How does it feel to qualify for a fifth Olympic Games? Few athletes can tell us, but Allyson Felix can

The American sprinter put it all on the line at the US Olympic Trials in June to try and qualify for her fifth Olympic Games, the first as a mother, hoping to inspire girls and women to aim big. That legacy may have started sooner than she thinks.

Picture by 2015 Getty Images

An emotional Allyson Felix found it hard to hold it together at the virtual press conference held after she had competed in her final ever US Olympic trials. The highs and lows of a sporting career that has spanned nigh on 18 years were replicated in the 10 days of the championships as the 35-year-old qualified for Tokyo 2020 in the 400m but missed out on her beloved 200m. Felix, now a mother of one, tearfully described her emotions following the shorter distance race.

“I feel a mix of all emotions," Felix continued. "I’m excited obviously to be going to Tokyo I think there’s a part of me that’s sad because this has been my life for so long so that part of it, that this is going to be my last time around, I feel sad for that but also excited for what’s to come.”

What might come in Felix's last Games is becoming the most successful female Olympic athlete of all time. Felix has won nine Olympic medals, six of them gold, and if she wins one more in either the 400m (the final is on Friday 6 August) or women's 400m relay (the final is on Saturday 7 August) – could go ahead of Jamaica's Merlene Ottey whom she currently matches in the Olympic medal count.

Comeback of comebacks

Felix's medal cabinet also houses 18 world championships medals, 13 of those gold. These days, there’s probably a cuddly toy snuck in there too, courtesy of two-year-old daughter, Camryn.

A difficult birth, Camryn arrived prematurely at only 32 weeks in November 2018. Felix was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia during an ante-natal visit, which resulted in the emergency C-section. With women of colour three to four times more likely to die from the disorder, Felix focused her efforts on raising awareness around the disproportionately poor pregnancy outcomes, joining the US government’s Hear Her campaign to create public awareness of the warning signs of pregnancy emergencies. Felix also spoke to the government’s House Committee on the issue.

Felix had a tricky physical recovery even before getting back into training, so to have the toddler join her on the track, at her last ever US Olympic trials, was poignant.

“It was really special. I knew that this was going to be my last Olympic trials, I knew I wanted to come race in this beautiful stadium and having my daughter is the icing on the cake.

“There were a lot of moments, especially 2018, giving birth and Cammy being premature and all the health complications that we had, I really wasn’t sure (if I could come back)," said Felix of the challenges she's faced in returning to the sport she loves, "and then that first year back was a real struggle and then the postponement – it just seemed like I was being hit with thing after thing... it was just – all of it just felt like, man, I hope something comes together for me. But I just kept fighting and I knew that I wanted to give it one more shot.”

Felix knew that how she reacted to the challenges would convey a message to young Cammy.

“I just really wanted to show her, no matter what, that you did things with character and integrity and you don’t give up and to me, whether that was winning, losing, no matter the outcome I wanted to stay consistent with that.”

Equally poignant was fellow 400m athlete, Quanera Hayes, bringing her son, Demetrius onto the track to meet Cammy. Effusive in her praise of her compatriot, Hayes, who also qualified for the 400m alongside Felix for Tokyo 2020, lauded Felix’s vocal stance on support for athlete mothers, and had words of thanks for her after the race.

“I just told her I was grateful for all that’s she done for mothers and being that I was a mother and how she fought for us, just her paving the way for me as an athlete and all that she’s done for the sport, I just thanked her for being who she was never giving up and just paying homage to her.”

Allyson Felix and daughter Camryn and Quanera Hayes with son Demetrius
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Next generation

Another athlete on track at the trials who has been inspired by Felix is 21-year-old Harvard graduate Gabby Thomas, who also made the USA team for Tokyo 2020 by virtue of winning the 200m at the trials in an astonishing 21.61 seconds. The time is the second-fastest in history with only Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record of 21.34s in 1988 quicker.

"Allyson Felix was my biggest inspiration,” said Thomas during post-race interviews. “She’s just the first person I remember watching on TV. I remember staying at my granny’s house and my mom told me to turn on the Olympic trials because she saw someone who reminded her of me, so that’s the person who’s in the back of my head for so many years. Her humility and grace and how good she is at what she does, she’s the one who’s been inspiring, so to be on the team with her makes me want to cry.”

When asked whether she had a message for any little girls watching her on TV, Thomas said: “When I was a little girl watching the Olympic trials, it just felt so far out for me when I was 12, 13, 14,” said Thomas, who majored in neurobiology and is now doing a Masters in Public Health, specifically in epidemiology. “Do what you want, dream big, and go take what’s yours – whether that be Harvard or the Olympics or whatever – go do it, because you can do it.”

Sound like anyone you know?

Athlete comments on Allyson Felix

Fred Kerley, USA, 400m men, told Tokyo 2020:

“I feel like, male or female, she [Felix] has got to be an inspiration to all of us because not too many people ever had a longevity like that, winning medals at the Olympics. I think she’s been in the game 18 plus years, man. So not too many people that are around her age are still in the game. I got a little girl at home [daughter] and stuff and so like kids, it’s great to have someone like that to look up to – female, males, whoever – medals speak for themselves in this game.”

Christian Malcolm, Team GB’s athletics head coach, talked about Allyson Felix and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and their longevity in the sport. Malcolm won a bronze medal at the World Championships in the 4x100m relay in Helsinki in 2005, Felix’s debut world championships.

“I think it's fantastic to see them keep going. I'm a big believer in keeping going until the wheels fall off, and they're still going, but the fact is they're still going at such a high level. Both of them are still one of the best in the world in their field and I just think it's a testament to their hard work and how they've looked after themselves over the years, as well, to maintain it. They’ve both had a few niggles and injuries over the years but managed to come back through that, and that takes a special character and strength. So they're amazing and an inspiration to a lot of athletes.”