Breaking Away From the Pack
17-Year-Old California Sprinter Allyson Felix Could Be Running Toward a Date With History
By David Neiman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 11, 2003; Page D01
Allyson Felix ran the world’s fastest time in the 200 meters this year (22.11 seconds) on May 3 in a meet in Mexico City. (Damian Dovarganes - AP)
At first it was impossible to tell which one was her. The track and field standouts of the CIF Southern Section, California’s largest and deepest pool of high school athletic talent, had gathered at Cerritos College last week for the 2003 Masters Meet, the qualifying event for the state prelims and finals. The 17-year-old who is being called Marion Jones’s heir apparent was somewhere on the practice field, but amid the chaos of the team tents, the coaches and the other teenagers clad in their team colors who were stretching, striding, or just milling around, she was indistinguishable.
Then she began her warmup, and it was impossible not to notice her because no one – no girl, no boy – ran like she did. One moment, she was set, head down, motionless. The next, she was all movement, every stride a display of grace, power, precision, and above all, speed. It seemed effortless; the only sign of labor was on her face, which was tense with exertion. And then she stopped, turned, and walked back to where she had began, her stare focused and distant, as if she were on the track alone.
Everything about Allyson Felix, a senior at Los Angeles Baptist High School, was pure concentration – understandable, given that in minutes, she would be facing her top rival in the 100 meters, who had a faster qualifying time than her own. What made Felix’s pre-race demeanor all the more dramatic was how different it was just hours before.
Riding down the 210 freeway in a white van, nothing about “Shug” (sounds like sugar), as Felix is known to her teammates, friends and family, even remotely suggested that she was the world junior record holder in the 200 meters, or that she had run the fastest 200 in the world this year.
It was hard to tell that she was headed to a track meet. Her complete attention was being given to her cell phone as she talked in hushed tones to a “friend.” She was oblivious to the rest of her 4x100-meter relay team and a former teammate, all of whom were talking about her.
Senior Erica Fleming, 17, was poking fun at Felix’s ability to rap. “We like to make up songs,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Yo.’ You know?” Everyone laughed. Felix, absorbed and unaware, whispered on.
She and her teammates are good friends; two have known her since she arrived for ninth grade at L.A. Baptist, a private school of 550-plus in the San Fernando Valley. Back then, Felix had never participated in organized track. Her older brother Wes, now a member of the University of Southern California team and the Pacific-10 200-meter champion, was the sprinter in the family. Allyson played violin.
In eighth grade, when her family was living in Colorado, Felix took part in a low-key meet, what her mother Marlean, an elementary school teacher, described as “a little after-school thing, very lightweight.” Felix ran well, but didn’t think much of it at the time. So when Felix decided to try out for L.A. Baptist’s track team, no one expected much.
In those first weeks of practice, it was clear to L.A. Baptist sprint coach Jonathan Patton that something unusual was afoot. He was stunned, and not just by the times she was running. “It was more of just disbelief that someone that fast could be so undiscovered, and going to this school,” he said.
But Patton didn’t comprehend the depth of Felix’s ability until the end of her ninth grade season. He was backpacking in Europe, certain that “we didn’t have anybody worth going to the state meet for,” when Felix ran in the California finals. A day later, he received an e-mail from L.A. Baptist’s head track coach. Felix, then 14, had run the 200 in 24.35, finishing seventh in the state. It was six- or seven-tenths of a seconds faster than her previous best, an astounding jump in performance.
"I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ " said Patton. “Because she hadn’t gone that fast, come close to going that fast. [It was] the first insight I had of how fast she was going to get.”
It was a watershed moment for Felix as well.
“That’s kind of when I saw my potential,” she said. “And that’s when I got serious about it.”
Over the next three years, with the help of Patton and weightlifting coach Barry Ross, Felix immersed herself in training, working nine hours a week. Ross pushed her hard in the weight room, using the same plyometrics regimen favored by elite coaches to increase her leg strength.
On the track, Patton honed Felix’s technique with short, intense workouts designed to train her neuromuscular system to perform as efficiently as possible. Her improvement was dramatic.
In 2001, Felix won the state 100 title and finished second in the 200. In 2002, she took both. This season, at the Mt. SAC Relays in April, she ran the 200 in 22.51, breaking Jones’s U.S. junior record. Then on May 3 in Mexico City, the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Felix ran the 200 in 22.11 seconds, setting the world junior record. Just for good measure, she also ran the 400 in 52.26 in March – the fastest high school time in the country this year.
Asked if he has had to push Allyson, her father, Paul, a professor at the Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, said the exact opposite was the case.
“It seems like since she was young, she was the kind of person who was pretty self-motivated and independent,” he said. “If we saw her working on something, and it seemed like she couldn’t do what she was working on, and you asked her if she wanted help, she would always say no.”
The first event Felix ran in during last week’s Masters Meet was the 4x100 relay. Last year, the L.A. Baptist team reached the state finals; to do so again, it would have to finish either in the top five or beat an at-large qualifying time.
When the baton reached Felix, L.A. Baptist was eighth out of nine teams. As she sprinted the final leg, catching runners ahead of her, the effect was surreal, as if the air around the others was somehow thicker. Felix crossed the finish line in 47.71 seconds – fifth place – and the girls’ relay was headed back to states. For Felix, the meet was just getting underway.
An hour later, it was time for the highly anticipated 100 final. On the stadium track, Felix went through her routine, setting herself in the starting blocks, peering down her lane, envisioning each stage of the race to come.
In the lane beside her was Shalonda Solomon, the junior star from track powerhouse Long Beach Poly. Solomon, who had run an 11.35 qualifying time to Felix’s 11.37, is renowned for her explosive start – the major element still missing from Felix’s arsenal.
“I definitely get nervous before [a] race,” Felix said later. “It’s a nervousness that needs to be there. If you lose that, you lose a part of your race. It’s more of a motivator. . . . It’s a controlled nervousness.”
Far above, beneath the stadium press box, Patton and Ross anxiously awaited for the race to begin. Finally, the starting gun fired, and sure enough, Solomon shot from the blocks. But to Patton’s delight, Felix was right beside her.
“It’s over!” Patton cried with the race scarcely a second old, and in the time it took him to say it four more times, it became clear that he was right. By 30 meters, with the crowd roaring, Felix pulled ahead and stayed there for good, crossing the line in a blistering 11.12 seconds. Solomon’s time was 11.25. When the stadium announcer declared that the times were wind-aided, making them ineligible for record purposes, Patton and Ross let out a groan, but they were still ecstatic with Felix’s performance.
“That was smoking right there,” Patton said gleefully. “I called it.”
For Felix’s two coaches, each race is bittersweet, bringing them closer to the end of an unimaginable journey. Next year, Felix will be running for USC, or possibly on the receiving end of an endorsement deal that would allow her to hire a coach of her own. (While Felix has not received any outright offers, there have been initial overtures.)
“We’re in the last minute of our 15 minutes of fame,” Ross joked.
Part-time coaches with other full-time jobs, Patton, 31, receives the equivalent of small stipend from the school while Ross volunteers his time. Neither has received much credit for their efforts, which both find unsurprising.
"Of course, we’re getting, ‘You were lucky. She walked in here and was already a phenomenon,’ " Ross said. “We would say absolutely and unquestionably that’s the case. Nobody’s doubting that at all. But we do know what we’ve done here.”
“I’m just really grateful for what they’ve done for me,” Felix said. “They’ve made so many sacrifices, from Coach Patton paying his own way to meets all over the place to just supporting me. They’ve prepared me so well.”
That preparation paid off in Felix’s last race of the day, the 200 meters. Even though she started slowly, she caught Solomon halfway through the race and pulled ahead, finishing in a dominating 22.66 seconds – a tenth of a second faster than Jones’s previous national high school record.
“She did not attempt to run hard at all,” a beaming Ross said. “If you saw her when she came out of the turn, where she turned on the jets . . . it looked like Shalonda started making up a little ground on her, and she just took off and it was over.”
Done for the night, Felix went through her cool down, then headed toward the far side of the stadium, where her parents were seated. As she did, she was stopped every few steps by children, adults and other competitors eager to shake her hand or congratulate her. Even Solomon, with whom Felix is friendly, gave her a hug and asked how she was doing. It soon became apparent that charisma and kindness are among Felix’s other gifts.
“I’ve been telling all my friends that you’re my cousin,” one girl said. “So if anyone asks if you know Jalonda, tell them you do.”
“All right,” said Felix, grinning. Moments later, she posed for a photo with Jalonda and friends.
On the way home, the team stopped at a restaurant, and during dinner, a weary Felix still smiled as she discussed her future. There was bad news for the immediate days ahead; her prom coincided with the state prelims, and she was going to miss it. Asked if the person from her cell phone was disappointed, Felix laughed.
“No comment,” she said, “no comment.”
Longer term, Felix said she is excited for college and plans to study education and follow in her mother’s footsteps. “I want to be a teacher. Elementary,” she said. “That’s just what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Where track is concerned, Felix’s eyes are wide with the possibilities that lay ahead. She is eager to travel (“I want to go everywhere”) and to learn everything she doesn’t know about sprinting, but less than enthusiastic about adding the 400 – a race everyone thinks she can master – to her regular repertoire.
“I think eventually it will happen,” she said, “but not right now. It’s a harder race, and I don’t enjoy it as much. But I think in time I can learn to like it. I don’t think anybody actually likes it. It’s pain all the way through.”
Above all, Felix has her eyes set on the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She wants to make a name for herself, she said, to distinguish herself from Jones, her inspiration and predecessor. Two years ago, Felix faced Jones in a heat at the U.S. nationals and finished fifth, failing to advance to the final.
“I definitely admire her and look up to her,” Felix said, “but there’s also the other side of things. Just trying to be an individual. To be my own self.”
Jones, who has taken the year off from competition to have a baby, will return to the track next season. Patton cannot wait. To him, a Felix-Jones matchup makes for an epic contest.
“That’s going to be some race,” he said. “I think [Allyson] will hold her own, and some of theirs. She’ll be ready to go. Her whole career has been hallmarked by being ready at the right place at the right time, and prepared to run. If she knows that in her immediate future is a race against the world’s finest, she’s going to be ready to go.”
© 2003 The Washington Post Company