RIO DE JANEIRO – The question facing Allyson Felix coming into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games was simple: Would the ankle she sprained in April hold up?
It did. But as Felix crossed the finish line Monday night in the 400-meter at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the question changed: Did she win?
On the homestretch, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas had a 5-meter lead over Felix, who was gaining ground in her trademark knee socks with every stride. Miller, her dyed blue hair flying, dove across the finish line – landing flat on her stomach on the track.
The two runners waited for the scoreboard. Miller’s name came up first, with a personal best time of 49.44. Felix was second in 49.51.
For many athletes, a silver medal brings joy. For Felix, it brought despair.
“It’s just disappointment,” she said of her emotions after the race. “I don’t think I’ve quite had a year this tough and I just really wanted it.”
Her voice broke. “It’s a little bittersweet now,” Felix added. “I’m a competitor and I went for it and at the moment it’s just – painful.”
With the silver medal, Felix, who started her Olympic career in 2004 with a silver medal at age 18 in the 200-meter, became the most decorated female track athlete in the Team USA history, breaking her tie with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose husband, Bobby, is her coach.
She now has four gold and three silver medals in four Olympic Games with the 4x400 still to come.
“Hopefully that’s an accomplishment I’ll be able to look back on after this moment and really take it in,” said Felix, who came into the Games as the most decorated Team USA athlete, “but tonight, the goal was to win and I fell short at that. It hurts right now and I just have to get through this moment.”
Felix was trying to win her second straight individual gold medal at the Games, but this time in the 400-meter instead of the 200, the title she claimed in 2012. As reigning world champion, Felix hoped to succeed Sanya Richards-Ross, who won the 400 for Team USA in London with DeeDee Trotter claiming the bronze.
This time there would be only one Team USA athlete on the podium. Shericka Jackson of Jamaica took third (49.85), while Natasha Hastings of the U.S., who shot out of the blocks to get out front early, finished fourth in 50.34 and Phyllis Francis was fifth in 50.41.
Originally, Felix had grander plans. She wanted to double in the 200 and 400, which would only enhance her resume. When the schedule wasn’t conducive for a double, Felix used her clout to have it changed.
But a severely sprained right ankle four months ago, the result of a mishap with a medicine ball, disrupted her training. The athlete who was called “Chicken Legs” in high school because of her spindly legs had an ankle that was swollen and painful.
She came back for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track in Field in Eugene, Oregon, winning the 400.
But the 200 proved more difficult, especially after not having run any races at that distance all season. In the final, Felix missed the team by .01 seconds – also on a dive, this time by Jenna Prandini – and was unable to defend her title.
During the 400-meter introductions Monday, Felix was stone-faced, barely cracking a smile.
“I have to look back at the race,” Felix said, “but I think I should have been a bit more aggressive and might have let it get a bit away from me. I had to dig deep and I don’t feel like I had any more left to give.”
She couldn’t tell if she had caught Miller at the tape. “You never quite know when they’re that close,” Felix said.
Miller said she didn’t know, either. “The only thing I was thinking was the gold medal and the next thing I was on the ground,” said Miller, who did not finish her 400-meter heat at 2012 Olympic Games in London after straining her left hamstring about 20 meters into the race.
“I heard my mom screaming, and when I heard her scream, I said, OK, I had to have won the race.”
Felix was running the Olympic 400 for the first time, though she won gold medals on the 4x400 team in Beijing and London.
She spent little time dissecting the race with reporters. “It’s always hard after a 400,” Felix said, “and I feel emotionally and physically just drained at this point.”
But she did graciously stop for two selfies with reporters.
The next few couple of days will be hard as Felix watches someone else win the 200, a race she always considered “her baby.”
She originally added the tougher 400 to her repertoire at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, Korea, where she didn’t win either event, but won a silver and a bronze – and then captured the 400 crown last year in Beijing.
At the 2016 Games, she wanted to join the elite club of 200/400 doublers that includes American Valerie Brisco (then Brisco-Hooks) in 1984, who was also coached by Kersee, and Michael Johnson of the U.S. and Marie-Jose Perec of France in 1996.
Now 30, Felix dodged a question about whether she would be back to try again in 2020 in Tokyo, saying “I’m just going to try to get through this Olympic Games first, but I’m not sure.”
The medal ceremony for the 400-meter will be Tuesday at Olympic Stadium.
“When I look back, I know I will be proud of this medal with everything that came along with it,” Felix said.
But for now, winning that silver medal hurt.