On her arduous road to the Tokyo Olympics, Felix had one more place to fight Sunday night: on the backstretch of the 400-meter final inside Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., at the U.S. Olympic trials, where about 50 meters and two runners separated her from her fifth Games. Felix is one of her sport’s greatest champions, and she called upon what had made her a nine-time Olympic medalist, the same thing that had brought her to this point.
“Man, it has been a fight to get here,” Felix said in an on-track NBC interview. “And one thing I know how to do is fight.”
With her daughter, Camryn, watching from her husband’s lap in the stands, Felix stormed down the stretch, passed two rivals and crossed the line in 50.02 seconds, her fastest time in nearly four years and good enough for second place. Felix long ago became one of the greatest ever at crossing an Olympic finish line. Now her crowning achievement may be reaching a starting block in Tokyo.
“I just wanted to really show her, no matter what, you do things with character, integrity; you don’t give up,” Felix said of her daughter. “To me, whether that was winning, losing, no matter the outcome, I wanted to stay consistent with that. Having her as motivation through these past couple of years has just given me a whole new drive.”
Felix, 35, finished just behind Quanera Hayes and nipped Wadeline Jonathas at the wire. After she crossed, Felix lay on her back, breathed deep, smiled and mouthed, “Thank you” to the cheering crowd.
Kenneth Ferguson, her husband and a former sprinter, carried Camryn down to the track. Camryn kissed her mom, wearing a blue bow in her hair and a frilly yellow shirt under blue jean overalls. Hayes walked around the track holding hands with her son. Felix and Hayes embraced, and their children hugged.
“Guys,” Felix said, leaning down to make eye contact with the kids. “We’re going to Tokyo.”
“Super Mommies, right guys?” Hayes asked.
Felix reached the Olympics through a combination of guile, skill and speed. In her two heats Friday and Saturday, Felix had run with the minimum effort required to advance, conserving energy for Sunday’s final. Running outside in lane 8, wearing all black, Felix bolted out of the blocks to make her presence known. She settled in, allowing the field to catch up but saving up for a kick.
Around the final turn, Felix was out of position to make the Games, in fourth place at best. Felix had enough speed left in her legs. She bolted past Kendall Ellis, who had beaten her the night before, and even pulled inches ahead of Jonathas.
“One thing was for sure,” Felix said. “I was going to go down fighting.”
On Nov. 28, 2018, Felix experienced severe preeclampsia and underwent an emergency C-section. She delivered Camryn at 32 weeks, and the birth threatened the lives of mother and daughter. Camryn spent weeks in neonatal intensive care.
As Felix weighed whether she should attempt to return from the physical trauma, she also confronted systemic burdens. Nike offered her a new contract at a slashed salary. She felt abandoned by a company she had represented at four Olympics.
“Man, I was underprepared for that,” Felix said. “We had just been through so much. I was dealing with a lot at that time — mentally, physically, emotionally. And so to have gotten over that hurdle and prepare to be able to have this moment, it just meant a lot. I just tried to keep building on it.”
Felix chose to return. It took months of pain, tears and frustration. In July 2019, Felix ran the 400 at the USATF Outdoor Championships. Her first race was more than three seconds behind her career best and about two seconds slower than what she ran Sunday night. When it ended, she doubled over. When the meet concluded, even if she missed out on making the world championship team, Felix believed she could make the Olympics.
Still, she struggled that first year back. Her sponsorship battle wore on. Then the postponement came in 2020.
“It just seemed like I was getting hit with thing after thing,” Felix said. “All of it, it just felt like, ‘Man, I hope something comes together for me.’ I just kept fighting.”
Felix’s ordeal prompted her to reveal a new version of herself. For the first dozen years of her career, Felix had shied from offering much more than clipped sound bites about her sport. She reemerged from childbirth not only as an athlete but also an advocate. She wrote a New York Times op-ed blasting Nike’s practices concerning maternity and the lack of female representation at the highest levels of track. She appeared before Congress to discuss health-care discrepancies that disadvantage Black mothers.
“You can do it,” Felix said. “I think society tells us a lot of times you have a child and your best moments are behind you. But that’s absolutely not the case. I am representation of that. Quanera is. There are so many women across industries who are out here, who are doing it and getting it done. I hope they watch and they see that it’s possible.”
She now will carry her message all the way to Tokyo, where she will try to add to the nine medals, six of them gold, she has won since 2004. Felix’s seniority could be calibrated by her competitors. In her semifinal heat, Felix ran three lanes over from Talitha Diggs, an 18-year-old Florida freshman. Diggs was born in August 2002, almost exactly two years before Felix won the first of her nine medals.
“Obviously,” Felix said, “I’m a lot older than everyone.”
Felix is not yet done at these trials. She plans to run the 200. Should she make that team, too, Felix would have to choose because the schedule in Tokyo will not allow for a double. For now, her spot secured, she can enjoy the 200.
“I used to call it my baby,” Felix said. “But now that I actually have a baby, I don’t know if I can do that anymore.”
This past week, Felix had reflected on the difficult past 18 months for everyone. She had found a silver lining in knowing the postponed trials meant that Camryn would be fully cognizant — she clapped and smiled when her mom’s name was announced, and when she finished a race. “Living her best life,” Felix said.
And now Camryn will watch her mother race halfway around the world, one more fight to go. Camryn is picking up more than Felix even expected, but Felix is not certain her daughter understands all that has led to this moment.
“I can’t wait to tell her the stories,” Felix said.