Bob Kersee does what he calls the bar test to assess name recognition.
Walk into a moderately crowded bar, the celebrated track and field coach says, and toss out the names Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Carl Lewis. Someone in the crowd will be able to fill you in on each of those sports superstars.
“Even if it’s only one person who knows,” Kersee said.
Now put Allyson Felix into that mix.
Kersee knows the result almost certainly will be blank stares, and that is enough to drive a man to drink.
“It’s time for Allyson to be recognized in the same way as some of the great American athletes, if not world athletes, of all time,” Kersee said.
Why should she be?
Since winning a senior national indoor title three months before her graduation from Los Angeles Baptist High School in 2003, Felix has been one of the world’s top sprinters. No woman in history has won as many world outdoor championship gold medals as her nine. No track and field athlete in the last three Olympics has won more medals than her six – four golds, two silvers.
Why isn’t she?
A multiple combination of low profiles.
Her best event, the 200-meter, is the sprint stepchild, forgotten in a family where the 100 carries the cachet of fastest in the world and the 400 has the easily understood notion of fastest in one lap around the track.
Her sport gets nearly all its attention during the Olympic year.
Her attractive character is so outwardly monochrome she doesn’t attract attention.
“Allyson is underappreciated because she doesn’t have that gregarious personality where she is going to hype herself up and remind you how great she is,” said the NBC commentator and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago. “I think the further Allyson gets from her career, the more she will be appreciated.”
The company that calculates Q Scores, a widely-used indicator of familiarity and consumer appeal, never has even measured hers, although it plans to do so this summer.
Felix says getting such short shrift does not bother her personally. She does wish recognition of her achievements could make track and field more visible and more valued in this country.
Kersee feels otherwise. The lack of general acknowledgment of Felix’s achievements irks him. But he thinks Rio is the Olympics where she can finally get her due.
That is why the coach was despairing when Felix’s father, Paul, called late last month to say his daughter thought she had broken her leg in a weight training misstep.
“This cannot be happening,” Kersee said. “This is her legacy year.”
It is the year when Felix intends to take on a challenge guaranteed to draw attention and acclaim both before and while she does it, no matter the outcome.
She wants to be the first person in 20 years to win gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter at the same Olympics.
Of the 164 runners (40 women) who have attempted that Olympic double, only 11 have made the final in both events and just four have won medals in both. The medalists include three double winners: Valerie Brisco-Hooks of the U.S. in 1984, then Michael Johnson of the U.S. and Marie-Jose Perec of France in 1996. The other is Eric Liddell of Great Britain, who won gold in the 400 and bronze in the 200 in 1924, his life story later immortalized in the film “Chariots of Fire.”
Fortunately, the freak injury likely will not keep Felix from trying. It turned out to be a sprained ankle rather than a broken bone, forcing her to scratch a planned outdoor season debut at last Friday’s Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar. Felix said in a phone conversation a few days ago she still hopes to run the 400 at the Prefontaine Diamond League meet May 28 in Eugene, Oregon.
The 200/400 Olympic double is a 12-race, two-meet, seven-week affair. First, Felix needs to make the U.S. team in each with top-three finishes at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials July 1-10 in Eugene. If she is healthy, that seems pretty much a lock, given that she was the fastest U.S. runner in both last season.
At the Rio Olympics, when NBC’s spotlight would shine on her during six races from Aug. 13 through Aug. 17 (and relays later), the task of winning both seems more daunting for Felix than it did for the others who have accomplished it.
While Felix will have to run only six rounds in the two events, as compared to eight for Johnson and Perec and seven for Brisco-Hooks, the schedule she faces is the only one that will have had no days off and have pieces of each distance on the same day. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, with each event scheduled as one round per day for three days, she will have four days off between the 400 final and the first round of the 200.
“You’re talking about not a lot of days and a lot of work,” Felix said. “Starting with the first round of the 400, you’re putting your body through a lot of lactic acid buildup, and you’re doing it over and over. Even when you’re running the rounds – even the first round - your body is still going to be under fatigue.
“The biggest thing is your body withstanding that amount of work and that intensity. You are talking about a very, very highly intense level.”
If all goes as she hopes, Felix would be running the 200 opening round in Rio Aug. 15 between 9:35 and 10:35 a.m., with the 400 final about 12 hours later. That poses logistical as well as physical problems, with the need to get her quickly to a place for rest and nutrition between races.
“If she runs 24.2 (seconds) in the first round of the 200 and makes it to the next round, nobody panic,’’ Kersee said with a chuckle.
The Rio schedule originally had the 200 first round starting just 75 minutes before the 400 final. It was changed to facilitate Felix’s attempt at the double after she announced her desire to try – but not by as much as Kersee wanted.
“Why not give her the ultimate best schedule?” he said.
And unlike her successful predecessors, Felix is unlikely to go into both finals as the gold-medal favorite. She was just fourth fastest worldwide in the 200 last year.
“The 400-200 is so difficult because not only will Allyson be fatigued from the 400, then she probably has to face two women in the 200 who have run faster than she has in her entire career,” Boldon said.
He was referring to Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands and Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, both of whom posted their career bests last August while finishing 1-2 in the 200 at the world championships. Felix had skipped that 200 to concentrate on winning the 400, which she did in the season’s best time.
Boldon explained why doubling in the longer sprints is both rarer and harder than the shorter 100-200 double, which he did successfully at two Olympics. He was the bronze medalist at both distances in 1996, then silver medalist at 100 and bronze at 200 in 2000.
“In the 100-200, the quicker race always comes first, so if you go into the 200 with a little less energy, it’s OK, because you don’t need as much ballistic speed,” Boldon said. “In the 400-200, it’s just the opposite.
“The way your legs feel is bad enough, but let’s forget about the physical for a second. The emotion she is going to go through and spend if she wins the 400 will be huge. And if she doesn’t win the 400, now she has to take that disappointment into the 200. Either way, to start over is really difficult.”
Felix has done this before, at the 2011 world championships in South Korea, her first foray into the 400 at a major competition. There, she finished second in the 400 (to Amantle Montsho of Botswana, now serving a two-year doping ban that goes through the Olympics). Then Felix had two days off before starting the 200, in which she took third, ending her 200-meter win streak in the biennial world meet at three.
Looking back, Felix feels the poorer-than-expected result in the 200, her favorite race, was due to a misplaced training emphasis on the 400.
“The biggest takeaway from 2011 is I’m a sprinter, and that’s my advantage,” she said. “I think I got away from doing speed work. That’s the big difference this year, just remembering where my strength is.”
She is a good enough pure sprinter to have finished fifth in the 100 at the 2012 Olympics – with a time that would have won a medal in every other Olympics after 1992 – and then run a leg on the world-record-setting 4x100 team later in those London Games.
“I don’t think I ever really thought of having a world record or being very close to one, so that was an unexpected bonus,” Felix said.
Even if none of Felix’s personal bests for the 100 (10.89 seconds), 200 (21.69) and 400 (49.26) ranks among the top five in history, the range of her chronological excellence is stunning.
She and East Germany’s Marita Koch are the only women ever to have run faster than 10.9 seconds in the 100, than 21.8 in the 200 and 49.5 in the 400. Felix’s split on the 4x400 team at the 2015 worlds, 47.72, is third fastest ever, behind those by Jarmila Kratochvilova of the Czech Republic (47.6) and Koch (47.70).
Both faster splits were clocked in the doping high times of the 1980s, when the current world records in the 100, 200 and 400 also were set. In the last 25 years, no one has threatened any of those individual marks.
“To be versatile is something I have felt proud of,” Felix said, the only woman to have won U.S. titles at all three distances. “Sometimes in track and field do you have to find your victories in other things. You may not have the fastest time but you can be proud of how you accomplished things.
“I know I am competing against athletes who are doping. It has been proven. You just have to come to a place where your integrity, your character, mean something.
“When I came to peace with that, it helped, but it doesn’t take away the frustration. Some stuff, it just makes your stomach sick to know what’s happening.”
Thirteen years ago, I found myself with Allyson Felix on a special bus from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to the accreditation center for the world track and field championships.
We had first met two months earlier when Felix became the youngest member ever at that time of a U.S outdoor world team by finishing third in the 200 at the national championships. She was 17 then, a just-minted high school graduate who had not begun track until her freshman year but had a 200 time earlier that 2003 season of 22.11, fastest ever by a woman under 20.
What struck me about our encounter on the Paris bus was that Felix, dealing with the jet lag and fatigue on her long trip from Los Angeles, was traveling alone.
In a world where many talented young athletes learn early to expect others will do everything for them, Felix’s family had given her the independence and confidence to handle the logistics and rigors of the journey on her own. She had navigated the disorienting maze of the airport’s circular terminals (still a challenge for me after many trips there), collected her minimal luggage, found the right bus.
Earlier this month, when she went to New York for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “100 Days Out” from Rio celebration, Felix traveled round trip on a private jet with an entourage that included her brother and agent, Wes; her coach; and her mother, Marlean. She was fully aware of how different that experience, posted on her Instagram account, was from being a coach class solo voyager to Paris.
“It has definitely been a fun and interesting ride,” she said. “Lots of things have changed. But at the same time, it feels like everything is the same in the sense of who I am.”
The trappings of Felix’s life have definitely become more luxurious as she has won enough world and Olympic medals to fill a steamer trunk. She has a more-than-comfortable income from sponsors, including USOC partners Nike (primary), P&G, Chobani, Citibank and Smucker’s.
But, at age 30, she remains the same poised, modest, faith-and-family-guided person she was as a preternaturally accomplished teenager.
“I haven’t seen a lot of changes in her personality,” said three-time Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the coach’s wife, whom Felix has called an inspiration. “That’s what has made her have staying power. You don’t change according to the time or success. You just become wiser.”
Kersee, who also coached Joyner-Kersee, now has been Felix’s coach for 12 seasons. She had spent her first season as a pro, 2004, working with Pat Connolly.
Her collaboration with Kersee has been remarkably injury-and-disappointment free, the notable exceptions coming in 2008 and 2013. Both times, a stoic Kersee immediately had her looking forward.
Felix was left sobbing on her mother’s shoulder in a tunnel below Beijing’s Olympic stadium after the 200-meter in 2008. She was a solid favorite, but, even after having given up the idea of a 200-400 double (despite a schedule with no overlap between the events) to focus on the shorter race, she still wound up second to Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown for the second straight time.
“After all the crying and devastation and wondering why Bobby is being so calm, then she went, ‘OK, I want to be in London and win that gold medal,’” Kersee said.
Yet the sting of that silver was so great that after Felix won a third straight world title in 2009, she told Campbell-Brown she would trade them all for one of the Jamaicans’ Olympic golds.
“It was one of my most devastating losses,” Felix said. “There were such high expectations, and it didn’t go the way I had planned.
“(It became about) learning to continue to work, to go back to the drawing board, to think, ‘If this is something you really want, that you are really passionate about, you have to continue to go after it.’ That was a huge lesson.”
Four years later, when the frustration ended with a victory in the 200 at London, someone else might have celebrated with a scream or a cartwheel or a collapse on the track or goofy gestures. Someone else might have felt unburdened enough to let emotions go wild.
Someone else, but not Allyson Felix. She stayed completely in character.
“Allyson is very respectful of other people’s space,” Joyner-Kersee said. “Everyone wants to be seen, but how you are seen is more important.”
After crossing the finish line, Felix’s hands briefly went in the air. She took two deep breaths. Her face broke into a smile more shy than wide.
“It was a combination of joy and relief,” she would say while recalling the moment earlier this month.
It also gave her the freedom to embrace fully the challenge of the 400 over the next four seasons, even if she competed in it just once in both 2013 and 2014.
Her unremarkable 2013 season – by Felix standards - ended with a torn hamstring in the final of the 200 at the Moscow world championships, one race after she had run a season best. Kersee’s message then was simple: “Believe in your talent, work hard, let’s get you healthy, and you will be fastest in the world again next year.”
And she was just that in the 200 in 2014.
The one thing that doesn’t fit into the Allyson Felix narrative is her go-to motivational song: Beyoncé’s “Diva,” with its lyrics about being “the female version of a hustla.”
(Truth be told, it also was a little incongruous to see Felix posed for ESPN in a recreation of the Beyoncé’s “Dangerously in Love” album cover photo: the Beyjeweled sheer crop top she wore had so much glitz, so little cover. And there is also the irony of Felix being rather less well known than Beyoncé, even if she is as distinguished in her field as the singer is in hers.)
“I do go to this different place,” Felix said. “It’s like an alter ego.”
Assuming such a persona is a difficult but necessary transition to turn the laid-back, reserved Felix into a fierce competitor.
The ability to make that shift is why Joyner-Kersee calls Felix “the quiet storm,” capable of replacing humility with the aggression necessary for the battle to be the best.
Yet her fierce competitiveness never is visibly externalized. It is hidden even more by a gait so smoothly efficient it seems effortless. And her brilliant relay running is overshadowed because she has run the easily forgettable second leg, not the anchor, on all eight of her gold-medal relay teams at the Olympics and worlds.
All that makes it trickier to assess Felix’s place in sprint history, already complicated by differences between eras that make it almost impossible to compare a Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands in the 1940s to a Betty Cuthbert of Australia in the 1950s, a Wilma Rudolph of the U.S. in the 1960s, an evanescent Florence Griffith Joyner of the U.S. in the 1980s, ageless Jamaicans Merlene Ottey-Page in the 1990s and Campbell-Brown the past 12 years, a drug-busted Marion Jones of the U.S. in the early 2000s and a sprite who has won nearly every big 100-meter in the last eight years, Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
Boldon would put Felix somewhere on his all-time podium. A Rio double gold could move her to the top.
“If she pulls that off, she can become a household name in America, even if it is too little, too late,” Boldon said.
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.