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Track’s class act

Times Stadd Writer

Allyson Felix is graceful and gracious. She has a house in Santa Clarita, a Yorkshire terrier name Chloe, is considered a “girlie girl” by her mother and has a deep appreciation of shoes and purses. High heels may not be a track athlete’s best friend, but Felix will bust out the stilettos if she is attending a fancy party or an honorary dinner.

Felix, 22, is also one of the best sprinters in the world.

Last week in Qatar, Felix, in the span of 90 minutes, ran the fastest times in the world this year at 100 and 400 meters. And those aren’t her best events. Felix is the defending world champion in the 200 and is preparing for the Beijing Games, where she aims to improve on the silver medal she won in Athens in 2004.

Inspiring track accomplishments. Yet Felix’s parents, Marlean and Paul, are beaming over something even more significant to them than world records or gold medals. On Friday, Felix graduated from USC with a degree in elementary education.

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It took Felix 4 1/2 years and she did it while competing as a full-time professional track athlete. She had been offered a USC track scholarship after graduating from Los Angeles Baptist High but decided to run as a professional instead and pay for college that way.

Felix would work out before dawn, attend class until midafternoon, train until dark and then do homework. She would fly home from a track meet in Japan or Europe or Qatar, jet-lagged and sore, and settle in to finish a paper. Through all the aches and pains, the exhaustion, Felix was determined to keep a promise she made to herself and her family. “I was getting my college degree from USC,” she said. “No matter what.”

In the intense heat Friday, Felix was proud to receive that degree and it was so important a moment that her coach, Bob Kersee, gave her the day off from training. “Bobby doesn’t do that very often,” Paul Felix said. “So good for her.”

Felix will be one of the big stars at today’s Adidas Track Classic at the Home Depot Center in Carson. She will run in a star-studded women’s 100-meter field that is scheduled to include Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2007; defending world silver medalist Lauryn Williams; bronze medalist Carmelita Jeter, who ran for Torrance Bishop Montgomery High and Cal State Dominguez Hills, and 2003 world champion Torri Edwards.

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Felix, who will also run the 200, her signature event, has adopted an arduous program for this Olympic season.

She and Kersee are united in one goal -- for her to win four medals in Beijing (counting two relays).

The idea that she might go for the 200-400 double was considered but the Olympic schedule makes that tough. So Felix said she would try the 100-200 double, even though Kersee dangled the possibility that Felix still might opt for the 200-400 parlay.

“Honestly, the jury is still out on what she’s going to do,” Kersee said. “I’m a pretty good negotiator. The 200 is her favorite, everything else will rally around the 200.”

After running in the Mt. San Antonio College relays three weeks ago, Felix said there was no firm decision.

“The 200-400 double is not possible,” she said. “I’m going to run the 100 and 200 at the Olympic trials and go from there.”

The U.S. trials will be held June 27 through July 6 at the University of Oregon.

Felix is still a relative neophyte when it comes to the strategy involved in running the 100 meters, where the key is often a fast, explosive start.

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“Her start is still a work in progress,” her father said.

Kersee doesn’t necessarily disagree but points out that the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Felix should not be underestimated because of it.

“She’s stronger than she looks,” he said. “Her weight training is getting better, especially with school finished. And don’t overrate the start. If you study the 100, very few champions are really way out front or even winning at 30 or 40 meters. It’s not a matter of whether she’s ahead at 30 meters. Her stride length gets better as she gets going. Once she gets into the race that fluent, gazelle running style of hers is going to take over.”

Kersee had said at Mt. SAC that he hoped to get Felix’s 100-meter times close to the 11-second range before the trials start. But then she went and ran the 100 in 10.93 at the Doha Super Grand Prix in Qatar.

Her father was trying to watch the race on the Internet when Kersee called.

“He was all excited and I kept telling him I didn’t want to hear what she did,” Paul Felix said. “I wanted to watch the race and not know. Then he said something about her going under 11 seconds. I told him I didn’t want to know and hung up and watched.”

As well as aiming at winning gold medals, Felix is trying to win over fans to her sport, which has been considerably tarnished by doping scandals since the 2004 Olympics. Felix has agreed to extensive, and extra, doping tests, even though her father had advised her not to take on that burden.

“I told her the testing doesn’t prove anything,” Paul Felix said. “People are going to believe what they believe right now. I don’t think testing is to the point where a clean athlete can prove she’s clean. But Allyson said she wanted to do it.”

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His daughter was determined.

“I want to do anything in my power to help the sport,” she said. “Sometimes all the testing can feel intrusive, but it’s just something that’s necessary.”

Felix’s mother is a third-grade teacher at Balboa Elementary School in Northridge and her father is an assistant professor at The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley as well as president of the Los Angeles Bible Training School. Felix’s older brother Wes ran track at USC.

The three of them are Felix’s biggest support system and it is a lifetime of religious faith that has kept the family firm in their belief that her talent is true and that she will make a difference in her sport.

And to Kersee they leave the rest.

“Allyson is still an infant in this sport,” Kersee said. “Now that school is over, she’s going to gain weight and strength. Her core has to get stronger and it will. Her starts have to get better and they will. What I’m happy about is that I’ve been in this sport a long time. Having a young athlete buy into my deal, the tough practices, the willingness to work, she’s a gem.

“I’ve been blessed,” he added, “to have coached my wife [Jackie Joyner-Kersee], Gail Devers, Florence Griffith-Joyner and now Allyson. My job is just not to screw that up.”

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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Track and field

Facts and figures on the Adidas Track Classic:

When: Today, 12:30-3 p.m.

Where: The Home Depot Center, Carson

Tickets: $10-$40, available at gate.

What to watch for: Seven reigning world champions, including Tyson Gay, Jeremy Wariner, Bernard Lagat, Jana Rawlinson and Allyson Felix, are scheduled to compete. Felix, Gay and Wariner combined to win eight gold medals for the U.S. at the 2007 world championships in Japan.

-- Diane Pucin


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