For Olympic hopeful Allyson Felix, the road to Athens goes through Modesto. The 18-year-old sprint phenom has come to the Central Valley farming hub on a hazy May weekend to compete in the 63rd Annual Modesto Relays. At this decidedly unglamorous early-season meet, where the smell of mesquite from a nearby barbecue cook-off hovers in the air, Felix is a big draw.
Last year, as a senior, she shattered Marion Jones' national high-school record in the 200-meter race. She qualified for the world championships in Paris by finishing third at the pressure-filled U.S. Nationals meet — held the day after her graduation ceremony. Then, just days before starting her freshman year at USC, Felix forfeited her scholarship and signed a reported six-year, $1-million-plus contract with sneaker company Adidas.
As the first track-and-field athlete — male or female — to jump from high school to the pros, Felix instantly became the sport's precocious answer to basketball's LeBron James and soccer's Freddy Adu. She is regularly touted as the future of American track, as the next Marion Jones — winner of five medals at the 2000 Olympics. And Felix is poised to take her place among the young female athletes who have brought a new buzz to their sports — Diana Taurasi in basketball, Michelle Wie in golf.
But being a young professional track athlete is vastly different than most other sports. There are no teammates to mentor you, only a small circle that generally includes a coach, agent and family members. The loneliness of the long-distance runner can afflict sprinters as well. Some contend that a slower route might have been preferable in this case.
"Allyson Felix would learn more from having a coach like Ron Allice at USC and maturing in college," wrote Larry Eder, publisher of American Track & Field magazine.
"Finding your event, understanding your event, developing your event — those are things you learn in college," says veteran runner Inger Miller, who supports Felix but is wary of the path she's chosen. "It's difficult to do that at the professional level because you're supposed to be developed already. You don't teach Kobe Bryant how to dunk once he's in the NBA."
"It is a big jump, from high school to the pros," Allice says. "It's cutthroat time every time you line up in a meet."
Even Felix's coach frets that she is too mild-mannered for her own good. "Allyson is very poised and humble," Pat Connolly says, "and when she speaks with the media, they're not going to hear Muhammad Ali-like bravado. But I don't want to hear her say, 'I just run the best I can' anymore. I want her to say, 'I'm going to kick some ass.' "
Unfazed, Felix says she's ready for her first serious challenge as a pro: to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. It would be an extraordinary feat for any 18-year-old, much less one who now finds herself in the lion's den.
If ever track needed positive news, that moment is now. an ongoing scandal involving steroid and other illegal substance use by American athletes has resulted in the reigning 100- and 200-meter world champion, Kelli White, being disqualified from the Athens Games. Investigations continue and many of the sport's other superstars — including Jones — also are under suspicion.
Professional track desperately craves an athlete who embodies a squeaky-clean image. How's this? Allyson Felix — polite, modest and soft-spoken — attended a Baptist high school and is the daughter of a minister.
"My faith is the most important thing in my life," Felix says. "That's why I run. It's a gift from God, and I want to use it to the best of my ability."
"She's wholesome, refreshing, well-grounded," says Renaldo Nehemiah, the onetime Olympic hurdler who serves as her agent. "She's just pure — a pure talent."
"Allyson Felix is a breath of fresh air and a cool glass of water," says USC head track coach Ron Allice — and this bit of magnanimity from a man who lost the chance to coach perhaps the next great American track star.
Actually, the unfolding drug scandal may help Felix. With top athletes banned from competing, her chances of making the Olympic team are improved. Beyond that, her performance at the U.S. Trials in Sacramento from July 9-18 will help determine whether she'll be able to attract other endorsements and hefty appearance fees at foreign meets. Publicly, Team Felix is downplaying expectations.
"Her true greatness will come in about three years," Nehemiah says, "when she starts to mature and embrace what's going on around her. That's when it will happen, not right now."
"We have no expectations for Greece," says Kevin Wulff, director of sports marketing for Adidas. "We're in it long term." Indeed, Felix's contract runs through the 2008 Olympics. And there is currently no mention of Felix on the company Web site. Adidas won't say if it has plans should Felix make the team, but if you don't believe that's the case, you'd never make it in the sports marketing field.
At the U.S. trials, some 30 women will vie for spots in the 100- and 200-meter events; the top three finishers in each event qualify for the Olympics. Marion Jones has the fastest times in those events among active American sprinters — 10.65 seconds in the 100, 21.62 in the 200. (Florence Griffith Joyner remains the record holder in both events — 10.49 and 21.34.) Felix's personal bests — a wind-aided 11.14 in the 100 and 22.11 in the 200 — make her a contender, either individually or on the relay team, which is selected from the pool of sprinters.
In Modesto, Felix doesn't race her best event — the 200 meters ("the two," in track-speak), where she "loves the feeling coming off the curve." Instead, Connolly wants her to improve her speed and balky start in the 100 and run one leg of the 4x100 relay.
As other competitors chat with one another or cheer on their teammates, Felix limbers up alone on the grassy infield. Wrapped from neck to toe in Adidas gear, she stretches her absurdly long legs with a series of high-stepping kicks. What's most striking about her physique is that she isn't bulky or fiercely muscular. When she strips off her warm-ups to reveal form-fitting shorts and a bare midriff, her five-foot-six, 125-pound frame is caught somewhere between girl and woman.
Hovering nearby is Connolly, a former three-time Olympian in the pentathlon. Dressed casually in a white T-shirt, blue Capri pants and an oversized sun visor, she fusses over her charge like a spinster aunt. She doles out the lane-number sticker for Felix to affix to her uniform, then stands alongside her during the playing of the national anthem.
In motion, Felix uses powerful, efficient strides to eat up the track. "She reminds me a lot of [Olympic gold medallist] Wilma Rudolph, with her free-flowing style," Nehemiah says. "Wilma was slow to get going, then she was flying. Allyson is so raw — everything she does is so natural and instinctive."
Running the anchor leg of the 4x100-meter relay race, Felix takes the baton at the top of the curve, then lengthens her team's lead over two outclassed college squads. Her gold-streaked hair bouncing in a tight ponytail, Felix accelerates with a smooth, understated motion that belies her strength. She cruises through the finish at three-quarters speed, a Porsche downshifting on a city street.
Later, she rolls from the starting blocks in the 100-meter showdown. An explosive start is one of the keys to winning sprint races, and Felix's start is the weakest part of her game. She knows she must improve to qualify for the "one." It may as well be called The Big One — the race generally bestows the "World's Fastest" title on the record holder. Today she finishes a close second to Inger Miller. Felix's wind-aided time of 11.19 is decent, but not particularly noteworthy.
Catching her breath in the interview area, Felix quickly composes herself. "Every time you step to the line as a professional, you know you're going to see Inger Miller or somebody of her caliber," she says. "It's a challenge every time, but I like that."
A few weeks after the Modesto meet, Felix sits in a Starbucks near the downtown L.A. apartment she shares with her brother. Dressed in a fashionable pink top and jeans, she e-mails friends on her laptop and sips an iced-coffee drink. The self-proclaimed clothes "shopaholic" looks like any other college student, albeit one with a brand-new Cadillac Escalade parked in her garage. (Her other major purchase was a baby grand piano for her mother.)
In conversation, she resembles her running style: smooth, relaxed, well-balanced. She is very much the "young lady," as members of Team Felix refer to her. Her role as "the future" of American track is "cool," Felix says. "I don't feel added pressure. I'm doing what I would be doing even if, you know, that wasn't the way people looked at me."
Furthermore, Felix disputes her coach's assertion that she is too passive. "I don't feel like I have to prove that I have inner drive," she says. "Some people don't see it because of my demeanor. I'm quiet and I'm not doing stuff after races to draw attention to myself. I'm very confident that I have it within me."
Felix was raised in Lafayette Square, an exclusive enclave in the Crenshaw neighborhood, before moving with her family to Colorado for three years. The Felixes returned to Southern California in 1999 so that Allyson's father, Paul, could teach New Testament Language and Literature at The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley. He is also president of the Los Angeles Bible Training School. Her mother, Marlean, teaches elementary school.
In keeping with the family's religious beliefs, Allyson attended Los Angeles Baptist High School, located in North Hills in the San Fernando Valley. The small private high school with an enrollment of 550 is, according to the student handbook, "posited upon the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith and proceeds on the assumption that the commitment of students to the claims of Christ is pivotal to the fullest attainment of the school's objectives."
Allyson initially played basketball, but when her brother began to excel in track, she followed his lead. She first competed in ninth grade, a whippet of a girl engulfed by baggy shorts. Her nickname was "Chicken Legs."
"She had no experience," says Jonathan Patton, her high-school sprint coach, "and she had her hands too close to her face and didn't have great leg drive. Over time, what had to be developed was her being comfortable racing at big-time meets."
The Knights of Los Angeles Baptist High previously had little impact on the local track scene, but the school's coaches knew they had something special every time they checked their stopwatches in disbelief. "We knew she was fast, but we didn't realize how fast until she qualified for the state meet as a freshman," Paul Felix says.
Patton and conditioning coach Barry Ross persuaded Felix to hit the weight room. Immediate results came during her sophomore year, when she defeated highly touted Shalonda Solomon, from perennial powerhouse Long Beach Poly High School, to win the 100-meters state title. Felix would win that race the next two years, adding titles in the 200 in her junior and senior years. For her efforts, she won the prestigious Gatorade National High School Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year award.
Comparisons to Marion Jones became commonplace — and not just because both are Valley girls. (Jones graduated from Thousand Oaks High in 1993.) One of the most dominant high-school athletes of any sport, Jones, now 28, won four consecutive state titles in both the 100 and the 200, adding long jump honors her senior year. In 1992, at just 16, Jones qualified for the U.S. Olympics as an alternate on the relay team, though she declined to attend. If Felix makes the team and competes, she would be the youngest female sprinter to do so since Julie Jenkins, who was 17 at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
Felix, who once lined up with her high-school teammates to get Jones' autograph, has now gone head-to-head against her several times. Felix has lost every time. She deflects the Jones comparison, saying, "At first when I raced against her, it was like, Oh my gosh, it's Marion Jones! Now I look at it differently. I have to focus on what I need to do and not worry about anybody else."
Felix's unprecedented decision to bypass the college circuit took shape last summer, as she graduated from high-school meets to an international schedule. She wasn't heavily recruited because she had committed early to USC, where she planned to join her brother (Wes, 20, who just finished his junior year, is the reigning PAC-10 champ in the 200 meters), and become the latest in a long line of Trojan women sprint stars, including Inger Miller, Torri Edwards and Angela Williams.
"She is the next great sprinter at USC," coach Allice exulted in announcing Felix's signing with the Trojans. "She will represent both USC and her country very well."
The more Felix and her parents thought about college track, however, the less enamored they were. During the long indoor and outdoor seasons, collegiate teams race dual meets nearly every weekend, on top of conference, regional and national championships. It's a grind that can wear out even the liveliest legs; the country is littered with high school hotshots who faded in college.
"Colleges gobble up talent," says Connolly, who coached at UCLA. "The most successful coaches are administrators and recruiters who are paid to win meets, not develop individual athletes' talents. How could Allyson prosper in that situation?"
Through a family friend, former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone, Paul Felix arranged to meet with sneaker companies about signing his daughter to an endorsement deal. Nike and L.A.-based DaDa Footwear expressed interest, but Adidas cinched its bid by agreeing to pay Felix's $35,000-per-year tuition at USC. She joined an Adidas track roster that includes sprinters Maurice Greene and Torri Edwards and shot-putter John Godina.
"Did her decision hurt us as a team?" coach Allice asks rhetorically. "Of course it did. She is a one-of-a-kind talent."
Felix says she gets the "best of both worlds." While pursuing her education (her major is elementary education), she gets paid to train for the Olympics.
The final piece in the puzzle was to find an appropriate coach. Felix's first choice was Trevor Graham, who guided Jones to Olympic triumph in Sydney but no longer coaches her. She also considered Southern California-based John Smith, the former UCLA coach who trains many of the world's top sprinters, including Greene.
According to Paul Felix, the family rejected Smith, who partners exclusively with agent Emanuel Hudson, because they wanted the freedom to choose their own agent. Graham was vetoed primarily because he works in North Carolina. (Graham has since reportedly been subpoenaed in the BALCO probe concerning Jones and her companion, sprinter Tim Montgomery, whom he also coached.) "Because of my daughter's age, we wanted her to stay close to home," Felix says. "We didn't want to put her in an environment with a lot of older athletes."
Instead, they turned to Connolly on the recommendation of two former pupils: Nehemiah, an agent with the North Carolina-based Octagon firm who had won their trust, and Leslie Maxie, a former Olympian who is the news anchor for ESPN2's "Cold Pizza" show.
The 60-year-old Connolly had recently retired from coaching at Virginia's Radford University. Besides her own experience as an Olympian, her best credential was molding former Bruin Evelyn Ashford into the 100-meters gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
A taskmaster who calls track "a discipline, not a game," Connolly is known to be hands on — some would call her controlling. At times, her desire to shield Felix from the media has put her in conflict with Octagon, a situation one observer calls "acrimonious." (Connolly refused to allow access to Felix's practice sessions for this story.) The objective, Connolly says, is to eliminate all distractions.
"Pat is a human shield between the media and Allyson," says Bruce Tenen, who recruits top athletes for the annual Home Depot Invitational, noting that Connolly was just as demanding with Ashford. "She handles all of that so that Allyson can just concentrate on running."
Others praise Connolly for her passionate commitment to Felix's well-being. "Pat's a mother first, and then she's a coach," says five-time Olympian Willye White, who has advised Connolly. "She's concerned about the total Allyson — she's working with Allyson in mind, body, spirit."
"With Allyson being so young, she needed someone who really was going to care about her, and not so much think about the sport as a profession," Nehemiah says. "Even if this ends up being a short-term situation — a couple years, three years — Allyson would still be better off when she went to the next level."
"It's working out really good for this year," Felix says. "We'll see what happens in the years to come. I just have to trust Pat that she's going to get me to where I need to be."
When Connolly began working with Felix in November, she decided that Allyson needed more intense conditioning work. She changed Felix's training methods, integrating two-a-day practice sessions that mix in beach and pool workouts and bike rides. She also reduced the emphasis on lifting heavy weights.
Connolly admits that Felix's situation is unique. "She has all the money, all the opportunity," she says. "She has everything — that's scary."
After Modesto, Felix returned to L.A. to final exams. (She says she was able to balance school and track after "an adjustment"; she took a half-load of courses this spring.) Connolly then upped the pace of Felix's training, emphasizing race experience. At the end of May, she raced three times in two days, as Connolly sought to duplicate the hectic schedule Felix will face at the U.S. Trials. At a meet in Sacramento, Felix took second in her 100-meter race in 11.69 seconds, behind LaKeisha Backus' 11.47, and won her first 200 of the season in 23.44. The next day, at a meet in Palo Alto, she finished third in the 200 at 22.71, behind LaTasha Colander and Crystal Cox. The following weekend, at a meet in Portland, Ore., sponsored by Adidas, she ran a 23.12 and finished third in the 200, trailing Debbie Ferguson and Cox.
Felix hasn't blown away the competition, but she has shown improvement. Unlike many of her contemporaries, however, she didn't have to worry about preparing for the NCAA championships earlier this month; her training schedule is set for her to peak at the trials. "I'm still adjusting going from high school to the pros," she admits. "You have to bring your 'A' game every time you race. You have to take everything more slowly, be more patient at this level."
The learning process goes beyond the mechanics of running. Indeed, while Felix prepares for the 100 and 200, many observers believe that she will eventually jump to the more grueling 400 as she matures physically.
In the weeks before the U.S. Trials, Felix and Connolly retreat to Chula Vista to fine-tune her conditioning at the Olympic training center. They plan to enter Felix in other meets to break up the training and to gain further experience. Before leaving, Connolly admits that she doesn't know how Felix will respond in Sacramento. "I want to see her develop on her terms," she says. "It might not coincide with the Olympic Trials. I don't know."
Felix pooh-poohs such talk. "I thrive off of competition," she says. "That's what it's all about for me. The fast times will come. If you beat the best in the world, you're going to have a good time."
And if she doesn't make the team? "I'll keep running different meets and look to 2008."
She then adds the perspective of an unsullied talent who has yet to be overwhelmed by the pressure of expectations. "I'll be disappointed," she says, "but it's not the end of the world."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times