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U.S. gets redemption and relief with relay golds

After a year full of injury and heartbreak, Allyson Felix ended her fourth Olympics like the most decorated woman in U.S. track and field history should: arms raised in triumph, crossing the finish line in first place.

Felix anchored the women’s 4×400-meter relay to a gold medal Saturday, rebuffing a challenge from Jamaica down the final stretch to win by several yards. It was the ninth medal of Felix’s career, including six golds, second only to Carl Lewis’ 10 medals among American track and field athletes.

“It’s very special to have these records. I’m just so grateful,” Felix said. “Track and field has brought so much joy to my life, to be able to look back over the years at the things I’ve been able to accomplish, it’s a blessing.”

The U.S. men’s 4×400 relay also won gold, avenging a rare loss in the 2012 Olympics.

The team of Felix, Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings and Phyllis Francis finished in 3:19.06. The U.S. women have now won the 4×400 in six consecutive Olympics, dating to 1996. Jamaica took silver in 3:20.34. Great Britain earned bronze in 3:25.88.

Felix had planned to compete in the 200 and 400 in Rio, but a freak ankle injury hampered her training going into the U.S. trials, and she missed qualifying for the 200 by an excruciating .01 seconds. Then, in the Rio individual 400, she lost the gold by .07 seconds when Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dove at the finish line. The loss was so devastating, Felix was still fighting back tears an hour after the race.

In person, Felix’s placid demeanor and slender 5-foot-6 frame make her seem almost reticent. On the track, though, she burns with intensity. She rebounded with a gold medal in the 4×100 relay, then ended the last night of track and field competition at Olympic Stadium with the 4×400 victory.

“It makes it very special, in a very tough year,” she said.

Felix turns 31 in November. She has been a star since age 18, when she won silver in the 200 at the 2004 Athens Olympics. She’s a champion in distances from 100 to 400 meters. She helped set the 4×100 world record of 40.82 seconds at the 2012 London Olympics.

Could she return in 2020, for her fifth Olympics?

“I’m taking it year by year, I’m going to see how I feel,” she said. “If I’m still passionate, still enjoying myself, I’ll continue on. Right now I don’t have any definite answer.”

Only Lewis and Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, who won 12 track and field medals, have won more medals than Felix. She is tied with Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey for the most by a woman track athlete. But Felix said those numbers have never been her motivation.

“For me it’s if I still want to do this, if I have the love for it, am I competitive enough,” she said. “At the end of the day you have to have that burning desire to get on the track and compete.”

The men’s 4×400 also won big, with LaShawn Merritt running the anchor to finish in 2:57.30. Jamaica took silver in 2:58.16, and the Bahamas won bronze in 2:58.49.

The U.S. men have historically dominated the event but lost to the Bahamas in 2012 when a fill-in replacement faded down the homestretch.

On Saturday, Arman Hall led off for the U.S. and was in second place when he passed the baton to Tony McQuay. McQuay seized the lead and passed to Gil Roberts, who held the lead until handing off the Merritt for the anchor.

“This was about Team USA, a great group of guys I ran with,” Merritt said. “They made my job easy. We wanted this gold. We didn’t get it in the last Olympics.”

The victory gave Team USA 31 total track and field medals in Rio, more than any other nation, and the highest U.S. total since winning 31 in 1952 and 1956.

“The Olympics are about representing your country,” Merritt said. “When I can do that on the track with a group of guys to end the Games, it’s a great feeling.”

This story is featured on ESPN.com

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.