During a Summer Olympics where almost nothing is recognizable — no fans, no cheering, no Michael Phelps, no Usain Bolt — Allyson Felix’s presence feels especially familiar, almost comforting.
It’s the Summer Olympics, so of course Felix is running for a gold medal on the track.
She made her debut as an 18-year-old representing the United States at the 2004 Athens Games and has barely stepped off the gas since: She took home one medal from Athens, two from Beijing in 2008, three from London in 2012 and three from Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She also has 19 world championship medals.
With nine Olympic medals (six golds and three silvers), Felix is tied with the Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey as the most decorated female Olympian in track and field.
Should she bring home a 10th Olympic medal on Friday in the 400-meter final — and even an 11th on Saturday in the 4×400-meter relay — she would match or surpass Carl Lewis, who had 10, as the most decorated American athlete in track and field. (Paavo Nurmi of Finland has the most Olympic medals in the sport overall, 12.)
Felix’s legacy is already forming in the lanes around her. Kyra Constantine, a 23-year-old Canadian, has looked up to Felix since she was a young girl.
“Lining up, I was super excited: I got to run alongside my idol, who’s been my idol forever, Allyson Felix,” Constantine said after her semifinal race. Constantine did not advance to the final, but that was not top of mind. She ran in Lane 3. Felix ran in Lane 6.
She spoke of having met Felix years ago, when Constantine was a freshman in college and Felix was on campus. She still has the photo.
“I try not to tear up, you know, I’ve got to run, so I can’t be crying on the line,” she said.
For a time, there was no guarantee Felix would get to the start line for these Games.
In November 2018, she gave birth to her daughter Camryn in an emergency cesarean section at 32 weeks. Felix had severe pre-eclampsia, which put her and her daughter’s life at risk. Camryn remained in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks.
“There are a lot of moments where I was doubtful,” Felix said after qualifying for Friday’s 400-meter final, coming in second place behind Stephenie Ann McPherson of Jamaica for automatic qualification.
Felix’s first return to exercise after Camryn’s birth was a 30-minute walk, baby steps for a runner who could clock a sub-50-second 400-meter race. It took some time to get back to her standard grueling workouts.
“When I was younger, I don’t think I ever thought about making a final,” she said. “It’s a humbling experience, but it’s also very rewarding to see the progress.”
Gone were the days of flying through rounds without a thought, assuming the final round was as certain as her qualification for the Games. There’s more intention now, she said. It’s harder when you get older, and you have to get smarter.
“For me, it’s just one race at a time,” Felix said. “Refocus, regroup, and get back out there. I just have to keep fighting.”
Her fight to get back to these Games included a visit to Congress and a break with her sponsor.
In May 2019, she addressed a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on racial disparities in maternal mortality. She detailed her experience — introducing herself as Camryn’s mother — and pledged to use her platform to speak on the inequities facing Black women.
The same month, Felix wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times criticizing the maternity policies of her longtime sponsor, Nike. The company, which prominently featured her in major campaigns, declined to guarantee she would not be punished if she didn’t perform at her highest levels in the months after giving birth. It changed its policy a few weeks after the piece was published, though Felix had already decided to leave. She went on to sign with Athleta.
Felix said she heard from thousands of women — professional athletes and otherwise — who thanked her for her outspokenness or shared their own experiences about motherhood and work.
She will be joined on the start line of the 400-meter final by the American Quanera Hayes, who has a 2-year-old, Demetrius, at home. The two qualified for these Games at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, and were immediately joined by their children on the track. Both athletes say their children are cheering them over FaceTime during the Olympics. (Even if Demetrius, Hayes said, thinks every runner is called Mommy.)
“For us to be mothers in the Olympic finals, we’re just saying a lot to all the other mothers out there,” Hayes said after qualifying for the final. “And we’re holding it down for all moms in the world, just to let them know to keep fighting.”
Felix’s fight hasn’t wavered. She arrived in Tokyo with the same hunger she has had since she appeared on the global stage for the first time. But now she is also a mother, an activist and an entrepreneur who just started her own shoe brand, Saysh.
She is racing on her terms, in her spikes by a company she created, with a generation of runners beside her and behind her.
“She’s done so much for women’s running, for Black women, showing kids what’s possible,” Constantine said, still catching her breath. “And her being pregnant, and standing up against Nike and now creating her own shoe line. With her, anything’s possible.”