Teen on fast track to Olympics
By David Leon Moore, USA TODAY
NORTH HILLS, Calif. — Only 17, Allyson Felix has such rare physical and mental gifts that the track and field world can envision her dethroning Marion Jones as the queen of sprinters and blossoming into an Olympic star — maybe as soon as next year in Athens.
There's the jaw-dropping natural athleticism.
The uncommon work ethic.
The laser focus.
But she is not without a flaw.
"Allyson puts herself into what she wants to put herself into," says her father, Paul. "I'd love to see her put herself into cleaning her room. It's a disaster." (Related item: Top girls' prep track performances in 2003)
Paul and Marlean Felix can't complain much, though, about their daughter. Felix is happy, humble, a good student, polite, pretty ... and the fastest teenager in the world.
Felix in select company
Jack Shepard, a longtime editor with Track & Field News, says Allyson Felix's 200-meter time of 22.11 seconds puts the 17-year-old on the short list of high school track and field legends, with such athletes as:
Miler Jim Ryun: His U.S. prep record of 3 minutes, 55.3 seconds, set in 1965 when he was 18, stood for 36 years.
Shot putter Michael Carter: His otherworldly heave of 81 feet, 3 inches in 1979 when he was 18, has gone unchallenged for 24 years.
Sprinter Marion Jones: Ran the 200 in 22.58 as a 16-year-old in 1992 and finished fourth in the Olympic trials that year.
Middle distance star Alan Webb: Toppled Ryun's prep record in the mile two years ago, at 18, with a remarkable 3:53.43.
"It's going to take some time to figure out how great this is," Shepard says of Felix's mark. "In time, this may be one of those marks, like Ryun's and Carter's, that stands for decades."
By David Leon Moore
At the moment, in fact, she's the fastest woman in the world for 200 meters.
Two Saturdays ago, the high school senior at Los Angeles Baptist — a small private school in the San Fernando Valley — defeated a group of world-class sprinters at a Mexico City meet with a stunning 200M run of 22.11 seconds.
Given her age, the time was astounding — even considering the advantage of running in the thin air of high altitude. It set a world record for juniors (under 20), bettering a mark that had stood for 23 years. It also lowered her U.S. high school record that Felix set by running 22.51 two weeks earlier at the Mount SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., breaking Jones' mark of 22.58 set in 1992.
Felix and her coaches were confident she'd lower Jones' prep mark. But by half a second?
"I definitely surprised myself a little, went beyond what I thought I would," Felix says.
At any age, a 22.11 200 is blazing fast. It's the fastest 200 by a woman this year and equal to the fastest time of last year, by Jones, who has dominated the sprints since 1997 and won three gold medals at the 2000 Olympics.
Jones, 27, is expecting her first child in July and is not competing this year. Her best time is 21.62, run five years ago.
The only woman to run the 200 faster than Jones is the late Florence Griffith Joyner, whose world record of 21.34, set at the 1988 Olympics, still stands.
Historical perspective need not be rushed, but it doesn't stretch credulity much to see Felix's name one day flow with the best of all time:
FloJo ... Marion ... and Allyson.
What to make of what she has done in the past month?
"Exceptional, extraordinary," says Jack Shepard, a longtime editor with Track & Field News. "I think she's maybe ahead of Marion Jones as a high school runner. Marion never did anything like this. Allyson is leading the world. Marion never led the world. I realize Allyson's best time was at altitude, but still, this is very exciting."
After running at the California high school state championships June 6-7 — Felix has the nation's best prep times in the 100, 200 and 400 — she expects to compete at the USA Track & Field Championships at Stanford in late June, focusing on the 200. The top three qualify for the World Championships in August in Paris.
A sprint to success
That all this has happened is remarkable considering Felix first put on spikes in the ninth grade, competes at a small high school (600 students) with no real track tradition and is being guided by a walk-on sprint coach and a volunteer weightlifting coach.
When she showed up in the spring of ninth grade to go out for the track team, L.A. Baptist sprint coach Jonathan Patton threw her into a 60-meter sprint. When she finished, he immediately checked the distance and shook his stopwatch to see if something was amiss.
"Do that again," he said.
"Who are you?" Patton asked.
Felix is a 5-6, 125-pounder with a bright smile, long braids and legs so long and spindly her teammates call her "Chicken Legs."
Her father is an ordained minister who teaches New Testament Greek at the Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, Calif. Her mother is an elementary school teacher.
Neither is particularly athletic. "I joke that I ran a little and my wife is a very fast walker, so between us we produced very fast runners," Felix's dad says.
His daughter was fast from the get-go. As a 10th grader, she won the state title in the 100. As an 11th grader, she won the 100 and 200.
From the beginning, she displayed more than natural gifts and pure speed.
"Her true gift," Patton says, "is her determination to be the best. I've been in this sport for almost 20 years and I've never come across anyone with the internal motivation that she has."
Felix doesn't know about all that. She's just trying to run fast.
"It's exciting what's been happening," she says. "I'm getting to see my work pay off. And I know I'm nowhere near my peak, so I think the future is really exciting."
The future might be now.
After the world championships, Felix is scheduled to enroll at the University of Southern California, joining her older brother, Wes, a sophomore who is the Trojans' top sprinter.
But will she? At this point, she's the LeBron James of track and field. She could earn big money immediately if she wanted to turn pro.
"At this point, it's USC," her dad says. "But I wouldn't say anything's in stone. Anything's possible."
In a way, Felix's dad kind of owes a favor to Mike Garrett, the USC athletic director: Garrett's sister, he says, saved his life when he was a 7-year-old at church camp. "I fell into a swimming pool, and I didn't know how to swim," he says. "I was drowning. Mike's sister was the lifeguard. She fished me out."
Whichever path Felix takes, the track world will be waiting for her, microphones, cameras and autograph pads at the ready.
Is she ready?
"I'm just going to try to take it all in, go with it," she says.
Getting a leg up on Jones
Felix has run an impressive 11.24 (wind-aided) in the 100, the best prep time in the country this year. But she says she's better — for now, anyway — in the 200.
"My start isn't the best," she says. "The closing speed in my races is always the strongest part. I'm able to hold my top speed well. I think that's what people notice."
Barry Ross, the volunteer weightlifting coach who has helped athletes at L.A. Baptist since the late 1980s, never had a high school girl tell him she wanted to lift weights until Felix did after her freshman year. "High school girls just don't do that," he says.
Of her work ethic, Ross says, "She's an animal. I don't have to push her at all. She gets mad at me on days I tell her we're not lifting."
Ross says the 125-pounder has leg-pressed 700 pounds on a machine and dead-lifted 245. "She doesn't look like it, but she's incredibly strong," he says.
The talent, focus and hard work have come together this spring, and she has skyrocketed to another level.
At last year's Mount SAC Relays, Felix got Jones' autograph. This year, she got Jones' 11-year-old high school record.
She looks up to Jones but isn't trying to be the next Marion.
"I admire her, but I also feel that I'm something different," Felix says. "There are some similarities, but we're not the same."
A head-to-head meeting will have to wait until next year — an Olympic year.
"It's a little disappointing that I can't run against her this year," Felix says. "But I know that in the future, there will be plenty of times."
Fast times, no doubt.