Life in the Fast Lane

Cliff Kuang

You might walk past Allyson Felix on the street and never know she's one of the fastest women alive. She's tiny for a world-class sprinter—just 5'6" and 125 pounds; her high school nickname was Chicken Legs. Yet she's the current and two-time world champion in the 200-meters and won the gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Individually, she's also won two silver medals in the 200m—both behind Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica—in Beijing and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Felix was born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of a seminary professor and an elementary school teacher. In 2007, she graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in elementary education. For all four-and-a-half years she attended, she was also a professional athlete, competing internationally.

On May 30, Felix, 23, will be running in the 2009 Reebok Grand Prix, one of the world's most prestigious outdoor track-and-field meets, at Icahn Stadium on Randalls Island. Runners at the invitational this year will include Asafa Powell, who held the world record in the men's 100-meters for nearly three years, until May 2008 (the record was broken by Usain Bolt in last year's Reebok Grand Prix); Shelly-Ann Frasier, who won gold in the women's 100m in Beijing; and Micah Kogo, at 22 a rising star in long-distance running and already a bronze medalist in the men's 10,000-meters (in Beijing). We recently caught up with Felix on the phone, as she was driving down California's I-405, heading home after a typical day of training and press events.

You were a natural as soon as you started running competitively in high school. How did you discover your talent?
My brother and I used to race in the backyard, and I thought I was pretty fast. [Laughs] So I came out for the track team my freshman year of high school. Really, I was just trying to meet people at a new school. I was wearing my basketball gear, and I think people were kind of shocked. In the first couple of practices, my coaches saw my potential. I got serious my sophomore year, and by the time I was a senior I was competing with professionals. My first year in college, I was at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. That was my dream, and I just took everything in.

How did you manage to balance your college studies and being a professional athlete?
When I first made the decision, it all sounded great. I had no idea how much work it would be. Everything had to be scheduled out, and I had no social life. I would wake up and go to class from 8am to 3pm, train from 3pm to 7pm, then do schoolwork, then do weights and then wake up and do it all over again. I would take my books with me to meets, file my papers by email and get on the return flight from a meet and take finals.

Why didn't you take time off from school?
I come from a family of educators, so taking a break was never a question!

Were you disappointed in how the 2008 Olympics turned out for you?
It was probably the greatest disappointment of my career, and I'm still dealing with it. It's not going to just go away. But I did come together with the team to win the gold medal in the relay, and that was a highlight of my career. Last year was filled with lots of ups and downs.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Veronica Campbell-Brown just ran an amazingly fast time [21.74]. I ran the second-fastest time I've ever run [21.93], so it wasn't anything I did wrong. I have a really strong faith in God and a strong family that gives me a greater sense of why I'm running. Looking forward, I have all the reasons to work hard. The year 2012 is always in the back of my mind when I'm training, and I'm just coming into my prime.

You train for years for just a 21-second race. How do you deal with that? Do you embrace it or put it out of your mind?
Motivation comes pretty easy to me. I think you have to embrace that you're training for such a fleeting moment and recognize that to be great in such a short span of time it takes years.

Tickets to the Reebok Grand Prix range from $15 to $60 and can be purchased in advance. Use of mass transit is encouraged; the X80 express bus will run continuously throughout the day from the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street. For more information, log on to the Reebok Grand Prix website or the MTA website.