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U.S. track star Felix is cat-quick

20 April 2006

Allyson Felix Allyson Felix

By Mechelle Voepel

You know those old tales about an aspiring performer being discovered at the corner drugstore? Allyson Felix, who grew up not far from Hollywood, is the track superstar who was discovered while running past fence posts.

If you watch Felix taking her long, perfectly paced strides, you sense this is nature’s way of saying, “Here you have it, folks: a born sprinter.” Nobody realized that, though, until Felix was in ninth grade in her native Los Angeles.

Felix will be one of the featured performers at the Kansas Relays, which begin today at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. Felix, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 200 meters, will compete at 2:50 p.m. Saturday in the invitational women’s 100. That race will also feature Kansas City’s Muna Lee, a 2004 Olympic finalist in the 200.

Felix was up early Wednesday for an appearance in Minneapolis with Al Roker of “The Today Show” for his Lend a Hand series on organizations that help out their communities.

For Felix, who’s always wanted to be a teacher like her parents, such charitable initiatives that benefit youngsters are critical.

“I don’t remember a time I didn’t know how important teachers were,” Felix said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “I was always in (her mother’s) classroom from the time I was really little, helping out.”

Back home in California, Felix’s mother, Marlean, teaches third grade, and her father, Paul, is a minister and professor at The Master’s Seminary. Felix, who turned 20 last November, is working on a degree in elementary education at the University of Southern California.

She doesn’t run for the Trojans’ track team, however, as she turned pro before attending college. It was at Los Angeles Baptist High School that her track talent was first revealed.

The story, oft-told in the track world, was that Felix’s high school coach, Jonathan Patton, was doing an informal time trial. He didn’t officially measure the distance, just counted fence posts alongside the track to mark off what he thought was 60 meters. When he timed Felix, he figured he’d underestimated or something was wrong with his stopwatch. Then he realized she actually was that fast.

That was the start of a legendary high school career in the 100 and 200 meters, as Felix was a state champ at both. As a senior in 2003, Felix ran 22.51 seconds and broke the national prep outdoor record for the girls’ 200 (22.58) set in 1992 by another California phenom, Marion Jones.

A few weeks later, Felix ran what remains her best 200 time, 22.11, in a meet at altitude in Mexico City. That competition’s organizers hadn’t been prepared for any time that stunning; they had none of the routine drug-testing procedures in place at the meet. Without that, the time couldn’t be officially ratified by track’s world governing body, the IAAF.

Nonetheless, it was recognized by Track and Field News as one of the landmark feats in the history of the sport by a high school athlete, putting Felix in the track annals with the likes of middle-distance runners Jim Ryun and Alan Webb.

Felix decided to have the best of both worlds — a pro track career and a college education — and signed with adidas, which paid for her tuition. That’s allowed her to pursue her degree like a “normal” college student without binding her to a collegiate competitive schedule.

“It was really important for me to do it my way,” Felix said. “I wanted to keep the things in my life that were important at the top of the list, especially education.”

Felix capitalized on being in a unique position. Having success so young at track’s glamour events, the sprints, gave her an option that only a very few might ever have.

She has made the most of it, taking second in the 200 at the Athens Games and winning the world title in the 200 last August in Helsinki, Finland.

In December 2004 she started working with famed coach Bob Kersee, and with him she will decide after this season whether the 100 meters also will be a significant part of her future.

That’s part of what lured her to the Kansas Relays; she was looking for a good place to run a competitive 100 and this meet provides that. Felix’s one weak point as a sprinter has been her start in the 100, which is something she and Kersee are addressing. Her personal best in that event is 11.05, set last year.

“I think this is kind of the determining year for me in the 100,” Felix said. “We’re experimenting, and then we’re going to sit down and figure out which way we’re going. (The sprints) are extremely different. In the 200, I’m a lot more comfortable. In the 100, there’s no room for comfort. You have to be perfect. If you mess up a little, it’s too late.”

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