DES MOINES, Iowa — Allyson Felix is in unfamiliar territory. With nine Olympic and 16 world championships medals, the 33-year-old sprinter is accustomed to standing on the podium — usually the top step.
But at the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, Felix was just grateful to compete. And even better, make the final of the women’s 400-meter.
In her first track meet in 13 months, she finished sixth in the 400, in 51.94 seconds — significantly behind winner Shakima Wimbley, who won her second consecutive national 400 title in 50.21 and earned her first world championships berth in an individual event.
It was the first time that Felix competed at U.S. nationals without finishing on the podium.
It’s also the first time that she has competed as a mom. Daughter Camyrn was born by emergency C-section eight months ago.
“I am grateful more than anything,” Felix said. “I think it would be crazy for me to say that I was disappointed. I have my health, I have my family, I couldn’t ask for more than that. And I am able to still do what I love.”
Then she looked to the future: “This gave me a taste. I know it’s there. The fire’s there, I’ll be back next year.”
Felix is eligible for to be named to the 4x400-meter pool for the 2019 world championships, which would mark her seventh trip to worlds.
The women who earned the three world championships berths — Wimbley, Kendall Ellis and Wadeline Jonathas — are at least a decade younger than Felix. And two of them, Wembley and Ellis, competed with Felix on the gold-medal-winning relay team at the 2017 world championships.
Wimbley was happy to see her idol on the starting line again.
“Allyson probably thinks I’m crazy,” she said. “I’m obsessed with her, I love her. Just seeing what she did here today is amazing. She just had a baby eight months ago, and she’s out here pushing. I like what she stands for. I look to her for the rest of my career.”
As for Felix possibly joining them on another relay team, Wimbley is hopeful.
“The in-shape Allyson is a beast,” she added. “We need her.”
Felix’s path to the 400 final at 2019 U.S. outdoor nationals was not easy. She barely moved on from the first round, finishing fourth in her heat. Uncharacteristically, she seemed to slow near the end. The top three in each heat automatically qualified for the semifinals, plus the next four fastest sprinters. Her time of 52.20 held up.
Then in the semifinal, she seemed to run with a different strategy, going more slowly in the beginning, then moving into third place in the final stretch. She finished her semifinal heat in 51.45 — the fifth fastest time of the 16 semifinalists — and moved on to the final.
Her times this week are over two seconds off her personal best of 49.26 in the 400 (set in 2015).
“It feels good,” Felix said after the semifinals when asked how it felt to make the 400 final. “It's such a different mindset this time around. I don't think I could ever say before it feels good to be in a final, this is what I expect of myself. But I have to keep reminding myself what I've been through this year.”
Felix came to Des Moines not knowing what to expect. Eight months ago, almost to the day, she found herself suddenly in the operating room. She was only 32 weeks pregnant and had gone to her OB/GYN for a regular pregnancy check-up. There, she learned that she had pre-eclampsia, a dangerous condition for both mother and baby. Almost two months before she expected it, Felix was suddenly mom to a tiny baby weighing 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
For the next several weeks, she was not Allyson Felix, most decorated female track athlete of all time. She was like all the other moms in the neonatal intensive care unit fretting about her tiny baby.
“Almost eight months ago this was my entire world,” she wrote on Instagram this week under a photo of her standing in the NICU next to Camryn’s incubator. “Staying in the NICU all day & night watching my baby girl fight. I can still hear the beeping and alarms of the machines. The uncertainty. The fear.”
Felix came to Des Moines with only four-and-a-half months of decent training.
On the eve of U.S. outdoor nationals, Felix’s husband, Kenneth Ferguson, shared his thoughts on Instagram as well.
“The time is finally here,” he wrote, with a photo of Felix wheeling Camryn in a stroller. “One of our many goals. Here is a photo of you going out to the track, soon as you were cleared to not run, but to walk only at this point. And to see how far you’ve come since then in a short time, is nothing but awesomeness. Rain, sleek, snow. You were out there pushing yourself to the limits, and having Cammy out there some days to help cheer you on. We’re already so proud of you, before you even step on the track today. Win, Lose, Draw. You’re our champion. I can’t even explain how proud of you I am. With every day I admire you even more, I don’t think there is anything you cannot do.”
Ferguson and Camryn were in the stands to cheer on their favorite sprinter. Although they could not cheer her on the podium as well, Felix now feels optimistic about making her fifth Olympic team in 2020.
“I’m just happy that I went for it here,” she said. “I could have not run here and stayed at home and trained. I think it was good for me to get out here and push myself a little bit, even though I knew I wasn’t where I’m usually at, I think that’s helpful going into next year. I did this on very little training so that gives me a lot of hope.”
Although Felix has won six Olympic gold medals, none of them have come in the 400. Her only individual gold medal came in the 200 at the Olympic Games London 2012; the other five she won in relays.
At the Rio 2016 Games, she was competing as the reigning world champion in the 400 and was on her way to her seventh Olympic gold medal when Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo dove across the line and bumped Felix to silver.
“I want to be back at the Olympics,” Felix said emphatically. “I want that more than anything. I want to go out on my terms. A little sacrifice here or there, I believe it will be worth it.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.