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Allyson Felix becomes most decorated female track athlete in Olympic history with 10th medal

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·7 min read
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TOKYO — Allyson Felix is a 10-time Olympic medalist.

The 35-year-old California native, running blind out of lane 9, won bronze in the women's 400 meters on Friday in a season-best 49.46 seconds.

Defending Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas was the gold medalist in a personal-best 48.36 seconds, and Marileidy Paulino of Dominican Republic the silver medalist in 49.20 clocking, also a personal best.

Felix is now the most decorated female Olympic track and field athlete in history, breaking a tie with Jamaica's Merlene Ottey, who has nine medals. She has also tied the legend Carl Lewis for the most medals by an American track and field athlete.

She was on her back just after the finish line for several minutes after the race, and said it was partly exhaustion because the 400 "just does it to you." But it was also emotion.

"Just joy. This one is very different, and it's very special. And it just took a lot to get here," she said. "I guess I don't really rank [her medals] but this one is just so different. It's my first bronze medal and it's just, oh man, it's hard to describe because I feel like all the other ones I was really just so focused on the performance and this one it just is so much bigger than that. 

"All I can kind of explain it as is that I was out there running but I felt like I was a representation for so much more."

Miller-Uibo, who dove over the finish line to edge out Felix for her Rio gold, was the only sprinter brave enough to attempt the 200-400 double in Tokyo. The schedule was such that it made for little recovery time. She did make the final in the 200m but faded and finished last, though it's easy to wonder if she throttled down once she realized she wouldn't be a medalist to help herself in any way for the 400, where she had an easier path to the gold.

Felix, the grand dame of track and field, qualified for her fifth Olympics in June when she finished second in the event at the U.S. Trials. Her times have gotten better and better in Tokyo, and in the semifinals she posted 49.89 seconds, her first sub-50 run since she became a mother in 2018.

Allyson Felix's inspiring, empowering comeback story

Felix has been in the public eye for all of her adult life. The sprinter turned pro out of high school, still a rare move for American track and field stars. But when you win an Olympic silver medal at 18 years old, running for an NCAA program, even one as storied as the University of Southern California, seems unnecessary.

For much of her career, Felix won plenty but said little. She was involved in charitable endeavors, usually ones involving children, but speaking out wasn't her thing. And that's fine; not everyone is cut out for advocacy, not comfortable being outspoken.

But then November 2018 and the weeks and months that followed happened, and Felix felt she no longer had a choice.

That was when doctors discovered she had severe preeclampsia, a pregnancy condition that causes dangerously high blood pressure and can be fatal. Felix had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks, she endured her own postpartum complications, and daughter Camryn was in the NICU for a month. 

The experience changed Felix. Not just the becoming a mother part — a life-altering, all-encompassing, usually exhausting, diaper-filled experience — but the experience of being told she had to undergo major surgery right now or her life was in danger; of learning that Black women are two to six times (depending on where they live) more likely to die of pregnancy complications; of her longtime sponsor, Nike, responding to her pregnancy with a contract renewal offer that was a fraction of what she had been earning, and then discovering she wasn't the only female athlete the sports behemoth had done that to.

And suddenly, the woman who had been content to stay in her lane (pun intended) knew she no longer could.

Felix arrived at these Olympics, her fifth and last, as a new CEO, a fierce advocate for women, for mothers, for Black maternal health. And also in pursuit of her 10th Games medal.

She won that medal on Friday in the 400-meter final, wearing sleek baby blue racing spikes that she designed for her new footwear line, Saysh.

Felix briefly got to have a chat with her family in California, including Camryn, at the trackside virtual visit board. She was asked what she wants her daughter to understand about her mother's accomplishment once she's old enough to understand.

"You know, I thought about this before I came out tonight, and I think the biggest thing I want her to know is that when you go out and you do something, you do it with character, you do it with integrity, you do it to the best of your ability," Felix said. "And that's all anybody can ask of you. If you do that you're proud of that and that's enough."

After the trauma her body endured, it has understandably been a difficult comeback.

Allyson Felix earned bronze in the women's 400-meter final to earn her record 10th Olympic medal and cap and inspiring, empowering comeback story.  (Photo by Kaz Photography/Getty Images)
Allyson Felix earned bronze in the women's 400-meter final to earn her record 10th Olympic medal and cap and inspiring, empowering comeback story. (Photo by Kaz Photography/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, before her 400m preliminary race, Felix posted a series of videos and pictures from those anxious first weeks: Camryn sleeping on her chest as Felix slept in a hospital room; Felix talking to the camera on the day after Camryn's first night at home; and when Felix was active for the first time since her C-section, walking for 30 minutes, which she said was "tough."

Her place in track and field had long been secure, but over the past couple of years Felix has become a champion for women and an icon far beyond the track. Her shoe company will only produce shoes for women, designed by women, for the special structure of women's feet. In the video introducing the company, she revealed her wide, raised scar from her c-section, saying something so familiar to so many women — that she'd been told to "know my place." With her apparel sponsor, Athleta, she awarded grants to other female athletes with children to help cover childcare costs.

Though Felix is 35 years old now, the Olympics being pushed back a year may have benefitted her. While she finished sixth at the 2019 U.S. Championships in the 400m and was part of the gold medal 4x400m mixed relay team at the world championships that year, her times were not where they needed to be to win a medal in an open 400m against other elite women.

Under the tutelage of the legendary Bobby Kersee, the only coach she's had as a pro, Felix kept working.

Her time in the medal race was her fastest since 2015, and because of her age, it's also the masters world record.

After saying that few expected her to even make the U.S. team, let alone win a medal, Felix acknowledged that expectation did not include her inner circle.

"I did. I always believe in myself. I trust in my training, I trust Bobby," she said. "By the grace of God, I'm here. I knew I wasn't a pick for the medals, but just give me a shot."

She finished third, and in the past that would have bothered her. 

"It's really hard for me when I don't win to still have joy," she said. "Tonight I have joy."

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 15 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 15 slideshow embed

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