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Timing Is Everything

One Year Out of High School, Allyson Felix Is Hoping to Make the U.S. Olympic Team at the Tender Age of 18. But Being a Professional Track Athlete Can Be a Lonely Pursuit. You Have to Grow Up -- Fast.

June 27, 2004|David Davis | David Davis last wrote for the magazine about Sacramento Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof.

For Olympic hopeful Allyson Felix, the road to Athens goes through Modesto. The 18-year-old sprint phenom has come to the Central Valley farming hub on a hazy May weekend to compete in the 63rd Annual Modesto Relays. At this decidedly unglamorous early-season meet, where the smell of mesquite from a nearby barbecue cook-off hovers in the air, Felix is a big draw.

Last year, as a senior, she shattered Marion Jones' national high-school record in the 200-meter race. She qualified for the world championships in Paris by finishing third at the pressure-filled U.S. Nationals meet -- held the day after her graduation ceremony. Then, just days before starting her freshman year at USC, Felix forfeited her scholarship and signed a reported six-year, $1-million-plus contract with sneaker company Adidas.

As the first track-and-field athlete -- male or female -- to jump from high school to the pros, Felix instantly became the sport's precocious answer to basketball's LeBron James and soccer's Freddy Adu. She is regularly touted as the future of American track, as the next Marion Jones -- winner of five medals at the 2000 Olympics. And Felix is poised to take her place among the young female athletes who have brought a new buzz to their sports -- Diana Taurasi in basketball, Michelle Wie in golf.

But being a young professional track athlete is vastly different than most other sports. There are no teammates to mentor you, only a small circle that generally includes a coach, agent and family members. The loneliness of the long-distance runner can afflict sprinters as well. Some contend that a slower route might have been preferable in this case.

"Allyson Felix would learn more from having a coach like Ron Allice at USC and maturing in college," wrote Larry Eder, publisher of American Track & Field magazine.

"Finding your event, understanding your event, developing your event -- those are things you learn in college," says veteran runner Inger Miller, who supports Felix but is wary of the path she's chosen. "It's difficult to do that at the professional level because you're supposed to be developed already. You don't teach Kobe Bryant how to dunk once he's in the NBA."

"It is a big jump, from high school to the pros," Allice says. "It's cutthroat time every time you line up in a meet."

Even Felix's coach frets that she is too mild-mannered for her own good. "Allyson is very poised and humble," Pat Connolly says, "and when she speaks with the media, they're not going to hear Muhammad Ali-like bravado. But I don't want to hear her say, 'I just run the best I can' anymore. I want her to say, 'I'm going to kick some ass.' "

Unfazed, Felix says she's ready for her first serious challenge as a pro: to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. It would be an extraordinary feat for any 18-year-old, much less one who now finds herself in the lion's den.

If ever track needed positive news, that moment is now. an ongoing scandal involving steroid and other illegal substance use by American athletes has resulted in the reigning 100- and 200-meter world champion, Kelli White, being disqualified from the Athens Games. Investigations continue and many of the sport's other superstars -- including Jones -- also are under suspicion.

Professional track desperately craves an athlete who embodies a squeaky-clean image. How's this? Allyson Felix -- polite, modest and soft-spoken -- attended a Baptist high school and is the daughter of a minister.

"My faith is the most important thing in my life," Felix says. "That's why I run. It's a gift from God, and I want to use it to the best of my ability."

"She's wholesome, refreshing, well-grounded," says Renaldo Nehemiah, the onetime Olympic hurdler who serves as her agent. "She's just pure -- a pure talent."

"Allyson Felix is a breath of fresh air and a cool glass of water," says USC head track coach Ron Allice -- and this bit of magnanimity from a man who lost the chance to coach perhaps the next great American track star.

Actually, the unfolding drug scandal may help Felix. With top athletes banned from competing, her chances of making the Olympic team are improved. Beyond that, her performance at the U.S. Trials in Sacramento from July 9-18 will help determine whether she'll be able to attract other endorsements and hefty appearance fees at foreign meets. Publicly, Team Felix is downplaying expectations.

"Her true greatness will come in about three years," Nehemiah says, "when she starts to mature and embrace what's going on around her. That's when it will happen, not right now."

"We have no expectations for Greece," says Kevin Wulff, director of sports marketing for Adidas. "We're in it long term." Indeed, Felix's contract runs through the 2008 Olympics. And there is currently no mention of Felix on the company Web site. Adidas won't say if it has plans should Felix make the team, but if you don't believe that's the case, you'd never make it in the sports marketing field.

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