Felix off to a flier

US schoolgirl is causing a stir as she catches up with Marion Jones, says Richard Luscombe

Sunday June 15, 2003
The Observer

Allyson Felix is a teenager in a hurry. The 17-year-old known as ‘Chicken Legs’ has been astonishing the athletics world from the moment she first stepped on to a California high-school athletics track three years ago and showed startling speed over 60 metres. Next weekend in Stanford, at the United States trials for August’s world championships, the fastest woman this year over 200m faces her first significant test in the senior ranks.
Felix is heralded as ‘the next best female sprinter in America’ by no less an authority than Trevor Graham, the respected coach who guided Marion Jones to five Olympic medals in Sydney 2000 and Tim Montgomery, Jones’s partner, to the 100m world record last year.

With Jones taking the season off as she prepares to give birth to the couple’s first child next month, much of the attention in Stanford will be on the 5ft 6in, 9st Californian, who attracted attention across the US this spring with a series of precocious performances in her final year as a high-school student.

Last month, in Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium, she ran 22.11sec to shatter the 23-year-old 200m world junior record, matching Jones’s 2002 global best and beating 1999 world champion Inger Miller in front of more than 50,000 spectators. ‘It was amazing. I’d never raced in front of that kind of crowd,’ Felix says.

Two weeks earlier in California she lowered Jones’s 11-year-old high-school record of 22.58 by seven-hundredths of a second. And last weekend she continued her preparations for the 200m at the national trials and Paris world championships by retaining her 100m and 200m titles in the state high-school championships in record times.

In between, Felix has juggled the demands of her final weeks at Los Angeles Baptist High, a private school near her Santa Clarita home, and wrestled with the dilemma of whether to turn professional with a likely multi-million dollar endorsement from a sportswear company or continue her education at the University of South Carolina.

‘You could say it’s been a little busy,’ Felix says, with massive understatement, 'but it’s all been good fun. ‘Everything that’s happened has been a blessing, something new and different, although all the attention takes a little adjusting to.’

Almost unheard of before April, Felix has very quickly become one of the best-known athletes in the US, with Sports Illustrated , USA Today and CNN, among others, beating a path to her door. And the world will be hearing plenty more of her in the run-up to next year’s Olympics in Athens, regardless of her performances in Stanford, and in Paris if she qualifies.

‘I didn’t expect to be doing so well so soon but I’ve still got goals I’m aiming for, like making the team for the worlds,’ she says. ‘But I’ve been working hard and it’s realistic. I’m definitely thinking about the Olympics too, all the time.’

Felix’s remarkable progress has brought inevitable comparisons to Jones, another Californian high-school prodigy, even though her longer legs produce a graceful running style completely in contrast to Jones’s power and aggression.

‘Marion’s someone I look up to and admire, but I want to be something different,’ says Felix, whose only on-track encounter with the world 100m and 200m Olympic champion was in the 2002 US championships when she failed to progress from a heat.

Felix has flourished under the tutelage of Baptist High athletics coach Jonathan Patton, who is predicting a bright future for his young charge in the professional ranks.

‘She’s assumed the identity of a world-class athlete at the age of 17 and that’s the phenomenon,’ he says. ‘Someone will have to run 21.8 to beat her by the end of this summer and it would surprise me if she completed four years at USC because after one year she’s going to be untouchable.’

The likeable Felix exudes an air of confidence that belies her years. She says being raised in a religious family - her father, Paul, is an ordained minister - helps her keep a sense of perspective, and her mother, Marlean, and 19-year-old brother, Wes, the US junior men’s 200m champion, are close.

‘My family have been very supportive and have kept me on the ground,’ she says. 'They know how important my education is to me, and I’ve always put that first.

‘Wes and I help each other; he’s a huge inspiration. And I’ve got a life away from the track as well, which is also important. I like hanging out with my friends and watching movies.’

Further proof that Felix remains a typical teenager comes from her father, who told USA Today that he wished she would spend more time tidying her bedroom.

Experts believe the odds favour Felix making a successful transition to senior athletics. ‘She’s still young and raw but she’s got plenty of time. America needs to nurture a talent like this,’ Graham says. He should know.

That Trevor Graham sure can spot a talent. She’s a real “diamond in the rough”. Looks like he is a angling hard for a chance to work with her since his Nike contract is up soon(or so I have heard) and he needs a stud to remain on the world scene.

I wonder if Trevor is going to teach Allyson how to look for ants??

She could only be so lucky to squeeze such wisdom from the master.