix’s life was forever changed in 22.11 seconds.
That’s the time it took for Felix, then a 17-year-old high school senior, to dominate a world class field in the Banamex Grand Prix. The mark smashed the US high school record of Marion Jones and was the fastest time in the world in 2003.
In a span of a week, Felix’s dilemma went from missing her high school prom to attend a state championship to deciding whether to relinquish an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California to turn professional directly out of high school.
Felix chose the professional route, signing a six-year sponsorship deal with adidas and hiring former high hurdles World record holder Renaldo Nehemiah as an agent.
Felix lived-up to those expectations in Athens, winning the Olympic silver 200m medal in 22.18 to break a World Junior record that had stood since 1980, five years before Felix was born.
“My whole goal my first year was to make the Olympic team,” said Felix, the youngest US athletics Olympian in Greece. “The main issue was if I was ready or needed time to develop in college. Everything was so new and complicated and adjusting to how things work as a professional.”
Her time of 22.18 in the Olympic final broke the World Junior record of 22.19 set by Soviet sprinter Natalya Bochina. The mark had eluded her for more than a year after her mark of 22.11 at the Banamex Grand Prix was not ratified because there had been no drug testing.
“Even though the record was taken away, I was still recognized for what I had done,” Felix said. “It was great to finally get it. I was satisfied with the Olympic experience, and the adjustment to the professional world of track and field came together.”
Felix, now 19, is hoping to continue to her momentum in Helsinki. Felix ran a sea-level career-best of 22.14 in her opening 200m of the season at the adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif. in May.
“The Olympics were a valuable experience,” Felix said. “At the moment, it was disappointing but now I am glad. People have seen what I have done but the pressure is there to continue.”
Felix began training with Bobby Kersee in the fall, her third coach in three years, after parting ways with Pat Connolly after one season.
Connolly, who coached Evelyn Ashford to the 1984 Olympic 100m gold medal, moved from Virginia to California to work privately with Felix in 2004 but returned to the East Coast after the Athens Games.
“We trained through the Olympics, and after that decided that we weren't working together anymore,” Felix said.
After a two-month hiatus after the Olympics, partly for lack of a coach, Felix sought the tutelage of Kersee. After a brief initial meeting, Felix began training in late November with the husband of heptathlon World record holder Jackie Joyner Kersee.
Felix said among the factors in the decision was the difficulty of training alone and a desire to remain in Los Angeles.
Felix said she always respected Kersee as a coach and admired his wife's charitable work with the JJK Youth Center Foundation, which supports the development of leadership programmes in urban areas across the United States.
She is training in a team environment for the first time with workout partners that includes Athens Olympic 100m Hurdles champion Joanna Hayes and 4x100m relay gold medallist Monique Henderson, US Olympians Sheena Johnson and Michelle Perry, and heptathlete Eunice Barber of France.
“It was rough training all year by myself,” Felix said. “I needed competitive training partners. I just wanted to check into the local training possibilities. Bobby and I clicked right away, and I decided to explore that. I fit in well with his camp.”
Kersee has been emphasizing over-distance intervals and extensive workouts in the weight room. The main thing that Kersee stresses with his newest prodigy, though, is patience.
“The key for her is to enjoy the sport,” Kersee said. “She is going to improve her start and get stronger. She just has to mature. Obviously, she is one of the best athletes in the United States and in the world. The key for her is to stay happy and continue to learn.”
Felix had a rough start to her professional career in her debut at the 2003 World Championships in Paris when she failed to advance out of the second round after a lengthy indoor and outdoor high school season.
“I felt a lot of people were skeptical, but I wasn't trying to prove that I had made the right decision,” Felix said. “It added pressure to adjust and the high expectations I had of my own.”
Felix is among the first of a growing number of US track athletes, such as Justin Gatlin, Alan Webb, Lauryn Williams and Sanya Richards, to turn pro before finishing college. Felix was the only one who skipped college athletics completely.
“It's good for the sport, and it's nice to see the whole generation of younger athletes ruling on the professional circuit,” Felix said.
Felix has come full circle after sheepishly approaching Marion Jones for an autograph at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays as a fledging high school sprinter in 2001 to one of the her biggest competitors.
“It’s a different feeling and mind set,” Felix said. “In my first race against (Jones), I was shocked. Now, I just see her as another competitor. It took some time but I realize now that I need to focus and compete to my ability.”
Felix was widely known in the athletics world before her junior year at L.A. Baptist High in the L.A. suburb of North Hills after winning the 100m in the 2001 World Youth Championships.
She gained celebrity status after her Olympics performance. In the weeks following Athens, Felix and Gatlin visited with Serena Williams at the US Open in New York. At the Emmy Awards, Felix and Gatlin strode down the red carpet before a worldwide television audience as guests of honour.
Gatlin, who turned professional after competing for two years at LSU, and Felix met at the 2003 IAAF World Indoor Championships and the 2004 Olympic 100m gold medallist was among Felix’s biggest influences in her decision to turn pro.
“We just hang out a lot together,” Felix said.
Felix now drives around style in Los Angeles, the entertainment capitol of the world, in a 2004 white Cadillac Escalade and launched her own Web site, www.AllysonFelixUSA.com, in which she writes a journal and answers fan e-mails.
Felix said that things have settled down since the Olympics. She attends USC with aspirations of becoming an elementary school teacher and shares an off-campus apartment in South Central L.A. with her older brother Wes, a senior sprinter on the Trojans’ track team who was a member of the US 4x100m relay that set a World Junior record at the 2002 World Junior Championships.
“People used to call Allyson Wes’ sister,” Wes said. “Now, people call me Allyson’s brother. It’s such a cool experience to have people come up to you and say ‘I saw your sister on TV.’ I think the best part of it is her humble attitude. To her, it’s no big deal.”
Those are the principles that her parents, Paul and Marlean, have stressed during the upbringing of their two children.
Paul, is an ordained minister who teaches New Testament Greek at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, Calif., and her mother Marlean, an elementary school teacher, supported Allyson’s decision to turn professional on the condition that she continue her education in college.
Dealing with agents and contacts was a harrowing experience for the Felix family, who sought the help of former Los Angeles Dodgers general manger Kevin Malone, the Vice President of Development at The Master's to assist with the negotiations when Allyson decided to turn pro.
Summer vacations in the Felix family have become travelling around the world to watch Allyson compete.
Allyson, who completed her sophomore year at USC, has juggled schoolwork with training full-time in athletics over the last two years. She had to make special request from her instructors to take her final exams early so that she could compete in meets in Japan and Qatar in the spring.
“There are times when there are rough practices and rough times in the classroom,” Felix said. “I kind of feel I have to stop and do one thing because it’s hard to get through it.”
Felix had no competitive athletics experience when she went out for the sport as a high school freshman. Her high school coach Jonathan Patton vividly recalls the lanky teenager in basketball shoes when he was timing prospective athletes.
After Felix ran, Patton thought that he made an error in measuring the distance for the time trial after looking at his stopwatch. He had Felix run again and to his disbelief she ran even faster.
It didn’t take long thereafter for Patton to discover that there was something special with Felix.
“People treat her like a superstar, but she is the same giggling kid who is concerned if she gets asked to a dance,” Patton recalled. “She is remarkably unaffected by it. She's grateful for her gift of remarkable talent and makes sure that her best comes through.”
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 2 - 2005