- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

ATHENS — She is fresh and unspoiled, unspeakably fast for someone so young. She could prove a tonic for the ills that trouble track and field, and as Allyson Felix settled into the starting blocks last night at Olympic Stadium, the silent hopes of a sport settled with her.

So far, so good.

Running with poise in a race she never led, Felix claimed silver in the 200-meter dash, finishing behind Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell but providing a tantalizing glimpse of things to come.

Felix, 18, set a world junior record with a time of 22.18 seconds, just slower than Campbell’s 22.05, the swiftest mark in the world this year.

“It means a lot to me to finally get [the record],” said Felix, the junior member of the United States track team and the youngest female Olympic sprinter in 12 years. “I have a lot of confidence and I’m very excited about the future.”

As well she should be. A soft-spoken minister’s daughter from Los Angeles, Felix rose to prominence after breaking Marion Jones’ national prep record in the 200 as a high school junior.

Subsequent doping scandals involving a number of track’s biggest names — including the BALCO investigation swirling around Jones, once Felix’s idol — only intensified expectations. Here was talent, clean and new, a scrubbed face for a sport in dire need.

Yet rather than shirk from the role of future standard-bearer, Felix has embraced it.

“I don’t think it’s a negative thing,” she said. “I’ll gladly take it on and hope I can represent it well.”

Together with her parents, Felix handpicked a coach renowned for her anti-drug stance, former Olympian Pat Connolly. More importantly, she expects to win. Every race. Right now.

After crossing the finish line, Felix didn’t lift her arms, didn’t celebrate her first Olympic medal. She simply looked at the scoreboard, saw that she was second and walked off the track.

“In my mind, at 18 this is the greatest accomplishment in the world,” said her father, Paul. “But we know Allyson. She only wants to win gold. Even though she’s enjoying the silver, she has the mind-set that she wants to come back faster.”

That Felix was fast enough to make the Olympic team was something of a surprise, at least as of late. Following graduation last spring, she signed a six-figure shoe deal — becoming the nation’s first female prep-to-pros track athlete — and enrolled as a student at USC, where her brother Wes is a star sprinter.

Still, the transition to the demanding, cutthroat professional world proved difficult. Burned out from a long high school season, Felix failed to clear the 200 semifinal round at last year’s World Championships; stricken by exercise-induced asthma, she didn’t come close to matching the unofficial 22.11 she ran in Mexico City while still a prep runner.

Felix later received permission to use an inhaler, then won the U.S. Olympic trials with a 22.28, until the Olympics the second-fastest time in the world this year.

“I definitely feel a lot older,” she said. “This year has brought me through some challenges. But I’ve come out stronger.”

Indeed. When Campbell came out of the turn in last night’s race with a commanding lead, Felix didn’t press, didn’t panic. She stuck to her race plan, holding off a late surge from Bahamian bronze medalist Debbie Ferguson (22.30).

Afterward, Felix hugged Connolly in the stadium tunnel. Renaldo Nehemiah, a former hurdles champion from the University of Maryland and Felix’s agent, stood nearby. Both were pleased with their pupil’s race.

“It’s a sign of the future,” said Nehemiah. “She’s young. She’s running against seasoned sprinters. That’s great for an 18-year-old.”

And great for her sport. Along with Olympic sprint winners Justin Gatlin and Jeremy Wariner, Felix stands at the center of a youth movement that could breathe new life into American track, a group of new stars who couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.

“The young people are stepping up,” said U.S. track coach George Williams. “They’re getting into the winning circle. And that’s going to get the cloud out from over our head. Like I told people [at the U.S. trials] in Sacramento, don’t cry for us. The young people are doing what they need to do.”

Asked about the Beijing Games, Felix demurred. Don’t be fooled. Though she resumes classes at USC next week — her father said she’s already missed a week of school — Felix already is looking ahead.

“Had she won gold, she still wouldn’t be doing backflips,” said her mother, Marlean. “She wants to do two, three Olympics. She sets a really high bar.”

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