LONDON — What look was supposed to sweep across the face of Allyson Felix once she realized what transpired Wednesday night, when Americans won medals in rapid succession on the track? Astonishment or joy? Relief or bliss? All of it, rolled into one?
Felix has been in her sport’s consciousness for the better part of a decade, since she was a teenager, when it seemed she could run as fast as she wanted in whatever event she chose.
Careers, though, have a funny way of unwinding, and competitive meets can likewise unfurl strangely over the course of a week. So on a night with a pace that felt something like a cattle auction, Felix, for once, smiled broadly at the end of an Olympic sprint, and the U.S. track and field team grabbed a meet that was slipping away and completely turned it around with a staggering seven-medal haul that included three golds.
“Just a flood of emotions,” Felix said.
Individually, sure, but for the team as a whole as well. Felix’s victory in the women’s 200 meters — a victory that now supplants her silver medals in 2004 and 2008 — was the centerpiece of a night that also brought gold for Brittney Reese in the women’s long jump and Aries Merritt in the men’s 110-meter hurdles.
Throw in a silver in the women’s 400-meter hurdles for Lashinda Demus — who was all of seven hundredths of a second behind gold medallist Natalya Antyukh of Russia — and the U.S. had one of the best nights in its Olympics track and field history.
With three days remaining, Americans already have 20 medals at Olympic Stadium, 11 from the women alone. That’s a bigger haul for the U.S. women’s track and field team in any Olympics other than 1984, which was diluted by the Soviet-led boycott.
“We come from such a rich legacy and history,” Felix said. “So just to do our part, and come out on top is just special. We just want to take care of business for our country.”
Truthfully, though, before the relays begin, track is an individual pursuit. In that regard, Felix had the most intriguing business to which to tend. A look at her stride, effortless and pure, would suggest her walls are lined with golds. In a sense, they are.
“I always thought the world championship golds were pretty exciting,” said her mother, Marlean. And indeed, her individual golds from worlds in 2005, 2007 and 2009 – all in the 200 — shows Olympic gold was possible, even probable.
But Felix was honest with herself about her own narrative here. “The moments that motivated me most was losing on the biggest stage,” she said, “and just never forgetting that feeling.”
Wednesday night, running inside her by two lanes, was her de facto nemesis, Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica. Eight years ago in Athens, then four years ago in Beijing, Campbell-Brown took the race out hard. Felix glided behind her, unable to catch up.
“She always loses the races in the first 60 meters,” said Felix’s brother Wes, a former sprinter who now serves as her manager. “If you look back at ’04 and ’08, Veronica has always been too far ahead.”
So to win, she had to change. It occurred over the past year, when Felix also trained for the 100 meters. She qualified for the Olympics in the shortest sprint, but really, it was to build her speed for the 200. At 100 meters, she would have to go out harder, to dig more quickly, to turn her legs over more often. She would have to stop being so darn graceful, and grind.
“I think my running style is a gift and a curse, because it looks very fluid,” Felix said. “It’s nice, but sometimes you have to get into that aggressive mode.”
That mode was all over the stadium Wednesday night. Reese, a former basketball player at Ole Miss, committed fouls on four of her six attempts in the long jump finals, so anxious was she to push herself further into the pit. But her second leap was 23 feet, 41 / 2 inches. Even as DeLoach and Russia’s Elena Sokolova took shot after shot, they couldn’t overcome it.
Reese, too, had her own travails in Beijing, where she finished fifth. “I cried the whole way home,” she said. Wednesday, she smiled.
Merritt also had to be aggressive in the 110-meter hurdles, given the field he faced when he arrived here. But in the morning heats, China’s Liu Xiang, the 2004 gold medallist, crashed out for the second straight Olympics. And in the evening final, Cuba’s Dayron Robles, the 2008 gold medallist, pulled up lame.
“I just heard this grimace, this loud yell,” Merritt said. “But I just kept running anyway.”
He did, finishing in 12.92 – one hundredth of a second off Xiang’s Olympic record, and eight hundredths ahead of Richardson, the 2011 world champion.
“I really don’t know what’s going on,” Merritt said.
It was, indeed, difficult to sort out. In one night, the U.S. asserted itself in a packed stadium, making the coming relays even more intriguing. Reese’s gold was the first in her event since Jackie Joyner-Kersee in 1988. Merritt and Richardson were the first American pair to go gold-silver in the 110 hurdles since 1996.
And then there was Felix, star-crossed — and now just a star.
“Now I’m able to say that I embraced that journey,” Felix said, “because that’s what has pushed me all these years.”
When she crossed the line in 21.88 seconds, 21 hundredths clear of silver medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, she took a moment to take it in, then raised her arms. In Beijing, she saw her family in the stands and broke down. Here, a smile grew, and wouldn’t leave. And when she draped herself in an American flag and began a lap around the stadium, she did so on a night when her compatriots took back the track, and when her silvers from Olympics past turned from burdens to accomplishments.