Picture this: it’s 2012, and Allyson Felix is walking to the starting line for her signature event, the 200 meter sprint, at the London Olympic Games. To her left and right are seven world-class competitors, including Jamaican runner Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two-time reigning Olympic champ who bested Allyson at both the 2004 and 2008 games.
Twice, Allyson has been left with the bittersweet taste of winning Olympic silver. And now, for the third time in her career, four years of training will be put to the test in a half-lap sprint around the track.
You might think Felix is nervous, but on this mildly warm and humid Wednesday in the summer of 2012, the 26-year-old American approaches her starting blocks with “a sense of peace and calm,” as she tells Kelley O’Hara on the JWS podcast.
This inner tranquility is masked by a warrior-like, furrowed-brow stare aimed down the track, one which only momentarily vanishes into an easy grin when Felix’s name is announced and she waves to the crowd.
To understand where this hidden sense of calm comes from, we need to rewind.
Eight years prior, at the 2004 Olympic games, Felix was one year out of high school and had just foregone a track scholarship to USC in order to turn pro and put all her energy into the 200M Olympic event. Losing out on the gold medal to Campbell-Brown there in Athens was a painful disappointment, but one that was tempered by Felix’s youth, a long career ahead, and plenty of room for improvement.
And improve she did. After Athens, Felix spent the next few years establishing herself as the best 200m runner in the world, beating Campbell-Brown at both the 2005 and 2007 World Championships. And while the rivalry was alive and well heading into the 2008 games, Felix was considered the heavy favorite to take home Olympic gold.
When the race began, Campbell-Brown got out to a fantastic start, and Felix knew she’d have to rely on her best-in-the-world top end speed in order to catch her. But with 20 meters left, Felix began to realize Campbell-Brown was out of reach. And as she crossed the finish line in silver medal position, the totality of what had just happened slowly started sinking in. Felix had spent the past four years training for this specific race, and in less than 22 seconds it had ended in defeat.
As any rational person would, Felix entered a phase of deep reckoning on whether she wanted to continue running.
“I had to look at myself and figure out, am I going to keep doing this?” she tells O’Hara on the podcast. “Can I dissect every piece of my training, my lifting, my nutrition? Where is there space to grow? Am I going to do another four years when nothing is guaranteed? Like, how bad do you want it?”
Luckily for the sporting world, Felix eventually decided she wanted it bad enough.
She entered a new level of sacrifice and precision in everything she did, redeeming herself once again at the 2009 World Championships, where she beat Campbell-Brown to win gold in the 200M.
World Championships are nothing to scoff at, and yet at the time, Felix joked that she would trade all three of hers for an Olympic gold.
She kept working. And come 2012, after four more years of sacrifice, training, injuries, rehab, and a strict dietary regime, Felix now had another chance to win one herself.
Walking to the starting blocks, she knew the calmness she felt had been earned by all the work she had done to prepare.
“Preparation is your confidence. That’s the hardest part. It’s not coming out and running the race. The struggle is in the preparation.”
As Felix tells O’Hara: there was nothing else she could have done.
“Literally, I couldn’t think of anything else to add to the program. Knowing that just gave me a sense of confidence.”
When the starting gun went off, all those years of preparation and sacrifice would prove to be enough, as Felix raced ahead of the pack to secure the one victory that had long evaded her: an Olympic gold medal in the 200 meter sprint (with Campbell-Brown left off the podium).
It’s perhaps the most prized of her now nine Olympic (6 gold, 3 silver) and 18 World Championship medals (13 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze).
And the pivotal moment that led to her now unmatched glory? That gut-punch loss in Beijing as the Olympic favorite in 2008?
“I was completely devastated,” Felix admits. “But I’ll also say that moment has been the most defining moment of my career.”
In recent years, Felix has gone through new challenges: a contentious departure from Nike and a difficult childbirth and intense recovery with her daughter Camryn. Knowing that for Felix, it’s the pain of hardship that drives her desire to win, we can’t wait to see what she has to offer next as she goes for her fifth Olympic games in Tokyo next summer.
Listen to Allyson Felix’s full conversation with Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast here.