Not all fairytales have the perfect ending. In the final race of a career spanning two decades, with more medals than anyone else in athletics history, Allyson Felix left Hayward’s Field with just a bronze in the mixed 4x400m relay as the United States were stunned by the Dominican Republic.
For a few magical moments, as Felix stormed to a 20-metre lead on the second leg and the crowd exploded with noise and love, she appeared to be rolling back the years. “I felt the love, and I felt joy running,” she said when asked about it. “And so I feel really proud tonight, and fulfilled.”
And how it showed. But Felix is 36 now, and she was eventually reined in by Tokyo 2020 silver medallist Marileidy Paulino. But the US still looked set to justify their status of 1-20 on favourites until a desperate final 15 metres of the race, when Kennedy Simon was caught and the script was ripped up.
But it was mighty close. The Dominican Republic won in 3:09.82, with the Netherlands just 0.08 back after a stunning anchor leg by Femke Bol. The US, meanwhile, were third in 3:10.16.
At that moment you could hear most of the air and joy being sucked out of the stadium. But Felix kept smiling, embracing her team-mates and then hugging World Athletics president Sebastian Coe as she was awarded her medal. And she was still beaming deep into the night when she spoke movingly about inspiring her three-year-old daughter Camryn, who watched on.
“To be able to compete here in front of my own crowd at a world championship was something I had always wanted,” she said. “Obviously I am not in the prime of my career. But just to be able to finish it with Camryn in the stands, and to share that moment with her, means a lot.”
Why isn’t Camryn with you now, she was asked? “She is getting ice cream,” Felix shot back, laughing. “She is three. She is loving her best life.”
Felix leaves her sport having hoarded a stupendous tally of 30 Olympic and world championship medals over the past 18 years, a tally that might never be beaten. To put that into context, the closest to her in the all-time list, Merlene Ottey, had 23, while Usain Bolt had 21.
True, Felix does not leave a trail of scorching times in her wake. Her personal best over 200-metres, 21.69 sec, ranks her as only the eighth best ever. But greatness is not measured on one stopwatch but over many. And few can match Felix’s longevity, her range of events or her voice on important issues. She really was a 3D athlete.
More recently that voice has become amplified, especially after becoming pregnant in 2018. At that point Nike were already proposing to reduce her contact by 70%. When she found the company wouldn’t add any protections for maternity leave, Felix became steelier and stronger. Her second life had begun.
“The last couple of years I have stepped outside of just the clock and the medals,” she admitted afterwards. “And I never would have imagined that would be a place I would come to. But I have. And what I hope to do from now on is to really support female and mum athletes and carry on the childcare initiative I have. They are all going to be in my next chapter.”
Who knows where it will take her? Already Felix has set up her own women’s-only shoe brand, Saysh, while in May she announced an initiative with her sponsor Athleta and the nonprofit group &Mothernonprofit to provide free childcare to athletes, staff, and coaches for the first time in the history of the US Championships.
Speaking a few years ago, Felix also mentioned being an ambassador for the global humanitarian organisation, Right To Play, which led to her travelling to countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Palestine.
“I get to run for a living, and that’s great and fun,” she told me. “But the work that Right to Play does is so much more important. I remember going into a refugee camp in Lebanon, for instance, and speaking to a young girl who had been helped to set up a soccer league. Just seeing the confidence that she had was amazing.”
Asked on Friday night what message she would tell her young self Felix replied: “Every defeat, every failure, is an opportunity to get better. Earlier in my career, I would sometimes get paralysed by disappointment. But there is so much to learn from every moment. Embrace the journey. All of it.”
As a motto to live life by, it doesn’t get much better than that. Then again, few have been better than Felix – on or off the track.
July 16, 2022 at 12:37PM Sean Ingle in Eugene, Oregon