In this race, Allyson Felix is ahead of them all
Now future track and field Olympians are just chasing her records
We’ve seen her seemingly effortless dominance. We recognize her determined focus as she stares down the track before she races. We smile when her own larger-than-life grin lights up a 100,000-person stadium. And we now know that with this week’s silver medal, Allyson Felix has solidified herself as track and field royalty. Having won seven medals, four of them gold so far, she is now the most decorated female American track and field athlete of all time. She is a giant who is keenly and gratefully aware that she stands on the shoulders of giants who have come before her, a past not as well-known as some of her male counterparts.
Felix has won one Olympic gold and two silver medals in the 200 meters and is a three-time world champion in that event. At 400 meters, she won the Olympic silver medal Monday. She has won three Olympic gold medals as a member of the U.S. women’s 4-x-400 meter relay team and ran on the team that holds the 4-x-100 relay world record. She competes again beginning Friday in qualifying rounds for the 4-x-400 relay.
There is a not-so-pretty, not-so-well-known history of African-American female sprinters that dates to just a little over 80 years ago. Lost in the attention given to Jesse Owens, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes qualified for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. They were to run in the 4-x-100 meter relay for the United States, enduring segregated conditions along the way. Yet, the women were not allowed to compete at the Los Angeles Coliseum and were replaced by two white runners. There are conflicting accounts as to why.
Stokes made it onto the U.S. team as an alternate during the 1936 Berlin Games and was allowed to make the 10-day boat trip, but never competed. Pickett made the team once more, but broke her foot during one of the hurdles semifinal races. Both would have most likely won in 1940 and 1944 if the Olympics had not been canceled because of World War II.
It wasn’t until 1948 that Tuskegee track and field star Alice Coachman became the first African-American woman to win gold medal. It was in the high jump, and she was the only U.S. woman to win gold during the 1948 London Games.
“I made a difference among blacks, being one of the leaders,” Coachman told The New York Times in 1996. “If I had gone to the games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”
Coachman set the stage for Wilma Rudolph, the athlete who would change the way the world would look at African-American women. Known as “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle,” Rudolph won three gold medals and one bronze in the 1960 Rome Olympics. She was the first woman to win three gold medals and that catapulted her to international heroic stardom.
Rudolph became a symbol for many during the civil rights movement. Although not as outspoken as some other athletes, when she returned from the Olympics, Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington planned a segregated celebration. The Tennessee State graduate said she would not attend if it was segregated. Rudolph’s parade became the first integrated event in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.
By the time we saw the dominance of Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee in the 1980s, the racially defined headlines had all but disappeared for these elite African-American women. Inspired by the generation before her, in archived ESPN interviews, Joyner-Kersee talked about her friendship with Rudolph: “She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could call her at home. It was like talking to someone you knew for a lifetime.”
2016 is tough year for Felix
Felix admits that this has been the toughest year of her career. She had an accident in the weight room that left her with a severely sprained ankle, torn ligaments and put her on crutches just a couple of months before Olympic trials in June. She missed qualifying for her “baby,” the 200-meter race, by .01 seconds and the chance at defending her gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics.
Felix also lost her beloved dog Chloe this year, and right before traveling to Rio de Janeiro, she lost her grandfather. She’s leaned heavily on her close network of family and friends and praises the support she’s received from both Joyner-Kersee and Bobby Kersee, Felix’s coach and Joyner-Kersee’s husband.
In a Facebook post a day after her 400-meter race, where she missed the gold medal by .07 seconds, she wrote:
Last night didn’t end the way I had dreamed. I’m disappointed. I was quickly reminded of countless reasons to be proud, thankful and grateful. Bobby told me this is the most proud he has ever been of me. That resonated with me. Everything went wrong this year, but some way I made it here and won a silver medal. I fought as hard as I could and gave my all. I’m most proud of never giving up on my dreams in the face of adversity. I’m extremely humbled to now be the most decorated female Olympian in USATF history. All glory to God!
The biggest thank you to all of YOU! I have never felt more loved, appreciated and uplifted.
There is a beauty to how these female Olympic heroes have been there for each other for strength and support over the years. On Felix breaking her medal record, Joyner-Kersee told a St. Louis TV station: “If it’s going to be somebody, I’d love for it to be Allyson. Not only is she a great athlete, she is a great person. I just love her spirit. I love what she stands for. I love how she carries herself, I love how she gives back. And I love how she picks up the phone and calls me and asks for my advice.”
There is a lot of admiration shared among these athletes for their track and field performances, and they are eerily similar off the track as well. Each one dedicated their lives to helping children. Pickett became an elementary school teacher at a school that was eventually named after her in Chicago. Chapman spent her post-track career dedicated to education. Rudolph, who died in 1994, said that her greatest achievement was her work advocating for children through her foundation.
Felix is no different. Since earning a degree in elementary education from the University of Southern California, she has spent a lot of her off time dedicated to multiple local, national and international nonprofits that help children.
“I feel like now I am in a position to make a difference and I do feel a responsibility,” Felix said during a 2012 interview for The Daily Beast. “I have a passion for kids. Anything with children automatically catches my eye.”
Felix partnered with her friend, former NFL player Nnamdi Asomogha and his foundation in Los Angeles, where they host college summits for local high school juniors and seniors. She has been on President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition under President Barack Obama and part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, speaking at places such as the Aspen Institute on the importance of fitness for children. As an Athlete Ambassador for the global humanitarian organization Right To Play since 2011, Felix has traveled to Rwanda, Uganda, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Mozambique to see how sport and play programs help children.
Much like Rudolph and Joyner-Kersee, Felix is a quiet juggernaut and a shy lethal force. She is a global face of multiple international brands such as Nike, Citi, Folgers and Bounty. In interviews and in person, you can feel her gratitude for every opportunity. Even as she crosses the finish line mouthing “thank you,” never boasting about her achievements.
There is an irony to the legacy that started with two women not given the opportunity to compete in Los Angeles at The Coliseum in 1932, on the same grounds that Felix now frequently competes. You can almost picture Pickett, Chapman and Rudolph with their hands proudly placed on Felix’s shoulders, knowing that she represents all that they hoped and dreamed for black women in track and field.
As Felix passes the baton later this week and is given more opportunities to medal, no one really knows who might be the next woman to shine in U.S. track and field – maybe English Gardner or Tori Bowie. One thing is for sure – the next woman in line certainly has big spikes to fill.