Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Cristiano Ronaldo. Every sport has that one athlete that the rules don’t really apply to. The one athlete that no matter how much time has gone by, will always be considered one of the greatest.
Traditionally, 1st – 4th place in the 100m dash at the Olympic Trials make up the 4×100 relay. 5th and 6th place join the team as alternates. However, this rule does not account for the Allyson Felix factor; that’s right, in track and field Allyson is that one athlete.
Allyson Felix has run the 2nd leg of the US women’s 4×100 relay at every major championship since 2007 (except for 2013, where she was injured prior to the relay), regardless of what event(s) she competed at during the US Trials or the Championship meet. Allyson is mostly known for her 200m dash prowess, she boasts Olympic silvers (2004 & 2008), Olympic Gold (2012) and 3 World Championship Gold (2005-2009) in the event.
But in a year where a freak ankle injury hampered her ability to train and affected her speed, causing her not to make the 200m dash roster for the 2016 Olympic team – the question lingered, would Allyson run the relay?
Allyson’s speed, or lack thereof – compared to her usual self, was not the only factor in question. After several years of strictly being a jumper, Tori Bowie had emerged as a new sprint sensation and would become the Olympic silver medalist in the 100m dash. Unlike every other member of the 4×100 roster, Tori had never run a relay before. Tori was also running the 200m dash. The final of the 200 occurring about 10 hours before the prelim of the 4×100 relay. So if Tori was going to run the relay, her first major relay, it would be in the Olympic final – if the team got there.
For 1 week, prior to leaving for Rio, USATF hosted training camp. All athletes were invited, but only relay athletes were required to attend. Track and Field is a very unique sport; your teammate is also your competitor. So for 6 days straight I trained with and practiced hand-offs with the same people I was competing against just 2 weeks before. Everyone came from different coaching styles. We all had different relay habits, so at times we struggled to adapt to a new way of running the same relay. the team practiced at least a dozen different combinations, just in case. We left training camp feeling prepared, low or high tide, we’d be able to ride the wave.
The morning before the 4×100 relay preliminary round, we had one last practice. I was told English would bring me the baton and I would run the anchor leg. English and I had great chemistry during training camp and executed 2 perfect exchanges at practice that day. I wasn’t worried at all. Allyson, as she always did, would run the 2nd leg of the relay and bring the baton to English. That morning I watched them struggle. They did 5 or 6 exchanges and only 1 or 2 of them went well. They left practice on a miss and as my coach always told me, “you never leave practice on a bad note.” Then I was worried.
The next day I put on my USA blue. I warmed up with my teammates. After being in Rio for over 2 weeks, I prepared to make my Olympic debut. I walked onto the track, marked my takeoff spot, said a prayer thanking God for the moment and then took a second, looked around and took everything in. The announcer said our names, I waved to the crowd, trying to complete the impossible task of finding my family in the stands, and then it was time to run.
I heard the gun go off.
I watched Tianna explode from the blocks and smoothly hand the baton to Allyson.
As Allyson got close the 50m mark of her leg, I knew it meant I had about 15 seconds until English would be approaching me. I got down in my 3 point-take-off stance, stared down my lane and waited for English’s feet to hit the mark.
I waited, but they never showed up.
The other teams passed me, I looked up and English was no where to be found. I was about to walk off the track, thinking to myself, “my Olympic moment came and left so fast.” Then I saw English striding around the bend, baton in hand. I stood in the exchange zone, waited for the baton and took it to the finish line. As I crossed, every camera on the track was on me. I forced a smile to hold back the tears and started walking towards my teammates. I still had no clue what had actually occurred. We embraced on the homestretch of the track. Took a second to make sure everyone was uninjured and began our long walk through the media mix zone.
On live TV, we stood with NBC and track and field reporter, Lewis Johnson, and watched a replay of the 2nd to 3rd leg exchange. For the first time I saw what went wrong.
What went wrong?
As all 2nd legs should always do, Allyson ran on the right side of her lane, with the baton in her left hand. English and all the other 3rd legs, stood on the left side of their lane anticipating receiving the baton in their right hand. For the preliminary round, lanes are randomly assigned. We were in lane 2, the Brazilian team was to our right, in lane 3. English was in her take-off stance, staring only at the feet of Allyson, waiting for her to hit her take off mark. Allyson hits her mark and English takes off, attempting to get inside of the 20m exchange zone before Allyson caught up to her.
In a typical 4×100 relay, the stagger of the race is not broken until the latter half of the 3rd leg. We were in the lead. Allyson was approaching and getting ready to pass the 3rd leg of the Brazilian team before the 2nd leg of the Brazilian team hit the take off mark. The most unfortunate timing in the world happened, just as Allyson was passing the 3rd leg of the Brazilian team, she takes off, slightly stepping into lane 2 and bumping into Allyson.
The tide got too high and we couldn’t ride the wave.
English never looked back, so she didn’t know what was going on. Allyson attempted to get the baton to her, but for an already fragile exchange, it was an impossible task. The baton dropped to the ground. Everyone’s track and field hero let out a loud and audible curse word on national TV. With quick thinking only a veteran in the sport could have, she picked up the baton, handed to English, therefore completing the exchange, and told her to finish the race.
Allyson’s veteran move became even more important, before we exited the media mix-zone, there was already an appeal in the works. We were unable to complete the exchange due to interference by the Brazilian team.
Less than an hour after the preliminary round and the appeal, we had our answer. The Brazilian team was disqualified for interfering with another team. The US team was disqualified for throwing the baton. However, because the interference occurred prior to the baton being thrown we would be granted a re-run.
The first re-run in Olympic history.
The same 4 competitors, in the same order, in the same lane, would re-run the relay later that night, by ourselves. We had to run faster than the slowest time qualifier, at 42.70 seconds, and we would be in the final.
After leaving the track to eat, shower and decompress, we all returned for our solo run. We were running against ourselves, but the whole world was watching. The rerun was deemed a “glorified practice.” The mood among the 4 of us was light. We joked around as the officials gave me, the anchor leg, the sensor used to determine who crosses the finish line first. The sensor was not needed because there was no one else running with us. As the anchor leg, with no one to run to or with, I had the hardest job. I ran through the finish line, in a picture perfect manner that every track coach would admire. A few hundredths of a second was not going to be what stopped this team from making the final. I looked up at the scoreboard and it read 41.77 seconds, the fastest qualifying time of the day.
We were in the final.
On the night of the final, the USATF relay coach informed me that Tori would be running the anchor leg. I always knew was a possibility that I wouldn’t run the final. As the first alternate, I warmed up with the team ready to go if something went wrong at the last minute. I walked with them to the staging area, joined them in their prayer, then proceeded to the stands to watch the team run.
We were given lane 1, the least preferred lane. We had the fastest qualifying time, but did not win our heat. The gun went off and Tianna demolished the first turn, passing the runners in both lanes 2 and 3. She smoothly passed the baton to Allyson. Allyson held her ground, not gaining on the double Olympic Champion, Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, but not losing any either.
This time there was no problem with the exchange. The baton moved swiftly from Allyson to English and as English made her way to the 2nd half of the turn, the stagger was broken. It became completely evident the US was going to win this race. In a very brief moment that may have cost the team another world record, Tori turns around to look at English before she receives the baton and really begins to run.
The team ran 41.01 seconds, the 2nd fastest time ever, .15 seconds off of the world record.
After the Race
I watched as my teammates did their victory lap around the track. I played the what if game with myself. What if I ran anchor and didn’t turn around before English gave me the baton, would I be a world record holder? If Allyson didn’t run the relay and I had the job of running 2nd leg, could I have made up any ground? What if they didn’t have me to run the relay yesterday, would they be in this moment right now? I felt like I deserved the celebration just as much as they did. I took solace in knowing that as a member of the prelim round, I would also receive a gold medal.
With only 2 days left in Rio and needing a break from the chaos, the next day my roommate, friend and the bronze medalist in the 400mH, Ashley Spencer and I explored Rio. We saw Christ the Redeemer, got lost in the city, then sat down for dinner at a restaurant. Shortly after ordering, I got a phone call from Coach Bailey instructing me to get to the stadium right away. Allyson wanted me to take her spot on the podium to receive my first Olympic medal. My other teammates were not going on the podium without me.
Getting to the Podium
We left the restaurant right away in an uber and got as close to the stadium as possible. The uber driver did not have the correct credentials and could not get me to the doors of the stadium. We were about ½ a mile away from the entrance. Another ½ mile to the staging area inside the stadium. So I handed Ashley my bags and did what I do best, I ran. I ran in street clothes and Nike kicks not made for running. I ran to what would be one of the biggest moments of my life.
It felt like the longest run of my life. Like there was no way I would make it there in time. Several minutes later I arrived at the staging area and Allyson, Tianna, English and Tori were there waiting for me. Allyson handed me her podium uniform and shoes and I changed. In 2011, (when I wrote the first part of my my epic tweet) I had a poster of Allyson Felix in my “motivation closet” and now I was putting on her shoes. They called our names, put a gold medal around my neck and the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ started to play. I mouthed the words as the familiar melody rang throughout the stadium. I had heard this song countless times, but this time it meant so much more.
Since then, every time I hear the national anthem I remember the moment and everything it took to get there.