Basketball was Allyson Felix’s game. The court was where the shy minister’s daughter could express herself better than she ever could through words. She cherished her Kobe Bryant jersey and her hoop dreams.
She was 5 foot 6 and slender but she could jump and could she ever run, skills she showed off for L.A. Baptist’s freshman basketball team. When her father Paul and brother Wes urged her to try track and field in the spring of 2000 she agreed, reluctantly. She showed up for the tryouts in long basketball shorts and her favorite Gary Payton Glove sneakers.
“I didn’t know anything about running shoes,” she said.
Fast forward to 2021. Months after she and Wes launched the women-focused footwear brand Saysh, she wore her company’s customized spikes while winning a gutsy bronze medal in the 400-meter race at the COVID-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s wild to me to even think of that, but very cool to me that I’m still doing what I love,” said Felix, who ran the second leg of the U.S. women’s triumphant 4×400 relay a day later to earn her 11th Olympic medal, the most by an American track and field athlete. “And I get to do it for women. Even cooler.”
The journey that began for Felix in North Hills and looped through five Olympics and eight world championships will end on Sunday. After winning gold and bronze relay medals at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., to pad her record total to 20 world medals, it’s appropriate she will come home for her final sprint.
The Race for Change, to be held Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Skylight Row, will include a street race, age-group contests and community events that call attention to the family- and woman-centered causes Felix has eloquently taken up since her daughter Camryn was born prematurely in 2018. With logistical help from lifestyle brand Athleta, which sponsored her when she left Nike to protest its unfair treatment of female athletes who were moms or considering motherhood, she will exit in the fashion she had envisioned.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know if this is possible, but my dream scenario would be to run in my hometown, on the streets. I think that would be the coolest thing ever,’ ’’ she said the other day. “I love street races, and a lot of friends and family have never been able to see me run in person. And there’s not meets here anymore. I thought that was a perfect full-circle moment to just have a celebration.”
Felix, 36, retires with few regrets. Not that everything ended as she would have liked: she won Olympic gold in her favorite race, the 200-meter dash, only once, at London in 2012. And after coach Bobby Kersee pushed her toward the more grueling 400 she was beaten out in the 2016 Rio Olympics final when Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas made a desperate dive at the finish line.
Yet Felix made sure every experience enlightened her and made her stronger. She never cheated in competition. She never cheated herself or anyone who recognized her integrity and consistency.
“Maybe I could have been more successful in certain things had I not been more risky and went after some of the harder stuff. But I think that’s what it’s about, challenging yourself, and so even though I don’t love the 400 I’m glad that I went for it,” she said. “I’m glad that I tried something that was really hard for me, that was outside of my comfort zone.
“If I were to dissect things, there’s definitely things that I probably wish would have gone a different way, but I’ll say that I think everything went the way it was supposed to go, and I think it led me to where I’m supposed to be.”
Quiet by nature, she learned to advocate for herself and other women after her daughter was born via emergency caesarean section in 2018 and spent weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. Felix gave powerful testimony before Congress in 2019 about the disproportionate pregnancy risks Black women face, a cause that remains important to her.
She’d also like to see childcare assistance and facilities become available to female athletes so they don’t have to search for bathrooms or cubbyholes to tend to their children during competitions. She’s hoping to get corporations attuned to the value of female athletes’ efforts and persuade more women they can be competitors and moms, and not have to choose one or the other, as her sponsors and society seemed to tell her early in her career. No doubt she will be a champion there too.
Yet, speaking up wasn’t easy or instinctive for her. That changed when her brother Wes, who was a sprinter at USC, assured her the substance of her message mattered more than the volume of her words. “Even if your voice shakes you can still use it. There’s still power there. That’s where I was with it,” she said.
She recently joined the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission, a powerful group. She’s on the board of directors of Right to Play, a child-focused international nonprofit, and of &Mother, a nonprofit founded by fellow athlete/mom Alysia Montaño to support female athletes. She’s involved with the Power of She Fund, which partners with Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation to provide childcare grants to athletes. She joked that she’d give herself a day off on Monday, the first day of her post-competitive life, before plunging into her new world on Tuesday.
She will miss competing but won’t miss the workouts that exhausted her and made her throw up. She knew this year would be her last because she no longer had the heart and hunger to race. “I felt like what it would take, I wasn’t willing to give,” she said.
Cammy, 3 ½, was an adorable presence at the world championships a few weeks ago in Eugene, yelling “Go, Mommy, Go!” when Felix raced. She might be too young to grasp exactly what happened, but the details didn’t really matter.
“I hope what she takes away is that mom was doing what she loves. Mom was fulfilling a passion,” Felix said. “I hope that that’s a part of her childhood, that she saw her mom working and doing the thing that she loves.”
She loved it and we loved watching her. What Felix does next for the women who follow should be equally successful and compelling to watch.