LOS ANGELES: Whether she is straining every last sinew for the finish line or blazing a trail to ensure better treatment of female athletes everywhere, Allyson Felix has made a career out of fighting.
The 35-year-old elder stateswoman of US track and field brings the curtain down on her 17-year Olympic career in Tokyo, ending an odyssey that began when she competed as a teenage prodigy at the 2004 Athens Games.
Felix’s fifth and final Olympics will almost certainly see her become the most decorated female track and field athlete in the history of the Games.
She is currently tied with Jamaican legend Merlene Ottey with nine medals, a dazzling haul that includes six golds and three silvers.
One more medal in Tokyo – virtually guaranteed given her place in the dominant US women’s 4x400m relay squad – will see her pull clear of Ottey.
If she wins two or more – another possibility given her likely place in the mixed gender 4×400 relay team – she will overtake Carl Lewis as the most decorated American track athlete in history.
It will be a fitting conclusion to the final phase of a career that has seen Felix become accustomed to battling through adversity, on and off the track.
A chaotic, pandemic-disrupted build-up to Tokyo left Felix with nowhere to train at times last year, forcing her to perform improvised sprint workouts on the streets of her neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles.
She booked her place on the US team for Tokyo with a typically gutsy performance at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon in June, digging deep to secure second place with a time of 50.02sec after lagging behind in fourth place heading into the home straight.
“I told myself before the race that when it comes down to it, I have to fight,” Felix said after that performance.
“That’s been a theme of mine for the past couple years. I was just gonna give my all and leave it all on the track.”
In the final years of her career, Felix has emerged as a leading voice for the rights of women athletes.
In 2019, she made headlines after denouncing long-time sponsors Nike over the company’s maternity practices, calling for greater support for female athletes who take time off from the sport to have children.
“If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward,” Felix wrote in a New York Times editorial.
“It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men,” added Felix, who gave birth to daughter Camryn in November 18 after an emergency C-section.
The effects of Felix’s criticisms were striking. Nike swiftly changed its policy, vowing to ensure no female athlete is adversely impacted financially by pregnancy.
Felix meanwhile signed a new sponsorship deal with the Athleta leisurewear company, in a move she says redefines “what sponsorship looks like”.
Booking her place on the Tokyo team was made sweeter by the fact that daughter Camryn was on hand to greet her at the finish line.
Felix says motherhood has been a driving force as she seeks to make the most of the final years of her career.
“I wanted to really show her that, no matter what, you do things with character, integrity, and you don’t give up,” Felix said of her daughter.
“Having her as motivation through these past couple years has just given me a whole new drive.”
Felix says she also hopes to inspire other women that motherhood is not an obstacle to success, in any career.
“I think society tells us in a lot of instances that if you have a child, your best moments are behind you,” Felix said. “But that’s absolutely not the case.
“There’s so many women across industries that are out here and getting it done. I hope that when they watch and they see me, they see that it’s possible.” – AFP