Appreciating genuine greatness when it — she — is right in front of us

LONDON — It can be difficult sometimes, living as we do in the here and now, to appreciate the gift of genuine greatness when it — more accurately, she — is right in front of us.

There are so many demands on our attention, so many cries that so-and-so or such-and-such is the next big thing, the coming huge star. We whipsaw from this to that and back to this again, mesmerized, tantalized, titillated by the paparazzi-hounded, TMZ-stylized comings and goings of the larger-than-life, the outlandish, the can-you-top-this, the freak show at the club at 3 in the morning or maybe was it 4, dude, I forget.

When we say we want our kids to grow up and be someone like Allyson Felix.

Phyllis Francis, Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Allyson Felix on the homestretch // Getty Images for IAAF

Felix during the rounds // Getty Images

Felix addressing the IOC in Switzerland in July on behalf of the LA bid campaign // Flickr

LA mayor Eric Garcetti, Felix, IOC president Thomas Bach, Michael Johnson at the Olympic Museum track // Getty Images

You so want your kids to grow up to be like Felix, who on a cold and rainy Wednesday night in Olympic Stadium won the 14th world championship medal of her storied career, a bronze in the women’s 400 meters. Fourteen is the most in world championships history — tied with the Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Merlene Ottey. Felix presumably has two relays yet to run here in London.

American teammate Phyllis Francis — seventh at the 2015 Beijing worlds, fifth at the 2016 Rio Games — won the race in a lifetime-best 49.92. Salwa Eid Naser, a 19-year-old from Bahrain, also went a personal-best 50.06 for silver. Felix finished in 50.08.

“Felix is my role model!” Naser said after the race. “I am following her on Instagram.”

Felix is 31, going on 32 in November. Tokyo and the 2020 Summer Olympic Games are a long three years away. It is assuredly the case that great athletes can win now in their mid-30s. It is also the case that, in the end, time wins, every time.

If there is more to appreciate on the track with Allyson Felix — how excellent.

If time ultimately proves that Wednesday night in the rain at Olympic Stadium, scene of some her greatest triumphs, was a nudge for Allyson Felix to turn her full-time attention to other endeavors — how excellent.

Either way, the moment is here and now to appreciate the gift of genuine greatness when it — she — is right in front of us.

“I still feel it is not over yet,” Felix said. “I still did not give everything so I am excited to keep going until 2020.”

Felix is the only female track and field athlete to ever win six Olympic gold medals; she is tied with Ottey as the most decorated female Olympian in track and field history, with nine.

Coming into Wednesday’s 400 final, Felix already had nine world championship gold career medals, along with three silver and a bronze. Now she has two world championship threes.

Some athletes like to affect a sense of false modesty about their accomplishments. With Felix, the modesty is genuine. At a pre-meet news conference, asked about her place in history, she said, “I’m really just focused in on the 400 and executing my race there, defending my [2015 world] title and then I’ll worry about looking back later.”

The track piece, of course, is only a piece of who Allyson Felix is. She served on President Obama’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. She is a U.S. State Department envoy. She played an active role in the Los Angeles 2024 — now 2028 — Summer Olympics bid campaign.

Some athletes are mere “ambassadors” for these bid campaigns. Felix, as is her style, was all-in.

On July 9, here at Olympic Stadium, she ran — and won — the 400 in 49.65. That was — still is — the year’s best time.

Two days later, she was in Lausanne, Switzerland, one of but 10 speakers to address the members of the International Olympic Committee as the LA team made its pitch for the Games. In part, this is what she said:

“There is a quote that inspires me every day, and I want to share it with you.  It’s a quote by one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – it’s about hope, but it’s also about taking the long view. He said:

“‘We must accept finite disappointment … but never lose infinite hope.’  

“I believe that ‘infinite hope’ is what truly defines us as human beings. And, I’ve come to learn that the Olympic Games gives the world hope, and that is perhaps … its greatest gift.

“There are as many Americas as there are Americans.  All I can do is tell you about the America that I know and love.

“First, America isn’t perfect; no country is. But in LA, we always strive to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

“America is extraordinarily diverse. There is no such thing as a typical American.

“Look at me. My heritage is African.  And my ancestors’ path to my country was one of bondage, not one of freedom.” 

Hearing those words that day in Lausanne, Terrence Burns got goosebumps.

The Atlanta-based Burns is a longtime Olympic insider who over the course of several bid campaigns has worked with kings, presidents, prime ministers, mayors and more.

“Allyson’s greatest strength as a speaker is her greatest gift as a person…her humility,” Burns said.

“She touches people’s hearts and minds because she doesn’t let her ego get in the way. She’s a natural communicator and a real joy and honor to work with. When she’s on the stage she raises everyone’s game.  “

That day in Switzerland, Felix yet had more to say:

“… Out of that painful past, our nation grew, it adapted, and it changed for the better – and it will again. I believe that with all my heart, or I would not be here today supporting our bid.

“… We believe in the power of sport to change the world. But the only way to do that is one person, one city and one nation at a time … All we need is the chance.”

Track geeks know well that the focus of Felix’s earlier years — though she has dabbled in the 100 — was the 200, which she has long called her “baby.” She won 200 gold here in London in 2012, after silver medals in Beijing and Athens. Since, and after recovering from a hamstring injury at the 2013 Moscow world championships, she has turned more of her attention to the 400.

The 400 experiment actually began at the 2011 worlds in Daegu, South Korea. There, Felix finished second, behind Amantle Montsho of Botswana, Felix running 49.59, Montsho 49.56. Montsho would later serve two years off after testing positive for a banned stimulant.

At the 2015 worlds in Beijing, the schedule put Felix to a choice: 200 or 400. She picked the 400 and went on to run 49.26 for the win, becoming the first woman to have recorded world titles in both the 200 and 400.

Then came the travail of 2016.

She came to Rio hobbled by an ankle injury suffered in weight training in the spring.

In the Olympic 400 final, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas, literally diving for the line, beat Felix to the line by just t-h-i-s much — Miller timed in 49.44, a personal best by 11-hundredths of a second, Felix in 49.51, the second-best time of her career.

For a full 20 minutes after the race, Felix lay on the track, collecting her thoughts. It would take her nearly an hour to come meet the press. There she fought back tears, saying, “I feel emotionally and physically drained at this point.”

A world junior champion, Miller, who attended the University of Georgia before turning pro, is now Miller-Uibo — she and college sweetheart Maicel Uibo, a decathlete from Estonia, wed in February.

Again, Felix is 31. Miller-Uibo is 23.

Looking back here this week at 2016, Felix said, “I just kind of take last year as everything kind of went wrong. Nothing kind of went according to plan. That happens in sports sometimes. I’m trying not to bring any of that to this race and this year — just have a fresh approach.”

That led her to that 49.65 a month ago here, and to an easy path through the rounds.

Naser, the 19-year-old, arrived in London with a personal best of 50.88. In the heats, she ran 50.57. In the semifinals, she ran down Felix — who had turned it off down the stretch — to lower her lifetime best to 50.08, Felix crossing four-hundredths back.

Miller-Uibo, meantime, also shut it down in her semi, winning easily in 50.36. Francis, another sub-50 runner, won the third semi in an easy 50.37.

In the final, Naser drew Lane 4, Felix drew Lane 5, Francis 6, Miller-Uibo 7.

Felix went out hard. So did Miller-Uibo. Coming around the final turn, and as the pack turned for home — running into a lashing rain refracted in the stadium lights — it seemed Miller-Uibo was going to repeat her Rio victory.

But with about 30 meters to go, Miller-Uibo faltered. She would finish fourth, in 50.49.

Felix, meanwhile, didn’t produce her usual late-race surge.

“I felt in a good position coming home and coming off the last 150 meters and tried to make a move, but it wasn’t there,” she would say later. “My legs were heavy and I didn’t have it coming home.”

On this night, Naser had it. Frances had just that much more.

“At the finish line I was surprised,” Francis said afterward. “I thought I was second or third, but then they told me, ‘You are first.’ That is crazy.”

She also laughed about the weather: “I went to Oregon and it rains there all the time. This is nothing. I actually like this kind of weather, believe or not.”

The question going forward is what awaits Allyson Felix. It starts with the 4×100 relay Saturday, the 4×4 Sunday. And then?

“I tried to come into this race with a fresh approach and to give it my all,” she said. “I feel like I did that, but I couldn’t put it quite together. It’s disappointing but I have to pick up the pieces and get ready for the rest of the races I have.”

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