"So what is your name, anyway?" coach Jonathan Patton remembers asking a 14-year-old Allyson Felix. He had heard of Allyson's older brother, Wes, who sprinted for a competing high school, but had no idea of the potential standing in front of him. "Oh, so you're Wes Felix's sister?" he remembers saying, "'Is he going to come here?' My introduction to her pretty much was, 'get your brother over here.'"
Mr. Patton assumed that Miss Felix, like many other girls at tiny Los Angeles Baptist High School, came out for track only to stay fit. But her first official run on his track had the coach checking his watch and recalculating distances. "Run it again," he said. Mr. Patton had learned a secret the world discovered at this summer's Olympic Games: Allyson Felix is very fast.
Wes Felix wouldn't transfer and it wouldn't matter. Miss Felix, a quiet and shy 14-year-old, during her high-school career grew into a world-class sprinter who dominated high-school meets en route to setting the record for fastest ever pre-collegiate 200-meter-dash time.
Last week, after running some of the fastest times in the preliminary heats of the Olympic 200-meter dash, Miss Felix-now 18-ran a blistering 22.18-second race in the Aug. 25 final. Only Veronica Campbell of Jamaica ran faster, capturing the gold medal with a 22.05-second race. Miss Felix's time earned her a silver medal and the junior world record.
With the U.S. track team reeling from steroid scandals, Miss Felix, along with male sprinters and Athens medal-winners Justin Gatlin and Jeremy Wariner, are the new face of a sport desperate for a facelift. Consider the former reigning U.S. women's sprinter, Marion Jones, who won three gold and two bronze medals in Sydney four years ago: Now Ms. Jones is embroiled in the Bay Area Laboratory drug scandal known as BALCO. Her ex-husband (former shot putter and convicted steroid user C.J. Hunter) accuses her of steroid use even in Sydney. Her boyfriend (100-meter world record holder Tim Montgomery) faces doping charges and a lifetime ban from track and field.
Miss Felix, by all accounts, rose to the top by being fast. So fast she shaved a half-second off of Marion Jones's national high-school record in the 200 meters. So fast she ran the 200 in 22.11, the fastest women's time in the world in 2003.
For track and field fans, Miss Felix is the perfect doping antidote: She's young, beautiful, smiles frequently, has supportive parents, understands her talent comes from God, and-according to those who know her best-she won't turn to steroids as other sprinters have. "The Lord Jesus Christ is the reason I run. It is a gift from Him and in everything I do I want to glorify Him," she has said.
"Her greatest gift isn't lung capacity or great strength," said her former coach, Mr. Patton. "Her single greatest gift is an iron will. This girl does not like losing and will do what it takes within the rules to win."
If it was clear immediately to Mr. Patton that Miss Felix had talent, Paul Felix says his daughter didn't see it until after her freshman season. She made the state finals that season in the 200-meter dash and decided "to commit herself to track and track alone-to work out in the summer and lift weights." The off-season weight training made her high-school nickname-"Chicken Legs"-preposterous. What chicken can leg-press 700 pounds? No one laughed when as a senior she routinely beat the two fastest boy sprinters at the school who served as her training partners.
"Everyone on the track team-guys included-knew this was about getting Allyson as fast as we could get her," Mr. Patton said. She peaked in the final weeks of her high-school career, running her signature 200-meters in 22.11 seconds. Then she turned pro, spurning a scholarship offer from USC, where she attends classes, anyway. Now she trains with premier track coach Pat Connolly. Mr. Felix says the switch was a family decision. "Part of it is having the right coach. One of the reasons we went with Pat Connolly is that she's a strong advocate of no drugs. She believes an athlete can do well and can do it clean."
But finding a professional-level coach was only part of the equation for Miss Felix. Ms. Connolly says Miss Felix arrived on her doorstep already focused and well grounded. "She has strong beliefs in Jesus Christ as her savior. . . . Her goal right now may be to become the world champion, but she's also taking elementary-school studies at USC."
Other American sprinters emerged during the Athens games as well. Before he won gold, some people referred to Justin Gatlin simply as Shawn Crawford's training partner. But at 22, the former University of Tennessee student defeated former gold medalist Maurice Greene and Mr. Crawford in the Aug. 22 finals. His 9.85-second time made him the second-fastest ever to run the 100-meters in the Olympics, missing Donovan Bailey's world record by one-hundredth of a second.
Even before his success, Mr. Gatlin predicted big things from the American youth movement: "I said at the beginning of the season I thought it was going to be the changing of the guard in a lot of events out there. We can go out there and show the world that we may be young, but we can go out there and win a gold medal."
That future also includes Baylor track star Jeremy Wariner, who emerged out of world-record holder Michael Johnson's footsteps to win the 400-meter gold in 44.00 seconds. Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Wariner became a star for the Baptist school in Waco, Texas. And though Mr. Wariner's gold medal time was nearly a second slower than Mr. Johnson's world record, the American sprinting legend thinks Mr. Wariner shows promise: "I didn't do that at 20 years old. I didn't make an Olympic team. He's got bigger earrings than I had, he's his own guy."
Mr. Wariner didn't just have to deal with the competition. He also faced questions about his race. Mr. Wariner is white, and as reporters were fond of mentioning, no white American sprinter had won a gold medal in 40 years. The young Texan's response: "Your ability is what makes you-not what race, ethnicity, gender, whatever. It's your ability and how you use it."
But his coach, Clyde Hart, who also coached Mr. Johnson at Baylor, said he thinks Mr. Wariner's success could break down barriers: "Everybody seems to think there is a genetic superiority. I'm just saying that in my opinion that's not true. The kids just aren't out there competing. I think a lot of white youngsters are discouraged. Somebody is telling them it's a black sport. It's not. It's a sport for anybody-black, white, red, Chinese."
The 20-year-old wasn't the only American on the podium. Americans Otis Harris and Derrick Brew took silver and bronze in a clean sweep. U.S. track officials hope their records stay that way. None of the young American medalists has been smeared with charges of doping like some of the U.S. track scene's fading stars.
Mr. Felix says he's tired of hearing how dirty track has become. Wayward athletes, he said, shouldn't create an image for the sport. "Marion Jones is headlines. Tim Montgomery is headlines," he said. Well, not anymore. With these games over, fans will be talking less of Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery and more of Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin, and Jeremy Wariner.