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Around the Bend

Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in American track and field history, is running her last truly competitive race. She’s learning what comes next.

Jack C. Gregory

Sitting between fallen pine needles on a polyurethane track, the most accomplished athlete in the history of American track and field stretches her hamstrings. Allyson Felix is loosening her body for one of the last workouts in her career. She holds the pose—hands to midsole—diligently, then alternates legs. At 36, her muscles might be worn, but her heart’s still in it.

The racecourse, soft and sun-kissed red, wraps around a well-worn football field at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California. A couple of players are running routes by the nearest end zone while blasting a healthy dose of bass from a portable speaker. On the western-facing side, concrete stands overlook the whole setup. No one pays the five-time Olympian any mind.

For the better part of 60 days, Felix has been on a rip-roaring, intercontinental retirement tour, appearing in races in Rome, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all the while preparing for her final U.S. Outdoor Championships in late June. (Eight days after this very practice, she placed sixth in the women’s 400 meters at the event, qualifying for her final World Championships. Felix is scheduled to run Friday in the last truly competitive race of her career as part of the American mixed-gender 4x400-meter relay team.)

The reason she’s sprawled out in the back corner of a 20,000-student community college’s athletic facility is a bit of a riddle. She’s back for one more run because she wants to be. But also because she’s compelled to. “This season I’m running for women,” is how she explained it in an April retirement statement. Two months later, she announced an initiative with her sponsor Athleta and the nonprofit group &Mother to provide free childcare to athletes, staff, and coaches for the first time in the history of the U.S. Championships. In an industry where childcare still dictates who participates on the brightest stages, the move was activism at its most impactful and shrewd.

“I think for the majority of my career, I was an athlete that was very scared to speak out or to have a bold opinion,” she tells me. “I just always felt that I had to: head down, train, do my work—that’s what it’s all about. Try to get these medals. It wasn’t until going through real-life experiences that I learned my voice is valuable and I can speak on things.”

The process that she continues to feel her way through has resulted in a moment of equal parts celebration, activism, and extended ritual—a season-long ceremony of genuine athletic grieving. With each race, Felix is trying to leave something behind, twice-over: her sport and a version of herself.

At first, beside the Olympian, there’s one. His name is Bob. Last name, Kersee. He coached his wife before he was her husband. Jackie Joyner. You’ve heard the name. Also: Flo-Jo. He’s sitting in a folding chair.

Felix is jogging, a couple post-stretch warmup laps, and Kersee’s just watching. She comes around one bend, then another. “That Energizer Bunny,” the coach says, never moving his eyes, “just keeps on going.” Felix makes her first full pass. She’s wearing maroon sweats from her Athleta collection. Her hair is slicked and tied. Her spikes a white glare. Her frame is wiry, and she’s completely still above the neck, though her body leans forward at a slightly obtuse angle.

Kersee and Felix first started working together after the Olympics in Athens, when Felix was 19 years old. He’d been following her since she was in high school. “When she came to me in 2004, I said barring injury and death, this girl is going to be one of the greatest that I’ve ever coached,” Kersee says. “I knew it then, and it has been proven to be true.”

Kersee is the son of a Navy man. He wears a purple tie-dye Yankees hat and watched the ballgame yesterday. He likes his sweats like his New Balances and his T-shirt: black all over. He’s a straight shooter who can take you down with just his eyes. He believes Allyson is still one of the best damn 400-meter runners this country has to offer. I ask him why she’s leaving.

“You’re in Rome, you’re in Paris, you’re in India, but you’re in a hotel room, getting ready to go compete while maybe your family is there,” says Kersee. “They come back from the museum and all that stuff and you hear the stories of it. And you might even fly over or drive by it on the way to the track, but you really don’t get to go inside Westminster Abbey like the average person when you’re in London.”

Felix inches around another bend.

“You don’t get to appreciate it as much.”

Felix moves closer, but not close enough to hear. The jocks are still cranking the low end. Kersee brings his chest forward but keeps his legs glued where they are.

“I mean, they’ve all had their breakdowns at times,” he says. “I watched her cry underneath the tunnel in ’08 and then come back four years later and win three gold medals. I watched Jackie cry in the tunnel in ’84 and come back four years later and win two gold medals and break the American and world record. They all have their moments.”

There are miniature cones set up at 20-meter intervals. Felix is crouched at the 200-meter starting line; Kersee now stands at the tip of the bend. He blows a whistle, Felix bursts. Her form is fluid. Perfectly ordered. Her face wrinkles; brow, nose, lips, all at once, the same pattern she’s scrunched it in since she was a child. She moves and Kersee talks to her, prods her, carefully. “Get into it,” he says. “Get into it.”

Post-workout, the sprinter tends momentarily to her daughter, Camryn. In a flare of candor, Felix’s husband, Kenneth Ferguson, tells me it’s been hard for the hypercompetitive Felix to adjust, not just to the finality of it all, but the shrinking stakes. Her events are now more exhibitions than battles.

Later in the afternoon, I ask Felix how she’s handled the shift. We’re walking down the track, the sun dancing off her thin gold necklace. “I’ve never come from the approach of not having a singular goal and a time goal. That’s how I operate,” Felix says, hands periodically extended. “So it’s been really challenging this season to try to figure out, ‘How do I exist when I’m not only focused on results?’ Trying to find joy. I found that it’s hard. I only know one way to do this.”

The story of that “one way” may be worn smooth but it bears repeating. She didn’t start track until high school. She grew up mostly in Los Angeles, save for a minor detour to Colorado. Her grandparents migrated from South Carolina to Philadelphia and then, finally, to Southern California. Both a preacher’s daughter and the granddaughter of two preachers, Felix was raised firm in her faith.

Basketball was her first love. As a freshman, when she showed up to track tryouts, she came equipped with a pair of worn out Gary Payton Gloves. The team conducted time trials, and her sprinting coach, Jonathan Patton, assumed her result was an error. “I looked at my watch,” Patton says over the phone in July, “and I thought, ‘You know what? I think I put the cones at the wrong places.’”

Allyson Felix at the 2003 Junior Nationals in Palo Alto, California.
Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage

Felix, then slim as a coat hanger, was the rarest of pupils: an undiscovered prodigy. In 2001, her personal best in the 200 was 23.77 seconds; at the start of 2002, she ran the same race in less than 23 seconds flat. By the next spring, she’d cut another half-second off her time, an eon in sprinting parlance. For her senior season she was named one of Gatorade’s National High School Athletes of the Year. The other winner was LeBron James. In May 2003, Felix broke Marion Jones’s world junior record for the 200 at a professional event in Mexico City’s famed Estadio Olímpico Universitario stadium. Because there was no drug testing before the exhibition meet, the time didn’t count in the record books. (Felix wound up breaking the mark again 15 months later in the 2004 Olympic 200-meter final.)

“Everybody after that, I kind of feel like they’re in the same position that I was,” Patton says. “This is a finished product already. Don’t fuck it up.”

Ferguson likes to say the first thing he really learned about his future wife was that she was a competitive freak. An accomplished sprinter himself, he’d been following her exploits from Michigan and wanted to find a way to meet in person. (“Shoot my shot” were his exact words on the matter.) The 2003 Junior Nationals would be held at Stanford University, and they both were going to compete. If Felix placed in the top three she would qualify for the World Championships that year in Paris. It was the perfect chance—until, a few weeks before the competition, Felix pulled her hamstring. Ferguson assumed his plans were dashed. When he made it to Palo Alto, he saw Felix preparing to run. She had a wrap on her leg. She was still visibly injured. Felix qualified for worlds.

She opted to enter the professional ranks straight from high school, signing with Adidas for an undisclosed sum. In highlights from those early years, her youth is jarring, even for a sport dominated by folks with twos at the start of their age. At the Olympic trials in 2004, Felix looked like a kid who snuck onto the track. She did a lot of blinking. Her stride length strained credulity. The form: liquid, effortless. Along the bend she shifted into another gear. By the end of the race, the other competitors were left straining, shimmying their bodies—left, right, left, right—ripping their arms to the sky. And there’s Felix, all shins and ankles, straight sinewy, just gliding along. She doesn’t even lean forward for the win. She takes it, straight up.

Over the next eight years, she won often—sometimes in relays, sometimes on her own. She came in second more than she’d have liked. It took her until 2012 to win the Olympic gold in her coveted 200 meters. Given the doping era we’re talking about, it’s hard to say how legitimate some of those losses were.​​ Two of the athletes who beat Felix in finals during this period, Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell Brown and Botswana’s Amantle Montsho, later tested positive for banned substances. (Campbell Brown was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.) By the time Felix was 26, she had eight world championships and four Olympic golds.

She was only halfway through her career.

“I’ve always been in the mentality of whatever you’ve got to do, you’ve got to just get through it,” says Felix, standing near a fence at the 200-meter starting line. “Growing up in the sport and everything, that’s the mentality. Whatever you have to do, even if it’s not what’s best for you, it’s like, ‘This has been your goal for so long, you’ve got to make it happen.’”

It’s what she did in 2016. She nearly split her ankle, a few months before Olympic trials. She gutted through, qualifying in the 400 meters. In Rio, she made it all the way to the finals. In that contest, Felix lagged until the last quarter, then she turned it on. People talk about the finish—Felix lost the race, famously, to Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo, on a last-second dive—but the truth is she tightened up in the final 10 meters. Her hamstrings were on fire, she just didn’t have that last little burst.

Six years and what feels like a lifetime later, she swears she’s not leaving track for a lack of passion. Felix still cherishes the thrill of encountering someone whose sole focus is maximal speed—not just thinking I’m going to catch this fool, but having the priceless faith to do it. And yet despite the chance that in some ugly corner of her psyche she probably wishes this weren’t the case, Felix looks at other athletes who’ve taken sabbaticals either by choice or circumstance and finds it difficult not to think about what could’ve been for her. What she could’ve gained. Yes, she loves the sport. The catch is that, now, she seems to know that it cannot really love her back.

“Coming from the athlete side of things, it’s almost like your program, you just constantly work, work, work, work,” Felix says. “I think our culture celebrates this workaholic mentality and it’s like, why is that something to be celebrated? To be burnt out, to be working all the time?”

2022 USATF Outdoor Championships
At the U.S. Outdoor Championships in June, Felix qualified for her final World Championships.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

At the end of training, she takes that thought to heart, scampering in the sun with her family. Ferguson hoists Camryn on top of his shoulders at midfield and Felix ducks in and around his sides. “She’s in school in the mornings,” says Felix, run ragged by the tyke. “So she doesn’t always get to come out.” It was a particularly intimate display for a woman whose experiences as a mother have been thrust, by both circumstance and her own initiative, into a uniquely public spotlight.

In late 2018, having survived a life-threatening bout with preeclampsia—a disease that can cause dangerously high blood pressure and organ damage during pregnancy (and is particularly prevalent among U.S.-born Black women)—Felix announced Camryn’s birth to the public. What followed was the most turbulent, and ultimately fulfilling, period in her career. While negotiating a new contract with her sponsor Nike, she penned a New York Times op-ed taking the shoe company to task for including discriminatory performance-related pay reductions in their contracts with pregnant athletes and new mothers. She signed a new deal with the Gap-owned company Athleta, but only as an apparel sponsor. About two years later, she announced the formation of Saysh, her own lifestyle brand for women. She’s competed in the company’s shoes exclusively ever since. (They have a groundbreaking parental-leave policy that provides four months of full pay and another two months part time.) In 2021, she made it to her fifth Olympics, won a bronze in the 400 and a gold as part of the women’s 4x400 relay, and did it all in her own company’s spikes. Her daughter watched from home. Felix has since testified in front of Congress, stumping for action in response to the appallingly high Black maternal mortality rates throughout the country. She’s given TED Talks about maternity rights. Two weeks ago, she openly blasted the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

For the majority of her career Felix was known even to her closest associates as intensely private. It’s a defense she learned in a lifetime as a Black woman in a sports landscape built to ensnare her. Her parents taught her early in her career that the overwhelmingly white press corps that covered her at the Olympics and championship meets were not her friends. Felix was long careful with what she said in public and who she spoke to. She didn’t announce her pregnancy until after she had given birth, out of fear that people would question her commitment to the sport. “It’s a system that’s set up for you to have a meteoric rise, and everybody loves the rise, but they also love the fall,” Felix’s brother and agent, Wes, tells me in late June. “She’s guarded herself that way. And that has real consequences in your real life. Because if you think you’re going to guard yourself from the world, and then in your day-to-day you’re going to just be fully open and transparent, it’s just not a real thing.”

Looking back, her conflict with Nike was perhaps the most high-profile view into the dilemma of the modern athlete-mom: that motherhood can be visible off the field but must be invisible on it. Wedged between false corporate embraces and a system that punishes even the slightest competitive decline, they are told that any priorities outside of athletic glory are a liability to their careers. In a sense, what Felix has tried to do with the later stages of her career—and what has made these past few months so difficult—is to break the trap. She is, at her core, an athlete. She also wants to make a difference.

“Marketing is one thing and it’s great—we all can be inspired and you can tell a story—but I just feel like it has to be this authentic thing,” says Felix. “There can’t be a separation, and I’ve experienced that. So when I see different campaigns or things, I just hope that companies, organizations, are held accountable and internally there’s support there as well, [other] than just, ‘Oh, this is an amazing commercial.’”

“If it’s not coming with structural changes …” I respond.

“Then what are we doing?” she says.

Felix is meandering now. A languid cheetah. We’re 10 minutes over our allotted time. The writer has no complaints.

Is she savoring something? The mundane? “I think it’s all just hitting her at one time,” Ferguson hinted earlier in the afternoon.

Ambling through the mellow heat, I ask Felix if she’s really managed to kick it—not the draw of the race, but the mindset it requires. Spend enough time sprinting from one fight to the next and you’re liable to forget how to walk. The track is warm and the sun is out. She looks ahead at the bright red curve of polyurethane and nods her chin. Then, for a glimpse, Felix eases her guard completely.

“I don’t know how to turn it off.”

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