And then she felt something she would not have expected years ago, before she became a mother and launched the fights she believes will define her career, even more so than medals and titles that make her the most decorated track and field athlete in American history. It was joy.
Felix always wanted to leave track and field better than she found it. She said goodbye Friday at Hayward Field, running the second leg of the mixed 4X400 relay at the first track and field world championships contested in the United States. The U.S. quartet finished third and took bronze, losing a large lead in the homestretch of the anchor leg. For most of her career, the result would have eaten at Felix. In her prime, she maintained a narrow focus on victory. She has learned it’s the fight that counts.
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Felix had always wanted to compete in a major global meet in front of American fans, and she believes the memories from Friday night will stack up with any from her career. She won 13 world championships. At her record eighth world championships, competed over a record 17 years, Felix won her record 19th world championships medal. Those pair with her 11 Olympic medals, seven gold, three silver and the indelible, improbable bronze in Tokyo last summer as a 35-year-old mother less than three years removed from a birth that endangered her life.
“It’s a similar emotion,” Felix said. “The last couple years, I’ve stepped outside of the clock, the medals. I never would have imagined that that would have been a place I would come to. But I have. It’s being a representation for women, mothers, and I really felt that. It was an emotional day. I felt it all over from people telling me and messages. I feel really proud tonight. I feel fulfilled.”
When the race ended, Felix took no victory laps. She milled next to her teammates Elija Godwin, Vernon Norwood and Kennedy Simon. She joined them on the lowest step of the podium, smiling as she received her bronze medal and a handshake from Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff. She had first worn a Team USA uniform in 2003 as a 17-year-old prodigy. She remembers the heartbreak of not making the final of her event, the 200 meters. The sport would break her heart many times.
Friday night, she wore her Team USA uniform for the last time as a 36-year-old mother and the owner of a shoe company she helped found. Her daughter, Camryn, watched from the stands.
“It’s about being a fighter,” Felix said. “It doesn’t matter what you do. That’s the spirit I hope she carries over, the confidence I hope that she has. You always stand up for what you believe is right. I hope she doesn’t get into track and field. I encourage her to do many other things.”
When Felix reflects on the final chapter of her career, she cannot believe she made it through. She gave birth to Camryn in 2018, a complicated delivery that threatened the lives of both mother and child. Felix spent weeks in the NICU beside Camryn. It was the first time she taught her daughter how to fight.
Nike, the shoe company that had sponsored her all her career, wanted to cut her pay as she recovered. Felix had always strayed from social issues, but the Camryn’s birth changed her. She dropped Nike as a sponsor and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for equality and protection for athletes who become pregnant. She later testified before Congress about the systemic disparities Black mothers face. She has prompted track and field’s governing bodies to provide free child care at events. Companies, Nike included, have overhauled policies regarding pregnant athletes.
From the archives: As a runner, Allyson Felix didn’t want to speak out. As a mom, she felt she had to.
For the first 15 or so years of her professional career, Felix felt uncomfortable deploying her voice beyond her sport. She stayed in her lane. In the final three years, she became an example for others on how to stray from it.
“When she was going up against Nike, that’s one person against a corporation,” star American sprinter Noah Lyles said. “I don’t think some people understand how big Nike has an influence over the U.S. [track and field]. That is a firm grasp. And for one woman — one Black woman — to go up against that and speak their mind, and speak for what they believe is right, even to have the courage to try, is something I feel is something young people should be watching for years to come.”
Wadeline Jonathas, a 24-year-old member of the 4X400 mixed relay team who ran in the opening round, has competed with Felix for three years. Last week, out of curiosity, Jonathas looked up the origins of the name Allyson and discovered what she believed to be a perfect description. It meant noble.
“She’s really a great human being,” Jonathas said. “And I know sometimes when you’re really good, people don’t think you’re nice. But she’s nice. She’s not just good. She’s nice.”
“She’s does stuff the right way,” said shotput world record holder Ryan Crouser, a co-captain with Felix on this team. “Kind of the definition of integrity.”
As Felix discovered a new part of herself off the track the past three years, she searched for her old self on it. When she returned at the 2019 U.S. championships, Felix could not break 52 seconds. She was not lock to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and then she finished second at U.S. trials. She was not expected to win a medal in Tokyo, and then she did, taking bronze in 49.46 seconds, her fastest time since she was 29.
From the archives: With a bronze in the women’s 400 meters, Allyson Felix runs into forever
Felix had one more race. She took the baton from Godwin as the second leg holding a lead. Baton in hand, an open track ahead, Felix went for the break one last time. Suddenly there she was, in that upright and languid stride, alone on the backstretch. The sun was setting over the foothills outside Hayward Field. The stadium roared. She could almost see the final finish line of her career. She heard thunderous cheers.
“You’re competing, but I felt the love,” Felix said. “I felt joy running tonight.”
Felix is not an emotional person, and her outpouring of emotions surprised her. She received so many messages and heard so many stories. She spotted signs in the crowd. She realized over the past week that in the middle of training and racing, she didn’t realize the impact she had on others in the sport. Felix left track and field behind Friday night, better than how she found it.
“I put posters of you on my wall and on my sister’s wall,” heptathlete Anna Hall told Felix on Thursday, sitting beside her at a news conference. “My family talked about you all time. … The way you’ve carried yourself your entire career has really set a great example for the rest of the girls in America to follow coming up in the sport. So thank you.”