Driven by her faith and keeping a clean image, the sprinting sensation is going for gold this summer.
You won’t find her in the center of a scandal, posing suggestively in men’s magazines or involved in any kind of pitfall often associated with achieving success at a young age.
Superstar sprinter Allyson Michelle Felix is at the forefront of a new generation of athletes who shine on the track by preserving the integrity of their sport—perhaps one of the reasons why she was chosen by NBC as a poster athlete, along with swimmer Michael Phelps and volleyball player Kerri Walsh, for this year’s Olympic Games in London.
While many have dubbed her the next Marion Jones, Felix is out to prove she’s not. Unlike Jones, who was stripped of her five Olympic medals in 2007 after she admitted to using steroids prior to the Sydney Games, and served a six-month prison sentence for lying to federal investigators, the 26-year-old Felix is a member of Project Believe, in which she voluntarily takes extensive, out-of-competition drug tests to prove she’s clean.
Once nicknamed “chicken legs” in high school, the 5-foot-6, 125-pound speedster not only runs with the weight of repairing the damage done to the sport by the woman who inspired her, but also with the expectations that have accompanied her since she won the Olympic silver medal in the 200 meters at age 18 in 2004, just one year after she won gold and set a national high school record in the 200m at the U.S. indoor championships.
“I looked up to [Marion], so when everything came crashing down, I was devastated,” Felix says. “I would never want to put anyone in that position so I embrace the responsibility I’ve been given to keep a positive image and do the right things in front of kids or young athletes who look up to me.”
To help keep her responsibilities and the attention she’s received in perspective, Felix turns to her faith. The Los Angeles native was raised in a Christian household by her father, Paul Felix, a church minister, and mother Marlean Felix, a third-grade teacher.
“It gives me a great outlook on sports in general. My running is a gift that I’ve been blessed with so I want to use it to the best of my ability,” says Felix, who first got involved in the sport during her freshman year at Los Angeles Baptist High School.
But before she discovered her talent for the sport, Felix had a passion for basketball. She dribbled her way onto her ninth grade varsity basketball team, and attributes her interest in both basketball and track to her older brother, Wes Felix, whom she says is a prominent influence.
“Allyson liked tagging along with me and my friends. Whatever we did, she wanted to do; even in basketball, she wanted to be the same number as me,” says Wes, a former University of Southern California track and field star who is now his sister’s agent. “We’re extremely close. Sometimes she uses me as a soundboard to get advice on anything, from what to do at a race to what to order at a restaurant.”
Wes, who says the two had a friendly, competitive childhood that still resonates to this day, admires the way she’s evolved over the years.
“She’s grown a lot, and, in some ways, is still exactly the same as when we were kids. She’s stubborn in the sense that when her mind is set on a particular goal, she’s not going to rest until she gets it,” says Wes, 28. “As an athlete, she’s become more content with how long it takes to achieve certain things. She’s accepted her journey and learned that there will be things that will happen and people she’ll meet along the way, that, if they didn’t occur, wouldn’t impact the way she is now.”
Wes is referring to the emotional 2008 Games in Beijing, where Felix was favored to bring home gold in the 200m, but finished behind longtime rival Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica for the second consecutive Olympics. Their epic battles over the No. 1 spot in the 200m date back to 2004, with one in the winning position and the other in the runner-up spot in several races every year since. They’ve divided every major title, with Felix being the three-time outdoor world champion in the 200m and Campbell-Brown the two-time Olympic 200m champion.
“I had high expectations for Beijing and was disappointed when I didn’t deliver, but I learned a lot of things from that race and it’s what’s driving me going into London,” Felix says. “I’ve played that race in my mind enough times to know how hard I’m going to work, so whenever I have a day when I just don’t feel like getting out of bed, I look back to that moment and tell myself that if I want to win gold this year, I’m going to have to bring it.”
Felix has three world outdoor championship gold medals in the 4x400m relay, silver medals in the 200m at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, and another gold from the 4×400 at the Beijing Games. She has yet to win an individual Olympic gold medal, but rumors are circulating about her boldly going for two after she stepped outside of her comfort zone at last year’s world outdoor championships and competed in her first 200m/400m double. She won silver in the 400m and bronze in the 200m. “I’m going to take care of business this year, and even though I’d love to run four events, I’m going to stick to the relays, the 200s and either the 100s or 400s, depending on how the Olympic trials [in June] go,” she says.
She stresses the importance of her focus this year, as she recalls the impulsive three-day trip she took from Europe to Los Angeles to be the maid of honor at the wedding for her former high school track teammate, Brittany Ricketts-Dixon. She left before the reception to fly back for her next race.
“Allyson always tries to find time for us despite her busy schedule,” says Ricketts-Dixon. “She keeps her friends and family first, and these elements off the track translate onto the track because it shows just how focused and compassionate she is.”
Felix’s five-hour daily training regimen focuses on increasing lean body mass and improving her start. In addition to sprint and fast-feet routines on the track, her strength and conditioning coach, Andre Woodert, spends an hour with Felix in the weight room, performing plyometric drills, box jumps and other exercises to improve her strength and power.
Don’t let her petite frame fool you—she lifts with NFL players, and can deadlift more than 250 pounds and power clean 150 pounds.
“There are a lot of athletes who have a bad attitude or are arrogant, but she’s none of those things; that’s the kind of person you want to see succeed,” says Woodert.
Ten years from now, Felix hopes to have a few gold Olympic medals under her belt, be more involved in her community, and put her teaching degree, which she received from USC in 2008, to use.
And whether she’s outrunning Marion Jones’ shadow or preparing for London, one thing’s for sure: she wants to leave behind her own legacy.
“Whatever happens in London or in my career, I know I won’t let the sport define me,” Felix says. “It’s easy to classify an athlete with another, but I think it’s easy to just be yourself because there are so many little things that make each of us unique—and that’s what I want to be remembered for.”
Allyson Felix Timeline
2003: Track & Field News named Felix the national girls’ High School Athlete of the Year for earning gold in the 200m at the U.S. indoor championships. She set the national high school record with her 23.14 finish.
2004: At age 18, Felix was the U.S. Olympic trials champion in the 200m. She earned a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Athens with a world junior record time of 22.18.
2007: Felix became the second woman in history (Marita Koch in 1983 was the first) to win three gold medals at the same world outdoor championships. She medaled in the 200m, 4x100m and 4x400m relays in Osaka, Japan.
2008: The 22-year-old Felix picked up her second silver medal in the 200m and first 4x400m relay gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing.
2009: Felix made history at the world outdoor championships in Germany by becoming the first woman ever to win three world outdoor 200m titles. She finished in 22.02, beating rival Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jamaica’s Olympic 200m champion.
2010: President Obama invited Felix, along with NBA superstar Chris Paul and figure-skating champion Michelle Kwan, to join his Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition for the “Let’s Move” campaign, which motivates kids to embrace an active lifestyle.
2011: Felix won silver in the 400m, bronze in the 200m, and gold in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays at the world outdoor championships in Daegu, South Korea.
This piece first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.