Following a series of minor injuries and illness, the world 200 metres champion Allyson Felix is competing in only her second meeting of the season. But for the American track and field business any display by the personable, photogenic and unimpeachably clean 20-year-old Felix is like manna from heaven.
“I think that God is using me,” she explains of the rise to prominence that began with a silver medal in the Athens Olympics and culminated in the world title last August in Helsinki. “And the only reason I am here as world champion is because of God.”
In the last few years God has become the most frequently name-checked inspiration in sport. Boxers acknowledge divine assistance in landing a knock-out punch, rugby league players explain it was heavenly intervention that allowed them to dump tackle 18st of opposing forward and at the World Cup in Germany, everyone from Australian midfielders to Uruguayan referees were crossing themselves the moment they took to the pitch.
Allyson Felix, though, does not just give the occasional nod to help from upstairs. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, she describes herself as the sprinter powered by prayer. And earlier this year she invited The Daily Telegraph to join her at a service in Los Angeles conducted by her father, Paul.
“Lots of athletes talk about God and thank him after winning a race but it’s a whole different thing to living your life for him,” she said outside Baldwin Hills church, the white clapper-board place in the tough district of Watts she attended as a child. “You can profess all you want your faith, but your actions talk louder. All the time you hear people saying God was on their side, but when you look at someone’s life you can see whether that is true or not.”
Attending a service at Felix’s home church is no small commitment. The one we went to lasted more than 2½ hours, longer than many an athletic meeting. It was an intriguing mix of southern Baptist reverence and modern Californian therapy-speak. Behind the altar, the choir swayed and sung as members of the congregation came forward to offer up their prayers.
“Oh Lord, I had issues,” one woman parishioner announced, in a bluesy sing-song.
“She, she, she had issues,” chorused the choir, picking up the theme.
“By with your help, Lord, I worked through those issues.”
“She, she, she worked through them.”
The centerpiece of the service, however, was the sermon, Pastor Felix’s 60-minute discourse on a chapter from St Paul’s gospel dealing with the dangers of speaking out of turn. His daughter took notes throughout. “We need tongue control,” she wrote. And underlined the sentence three times. When she is away in Europe on the athletics circuit, her mum sends her CDs of her dad’s latest sermon. It is her favourite listening.
“Without doubt my faith has driven me to where I am,” she said after the service. “I’d say I’m pretty unusual.”
Unusual indeed; professional athletics would seem the most unlikely forum in which to practise the selfless approach to life encouraged by the Baptist church. Athletics champions are more likely to be characterised by extreme self-absorption, prepared to do anything - legal and sometimes not - to win.
“I’m no different, I wanna win as well,” she said. “Maybe my reasons for winning are different and maybe if I don’t win I can be OK with that, but make no mistake, I’m determined to win.”
She may want to win, but at the same time, she confessed that the need for victory is low on her list of things to do.
“I think my parents have always made it clear where my priorities lie and growing up I’ve had the same drives as them. I’ve come up with priorities for myself that reflect theirs. There’s a good balance in my life.”
That balance involves studying at the University of Southern California to become a teacher. During the close season, a typical day involves arriving at USC by 8.15am, studying until 3pm, then off to the track to train for a couple of hours, then back home to lift weights for an hour or so, before finishing the day with homework and bible studies. When she is on the competition circuit, she and her great friend, Justin Gatlin, have formed a prayer group within the US team, so they can meet with like minds whenever they feel the need. This, she reckoned, is what gives her an edge over rivals: athletics is not the biggest thing in her life.
“Right now, my priority is God, then study, then track. Then my personal life: that comes last for sure. All I know is he’s always working through me. Even if I don’t get to say something at a press conference about the Lord’s purpose, maybe the people watching can see by the way I hold myself, conduct myself, there is something a little bit different about me and they might want to know more. And then I’d be happy to help them. I don’t go knocking on doors in the athletes’ village trying to convert people, no I’m not a missionary in that way. But I hope I can draw people in by the way I am.”
The big question, for athletes who purport to be God-driven, is this: is he disappointed if they don’t win? Is victory an essential part of the deal?
“I think he can use me even if I don’t win. There’s a lesson in how you react when you don’t win. I always make a point of acknowledging his presence, if I win or don’t win. That’s the whole reason behind my running. It helps me to know that whatever the outcome, I can use it to glorify God.”
And does she pray on the start line? “Oh for sure. I don’t necessarily think about spiritual things during a race. The mind’s more concerned with technical things. But I definitely pray before a race. I have absolutely no problem with that. All the time I pray, I don’t think that’s wrong. Lining up before a race I will definitely pray, not necessarily to win, but that I will be able to glorify God through my performance. That is why I am out there.”
As Felix prepares herself in the starting blocks, the power of prayer will be at work.
Allyson Felix will compete in the Norwich Union London Grand Prix on Friday. She will race in the best women’s 100m field assembled anywhere in the world this year. For further information visit www.ukathletics.net
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