The Olympics provide inspirational stories and/or tales of sacrifice so frequently, it can often feel like they are a prerequisite for qualification. As a result, it's natural to sometimes become a bit numb to the trope.
Nevertheless, every Olympics gives way to a handful of stories that break through to the mainstream and once more help shape our appreciation for how much these elite human beings endure, what they train for to have a chance at glory in their sport and on a global stage once every four (or, in this case, five) years.
The Olympics' final weekend in Tokyo brought one of those moments.
At these Games, there might not be an athlete embodying a story with a greater combination of sacrifice, courage and long-lasting impact for others than the ever-revered Allyson Felix. The 35-year-old queen of American track is one for the ages. On Friday, Felix ran the women's 400-meter final in 49.46 seconds to capture her first Olympic bronze medal and add to a legendary career.
Then, Saturday night at Olympic Stadium, Felix ran the second leg of a loaded women's 4x400 relay team. Everyone on the team had a gold to their name entering the race, including 2021 breakout stars Sydney McLaughlin and Athing Mu, who won their golds earlier in the week. The fourth member, Dalilah Muhammad, won gold in the 400-meter hurdles in 2016 and took silver behind McLaughlin on Wednesday.
The U.S. quartet blew the field away. With Mu anchoring the relay, Team USA crossed first in 3:16.85. That gold-winning performance put Felix on an echelon all to her own in Olympic history. With this being her final Olympics, Felix will finish with 11 medals -- the most of any track and field athlete in history. Seven golds, three silvers and a bronze.
Her longevity is phenomenal.
Track sports are normally not for the aged, yet here is Felix -- who just became the oldest U.S. woman to ever win a gold track medal -- with at least one podium appearance in five consecutive Olympics. That's only been done by two other athletes: Jamaican track stars Merlene Ottey and Veronica Campbell-Brown. For four consecutive Olympics, from 2008-2021, Felix won a gold medal. Unprecedented in American track history.
On Friday, in the 400, Felix got it done by running like the exceptional, resilient veteran she is, doing so from all the way out in Lane 9. That's not the spot most sprinters win medals from.
But as we've seen for well over a decade: Felix isn't most sprinters.
The greatest runner in women's track history held her elongated turn with confident pace and never relented on her speed in the final 50 meters. Not only was it fast enough for a bronze, it was Felix rising to a necessary Olympic level once more in order to find the podium. That 49.46 sprint was Felix's fastest 400 time in six years -- meaning she ran better in Tokyo as a 35-year-old mom than when she took the silver in this event in 2016 at the age of 30.
It was, in fact, the second-fastest 400 Felix ran in her life. From Lane 9. Remarkable. Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo won gold (48.36), while Marileidy Paulino, of the Dominican Republic, took silver (49.20).
Felix's 11 medals don't just distinguish her in terms of track athletes; she's forever in a special pantheon of all-time greats throughout sports. Friday's bronze tied her with none other than Carl Lewis for the most track and field medals by an American in history, and then Saturday marked the fourth consecutive Olympics that Felix won gold as a member of the women's 4x400 squad. Team USA has won gold in seven straight Olympics in that event.
Yet, as recently as a few years ago, almost nobody thought she'd be here. Between her last appearance on an Olympic stage in Rio de Janeiro and now, Felix affected change throughout the world of track and field. She stood up to a multi-billion-dollar corporation. She testified to Congress about inequalities and child mortality rates in the Black community, doing so after overcoming her own serious pregnancy health scare.
After the 2016 Games, when Felix won two golds and a silver, she knew it was time: she wanted to start her family. The decision to have a child has affected the careers of countless female track athletes over the decades. For most, it signaled an end to their Olympic aspirations. Felix didn't believe that should have to be her reality -- nor anyone else's going forward, if they didn't want it to be -- and she didn't want the $30 billion corporation sponsoring her, Nike, to think that was the case either.
But that's not what happened. In 2018, as Felix was training in secret and avoiding initially revealing her pregnancy to Nike, she was also in negotiations for a new contract. She didn't believe it to be right for Nike to have the power to significantly reduce how much she would be paid in the future based off her performance while pregnant and during her postpartum period.
Nike balked. It didn't agree. With motherhood now in Felix's near future, Nike was clear: the company would not be open to continuing to sponsor and pay Felix the same way going forward. Here was an all-time Olympian just two years removed from amassing more Olympic golds than any female track athlete in history, and she was being bullied out of a deal. Nike was prepared to cut the terms of Felix's endorsement by as much as 70%.
In light of what Felix has done since, this now amounts to one of the more embarrassing marketing miscalculations of the past decade in all of sports. It was also narrow-minded and discriminatory.
The decision obviously angered Felix, who became inspired to speak out, and in doing so, violated the terms of her non-disclosure agreement with the company. It would mean the end of her endorsement deal with the most powerful apparel brand company on the planet. She first spoke out in a New York Times op-ed, in a moment of true courage that was in some ways precedent-setting. After all, how often do we see an athlete speak out against a company that endorses them?
For Felix, the battle was always bigger than money. It was about making people understand that just because it's women who carry the burden of bearing children, it shouldn't mean women should also have to accept endorsement and earning restrictions based off their performance as mothers or mothers-to-be. Felix left Nike, signed with Athleta, and within months the uproar was so loud that Nike wound up changing its policy regarding female athletes and contractual agreements tied to childbirth.
By then it was too late for Nike to keep Felix.
Amid all of this, she was forced to have an emergency cesarean section seven months into her pregnancy because of a potentially life-threatening condition brought on by high blood pressure. Her baby daughter, Camryn, had to live for more than a month in the NICU.
In late June, after Felix rallied to qualify for the Olympics for a fifth time -- with 2-year-old Camryn on hand to watch -- she posted the photo below to Instagram. Draped in a god's haul of medals, there was also the deliberate artistic decision to include her C-section scar, as it's now a significant part of her story and a mark on her body that represents so much of what she went through over the past three years to get to this point.
"I used my voice and built this company for you. So that you never have to train at 4:30am while you're 5 months pregnant to hide your pregnancy from your sponsor," Felix wrote. "The world doesn't need more shoes, but the world does need to see women wholly and meet them right where they are."
When Felix crossed the finish line Friday, and when she stepped to the podium to receive her gold on Saturday, she did so wearing her own new shoe, the Saysh One. It was designed by her own company and with a team of women who created the product. What happened this weekend at Olympic Stadium was so much more than a couple of age-defying sprints by the greatest female track star of all time.
Friday's 400 took 49.46 seconds to finish, but in reality this is a race that started years ago. Thanks to Allyson Felix, we can actually start to see the finish line.