EUGENE, Oregon – The moment was both majestic, and at the same time lacking in appropriate majesty. Majestic, because the athlete was Allyson Felix, at 36 years old, the most decorated woman ever in track and field, running the last competitive lap of her life and adding yet another medal to the heaviest collection in the sport’s long history. Lacking in majesty, because the event was the second leg on a mixed 4×400-meter relay on the first night of the 18th Track and Field World Championships, but the first in Felix’s home country, in a city where she could apply to receive mail, because she has raced here so often and so brilliantly. And because the United States won a bronze medal, not gold, a minor quibble in the end.
Felix’s last dance began at a tick before 7:51 Pacific Daylight Time Friday night, when she snatched a white relay baton out of the hand of U.S. leadoff runner Elijah Goodwin, who – requisite perspective in any Felix tale – was four years old when Felix competed in her first Worlds, in 2003 in Paris. The crowd at Eugene’s new Hayward Field (which was not full for the first night session of the competition, which may or may not be an ominous sign) roared ever louder in response. Felix was required to stay in lane 6 around one turn, and then floated through small rays on sunlight at the top of the backstretch before cutting into the rail with a 20-meter lead.
Felix stayed in first down the backstretch and around the final turn, but in the homestretch was decisively caught and passed by Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic. This was not a surprise: Paulino is the fastest woman in the world this year in the 400 meters, with a best of 49.49 seconds (only .23 seconds slower than Felix’s decade-old career best). Felix best open 400 this year is 50.71. Paulino split a blazing 48.47 for her leg; Felix ran 50.15, more than respectable. Felix passed the stick to Vernon Norwood (the mixed relay mandates a male-female-male-female order for all teams), who ran Team USA back into the lead before passing to anchor Kennedy Simon, who held the lead into the final 50 meters before she was passed by Fiordaliza Cofil of the Domincan Republic (49.92 split) and Femke Bol of the Netherlands (48.95 split). Simon’s split was 50.90; her season’s best is 50.45.
“It was an emotional day,” Felix said afterward. She said that during the afternoon, she found herself overwhelmed. “There was a point, earlier today,” she said, “where I just started breaking down. [Her brother/agent] Wes came over and hugged me and talked to me. But once I got to the track, I got into my routine.”
Yet still: “It was just a night to be grateful,” she said. “All the messages I got. Just hearing how much people thought I meant to the sport. And then tonight, it really was a special night.”
She also noted that she went into the stands to hug her daughter, Cammy. “She told me I was sweaty,” said Felix. Then a laugh.
It is rare in her long career that Felix has been asked to elevate a moment, because the moments in which she has thrived did not need elevating. They were already at the highest level – Olympic and World individual and traditional relay finals. National championships. She has been swimming in the deepest water in her sport since she was 17 years old, rising to meet moments halfway, sometimes winning and sometimes not, always leaving no effort unspent. “I hope I’ll be remembered as a fierce competitor,” said Felix at a Thursday press conference, nearly her last among hundreds.
She will be remembered for that. And for much more. For her 11 Olympic medals, dating back to 2004, when she was just 18, one more than the legendary Carl Lewis and more than any other American track and field athlete; two more than Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey’s old record for most Olympic track and field medals by a woman. For her World Championship medals, of which Friday night’s was her 19th, and 13th gold, both more than any other athlete – male or female — in history (Usain Bolt and Ottey each won 14). For winning a grinding and painful 400-meter bronze last year in Tokyo, after the November, 2018 birth of her daughter by caesarean section, 32 weeks into a difficult pregnancy. (She had previously won two post-childbirth relay medals at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, after just 10 months). For finding a strident voice on important issues late in her career, after many years of quietly getting along, and stirring no pots.
(We can expect more of this: In the April Instagram post that announced her retirement, Felix said she is “running for women,” this year, and also that her retirement plans will include trying to “make the world a better place for women.” At Thursday’s press conference, Felix said, “I’m trying to leave the sport better than I found it, trying to support female athletes and women in general and fight for more equality.”)
But there is something else, too, that makes Friday night the perfect coda for Felix’s career and, in a larger sense, for this moment in track and field. Since running at her first Worlds in 2003, Felix has always been there. Even with all those medals, Felix has persistently been great, but never dominant in a single event. Her gold medals were hard-earned, nearly every time, and her silvers gutting. (Veronica Campbell Brown of Jamaica beat her in the 200 meters at two Olympics – 2004 and 2008 — leaving Felix in puddles; Shaunae Miller-Uibo threw herself across the line in 2016, winning gold in the 400 meters and leaving Felix with silver. More puddles).
Right now, and for a long time, track and field historians, fans and aficionados will comb through Felix’s career and seek the touchstone moment with which to describe her excellence. The pitchy summary or tight sound bite. It will be the medals, and the times, too – she retires as the eighth-fastest woman in history in the 200 meters (21.69 in 2012) and the 21st-fastest woman in 400 meters (49.26 to win the world title in 2015). She is not the fastest American in either event. And all of that is fine, and important, and worthwhile. It all misses the most important point, too.
As great as Felix has been, as inspirational – USA heptathlete Anna Hall recalled having a Felix poster on her wall as a teenager – as she has been, she has done something more remarkable and more quietly. For nearly two decades, she has shown up. That sentence is not typed lightly. For nearly two decades she has been an earnest and professional presence who never cheated an audience or herself.
We live in a world that feeds off superlatives: Greatest. Fastest. Strongest. Best. G.O.A.T. (ugh). Felix has been all of them, but she also has been present in a sport that desperately needs presence.
She is surrounded, in her athletic dotage, by younger teammates who have sought to brand themselves by the force of a handful of performances, or less. Felix’s brand was built, race by race, year by year, until it was unmistakably historic. She was a volume shooter in a sport often populated by one-hit wonders. That will be her legacy.
But let the record show that her competitiveness did not yield to her emotions on this last night. “I was determined to enjoy this year,” Felix said. “But yeah, it would have been great if this medal was gold.” Pause. “But I’m not going to dwell on that at all,” she said. “I’m proud.”
Once again: Earned.