This story appears in FCA Magazine’s July/August 2016 issue. Subscribe today!
Wes Felix still remembers the first time he witnessed his little sister’s resolve.
Allyson Felix was only about 8 years old at the time. She and Wes, who is two years older, and a couple cousins were at a water park, helplessly stuck at the mouth of a lazy river without inner tubes.
As the older kids searched in vain for an unused flotation device, Wes turned around and saw—well, what exactly? If the Michelin Man had produced some sort of amphibious female offspring, it might have looked like the proud little girl walking toward Wes that day.
“We look back and there’s Allyson with a tube around both arms, a tube around her waist and a tube around her neck,” Wes recalls. “[She] was like, ‘This is what I need to accomplish. This is what I need to get done.’”
Determination has never been a problem for Allyson. Whether the goal is locating lazy-river floatables or winning Olympic gold medals, she has always possessed that inner drive to succeed.
Yet, as Felix has discovered, becoming one of the world’s greatest sprinters requires more than just willpower. It demands every ounce of dedication possible and an ability to persevere when the payoff isn’t immediate. Then again, that faith and fortitude is what makes success at the finish line so rewarding.
As the 2016 Olympics approach, Felix wants to feel that surge of satisfaction again. But it’s not for her glory. It’s for the One who created her to do amazing things in front of millions of people.
“I try my best,” she says, “to live in a way that’s Christ-like.”
* * *
For Olympians, time can fly by so fast, even faster than Felix whipping through the track's final turn like a slingshot’s projectile. Just yesterday, it seems, she was an 18-year-old wunderkind with so little behind her and so much ahead in her career.
And now? Here we are on the eve of the XXXI Olympiad, Felix’s fourth and potentially final Summer Games. There, in Rio de Janeiro, she will try to win her first 400-meter gold medal and add to her impressive career stash of six overall Olympic medals.
“I try my best to live in a way that’s Christ-like.” - Allyson Felix
In November, Felix will turn 31—the twilight era of a world-class sprinter’s existence. As one of the most decorated sprinters in U.S. history, she has been the face of USA Track & Field (USATF) for more than a decade.
She’s closer to the end than the beginning. Just don’t tell her that.
“I’ve been able to do things I’ve never dreamed of,” she says, “but there’s still more to be accomplished.”
Felix grew up in the Los Angeles area as the daughter of a pastor and an elementary school teacher. For nearly two decades, her father, Paul, taught New Testament at The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, Calif. He now pastors Fairview Heights Baptist Church in Inglewood and serves as president of the Los Angeles Bible Training School.
Paul and Marlean’s spiritual influence on their children was significant. They were intentional about teaching their kids Scripture at home, bringing them to church multiple times a week and enrolling them in Christian schools. Most of all, Wes and Allyson witnessed a real, vibrant faith in their parents.
“I always looked up to my mom and dad,” says Allyson, who trusted in Christ at a young age. “They are such strong examples of faith. They have such strong belief systems. But they also lived it day in and day out. It was so encouraging to me.
“And my older brother, Wes—I was always chasing after him and wanting to be like him. So we’ve always had a very close-knit family.”
When Wes took up track in high school, young Allyson—ever the copycat little sister—became intrigued. But she didn’t exactly look the part. After noticing her beanpole appendages, teammates at Los Angeles Baptist High School nicknamed her “Chicken Legs.”
Felix, though, was far more gazelle than poultry. She qualified for the state meet as a freshman and won the 100-meter state title as a sophomore. By the time she graduated in 2003, she owned five individual state championships (three times in the 100, twice in the 200), a 100-meter gold medal from the 2001 World Youth Championships, and the U.S. Junior and prep 200-meter records.
In May 2003 at the Banamex Grand Prix in Mexico City, she ran a blistering 22.11 as a 17-year-old, the fastest 200 ever recorded by a high school female. The time was unofficial because event organizers didn’t require drug testing, but the international track and field community began buzzing about America’s newest teen sensation.
When Felix forfeited her University of Southern California scholarship and college eligibility to sign a six-year professional endorsement contract with Adidas (which also agreed to pay Felix’s USC tuition), the national media attention shifted into overdrive. Never before had a prep track and field athlete—male or female—hurdled college for the pros. Her name was mentioned alongside other prep-to-pro teenage phenoms such as LeBron James, Freddy Adu and Michelle Wie. In fact, Felix, who graduated from USC with an elementary education degree in 2008, remained the only professional track athlete to skip collegiate competition altogether until 2013, when middle-distance runner Mary Cain of New York signed with Nike at age 17.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, only 14 months after her high school graduation, Felix justified the hype by ripping off a 22.18 in the 200 final to secure a silver medal behind Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown. She was the youngest female Olympic sprinter since 1992, when 17-year-old Julie Jenkins competed in Barcelona.
Four years later in Beijing, it felt like a new Olympic sprint queen was awaiting coronation. But Campbell-Brown went sub-22 in a dazzling 21.74 seconds to win, leaving Felix to settle for another silver at 21.93.
It was a crushing blow. In the NFL, redemption often comes the following Sunday. In Major League Baseball, there’s always a game tomorrow. But for track and field athletes, the Olympics’ quadrennial cycle feels like an eternity.
Entering Beijing, Felix was only 22—still a young prodigy. But in another four years, she’d be a middle-aged veteran by the distorted age standards of her sport. As she silently contemplated everything in the post-race hubbub that evening in Beijing, the tears began to flow.
“I wouldn’t say that [the pressure] got to me,” she says now. “I’d say I had to learn to balance it all. There were a lot of expectations from everyone else, but also from me. I wasn’t always able to handle it. As I got older, I was able to process it better and manage the stress and workload.”
* * *
One of sport’s greatest blessings is that it offers us so many snapshots of human beauty that reflect the Creator’s glory. Picture the gravity-defying flights of Michael Jordan. Or the powerful precision of Mia Hamm’s feet. Or the brutally beautiful butterfly-and-bee rhythms of a young Cassius Clay.
Allyson Felix, sprinting full stride, is in that category.
Watching Felix run is like watching a mountain river rushing smoothly and powerfully down its course. In a sport where many of her peers resemble Mustang GTs that chew up the road, Felix, with her willowy 5-foot-6, 125-pound frame, has always looked more like a Porsche gliding along its path.
On Aug. 8, 2012, at the London Olympics, Felix’s graceful elegance in motion was on worldwide display like never before. As she settled into the starting blocks in lane 7 during the 200-meter finals, the array of talent surrounding her was intimidating. Teammates Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400-meter champion, and Carmelita Jeter, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 100, were there. Three lanes to her left was Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the Olympic 100-meter champion from 2008 and 2012. And then, of course, there in lane 5 was her old rival, Campbell-Brown, aiming to become the first athlete to win three straight golds in the 200.
Felix was unfazed. With a strong start and dominant surge at the end, she posted a surprisingly large .21-second win over Fraser-Pryce. Jeter earned the bronze, while Campbell-Brown faded to fourth.
Immediately following the race, Felix knelt to the ground, closed her eyes and mouthed a prayer. The rest of the aftermath was a blur of hugs, photos, a victory lap and perhaps even a bit of aimless wandering as Felix tried to digest the magnitude of the moment. All the while, her megawatt smile seemed as bright as the camera flashes popping around her.
Amidst the euphoria, there was also great relief. Afterwards, she admitted to the media, “It was a big weight being lifted.”
Bringing It Home Devotional:
From the get-go, Allyson Felix was a scrappy little go-getter, digging her spikes into the synthetic surface of the track while simultaneously tackling the sharp turns and straightaways of life.
Reflecting on that night and the buildup to it, Felix now says, “It was a lot of ups and downs. It was a whole journey and a process. Getting that medal was so special because it represented so much trying and the process—all the moments that really aren’t glamorous or fun to have and dedicating myself to my goals—seeing all that pay off.”
Felix also ran the leadoff leg for Team USA’s first-place 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams. The 400-meter squad’s time of 40.82 seconds set a world record.
But if London 2012 was the zenith, Moscow in 2013 was the nadir.
When Felix crashed to the track with a hamstring injury 60 meters into the 200 final during the 2013 Worlds in Russia, she was devastated, angry and disillusioned. It took so long to reach the summit, she thought. Why am I now in another fistfight with adversity?
Seconds later, as tears of frustration streamed down her cheeks, her agent suddenly appeared beside her and carried her away. In the days that followed, a photo of the tender moment went viral.
Her agent? Wes Felix.
“It was one of those moments that you hope never happens, isn’t planned, but it’s one I’m incredibly grateful for because it crystallized our relationship,” he says. “It showed how much I love her and that I would carry her through any difficult time she’s going through.”
Wes jumped into sports representation only after his athletic career met a bitter end. Following a superb career at USC, he ran professionally for Nike for about three years before a mysterious liver virus forced him to quit competing in 2009. That same year, Allyson dropped her prior management team and hired her brother.
By all measures, the siblings’ professional pairing has been a great success. Aside from her Olympic triumphs in London, Allyson has since signed a lucrative deal with Nike, and her endorsement portfolio also includes major brands such as Acuvue, AT&T, Gatorade, Procter & Gamble and Visa.
Last summer, Allyson wrote a 1,300-word essay about Wes for The Players’ Tribune, an online athlete journal. The article was entitled, “Always There.”
“The photo of him helping me off the track is worth more than a thousand words,” she wrote. “It’s 27 years of loyalty and support.”
For Wes, the feeling of admiration is mutual.
“She’s someone who really inspires me,” he says. “She reminds me that normal, ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. When she has hard days and wants to quit, she keeps working hard. She’s nothing special, but she’s incredibly special at the same time. It’s really cool to see.”
In 2015, Felix came back stronger than ever. She ran the 400 instead of the 200 at the World Championships in Beijing and won it in a personal-best 49.26 seconds, hinting at her plans to pursue the 400 in Rio. The win gave her nine world gold medals, breaking a tie with legendary sprinters Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson for the most ever by an American. By helping Team USA’s 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams earn silver at the meet, she also now owns more overall world medals (11) than any other American athlete in history. At year’s end, USATF named her its Jesse Owens Award winner, the federation’s highest annual honor, for a fifth time.
“Track is her life, but it’s not boring to hear her talk about it,” Wes says. “She’s got her priorities together. She has accomplished great things, but she doesn’t feel like she has to announce it or promote it, and that comes back to Christ being the center of her life.”
* * *
Sometimes Felix just shakes her head.
During those moments—rare as they are—when Felix has spare time, she reflects and marvels at what God has done in her career. Growing up as the daughter of two educators, she originally planned to be an elementary school teacher. In adolescence, Chicken Legs never had the audacity to dream of being an Olympic champion.
God, though, has a funny way of re-routing human plans. As Proverbs 16:9 (ESV) says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
“I never expected to be a professional athlete,” she says. “I had to really trust Him and His plan for my life. We always have our own idea of how our life is going to go, but we really have to follow the Lord’s will. I had to trust Him in regards to injuries and other life situations.”
For Olympic veterans, each four-year cycle takes on a life of its own, but the buildup to Rio has felt distinctively—and refreshingly—different for Felix. Credit her individual victory in London.
“It definitely feels good going back to the Olympics having won gold in the 200 meters,” she says.
Her brother sees it too.
“Now she knows that no matter what happens the rest of her career, she’s an Olympic champion, and nobody can take that away,” Wes says. “What it’s really allowed her to do is say, ‘I’m an Olympic champion, I have a world record from London, now let me go try to make history.’ Instead of backing off, she’s digging in even more. She’s hungrier now than ever.”
"I had to really trust Him and His plan for my life. We always have our own idea of how our life is going to go, but we really have to follow the Lord’s will." - Allyson Felix
Along with her individual pursuit of her first 400-meter Olympic gold, Felix also wants to help the 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams defend their 2012 gold medals in Rio.
“I’m a competitor, so I definitely want to win every event I’m in,” she says. “But I feel like I’m able to enjoy the journey and the process now.”
What comes next after this summer? Will Felix consider another gold medal (or more) a fitting finale to an illustrious career? If she comes up short on individual hardware, will that stoke a last-hurrah fire for Tokyo in 2020?
“I haven’t decided,” Felix says. “I’m not putting limits on anything. I’m focusing on here and now. I’ll take it year by year after this.”
And so, Rio awaits. High above the city stands Christ the Redeemer, one of Brazil’s most iconic landmarks. The 85-year-old statue of Jesus, perched atop Mount Corcovado, is a colossal concrete structure standing 98 feet tall with outstretched arms that span another 92 feet.
Should this year indeed mark the end of Felix’s Olympic experience, perhaps racing in the shadows of this impressive monolith would be a fitting, symbolic finish line. Felix has never viewed her renowned achievements as testaments to her own glory, but to that of her Savior, who stretched himself out as a redemptive sacrifice on the cross and blessed her with unique skills as a gospel witness to others.
“I feel very blessed to have a platform,” she says, “and to try my best to run for a living and bring glory to God through that.”
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Bringing It Home: Inner Drive
“A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.” - Proverbs 16:9
From the get-go, Allyson Felix was a scrappy little go-getter, digging her spikes into the synthetic surface of the track while simultaneously tackling the sharp turns and straightaways of life. Her inner drive allowed her to kick it into high gear, growing into a sleek and powerful staple on track and field’s world stage.
But what propels her training comes from the Spirit. Trusting in God through triumphs and trials has taught Felix to rest assured even when the future seems uncertain; taking one step of faith starts her in the motion of God’s movement for her life.
Felix keeps Christ at her center, undeterred by the strain of high-level pressure and scrutiny. She has fully “let go” of her career and given it to God.
“We always have our own idea of how our life is going to go, but we really have to follow the Lord’s will,” she said. “I had to trust Him in regards to injuries and other life situations.”
Felix is one of the best. For more than a decade, she’s put in the time, sacrifice and effort through training and competition to earn and keep her at gold medal status. Furthermore, her humility and faith top any athletic accolades she has accumulated. Her self-worth is stamped in the Savior.
Felix’s brother, Wes, said his sister is inspiring because she reminds him that “normal, ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things … She’s nothing special, but she’s incredibly special at the same time.” Like Felix, we are all ordinary people with a little extra stashed inside. We all desire to tap into that reserve, but it takes the power of our sovereign Lord to help channel that inner drive. Only He can direct us into the design He created for us. We, too, can train for gold, a treasure that will last.
What’s your inner drive? What propels you to action and stirs your heart, making it beat like a sprinter at the starting block?
Though our platform may not be as widespread as Felix’s, each of us has plenty of opportunities to use what we’ve been given to serve and encourage those around us. Whatever we do, let us fuel our inner drive to race with strength, speed and stamina the course laid before us.
• What comes easy to you in your sport and in your relationship with Christ? What comes with more difficulty?
• How can you train yourself physically and spiritually to be in peak shape for what God calls you to do?
• In what ways can you develop lasting habits to keep your heart and mind centered on God?
• Matthew 6:19-21
• 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
• 1 Timothy 4:8
Father, You have given me much. And you have charged me with taking care of myself, my talents, and the people around me. Please help me focus on what’s important, what will leave an eternal fingerprint. May I train my body, mind and heart to be well conditioned and in peak performance for the race you want me to run. Amen.
Photos: Victah Sailer/photorun.NET