Allyson Felix on Coming up Just Short of 400m Gold: ‘It's Just Painful'

What a tropical scene there was Monday noon time here around these 2016 Olympic Games. At Copacabana, for instance, the smell of coconut milk mixed with hot-out-of-the-oil-fries, the background to a visual tableau featuring the dental flossiest of bikinis and the waves lapping gently on the sugary sand.

Then, as the knowing Brazilians called it, the sudoeste blew in, a cold wind — well, from the southeast — bearing the mean grey line of clouds signaling a major frente fria, a cold front with maybe days of rain. This is the Southern Hemisphere winter tropical version of what Americans on the East Coast would know as a nor’easter.

At Olympic Park, seven people, including two children, were injured when an overhead television camera tied to overhead cables crashed to the ground. 

At Olympic Stadium, the wind — estimated by officials at between 60 and 90 kilometers per hour, 37 to 55 mph — toppled railings, tore at banners and more. About 50 minutes before the fourth night of the Rio 2016 track and field program got underway, the rain started coming down in sheets, straight down, then sideways. The men’s pole vault and women’s discus competitions: thanks but later, much later, in the night.

For those who believe in portents: all of this was maybe a sign of the storm clouds on the horizon for the American star Allyson Felix in the last race of the night, the women’s 400.

In one of the most exciting and dramatic finishes imaginable, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dove, or tripped, or something to get across the line just in front of Felix. 

The times:

Miller, 49.44, a personal best.

Felix: 49.51, a season’s best.

Shericka Jackson of Jamaica took bronze, 49.85. 

The other two Americans in the race, Natasha Hastings and Phyllis Francis, went fourth and fifth.

History-wise, the silver made Felix, medals-wise, the most accomplished American female in the history of track and field. She now has seven. Jackie Joyner-Kersee has six. 

Felix also became the oldest-ever woman’s 400m medalist — 30 years, 271 days.

These milestones were, as Felix would say later, bittersweet.

Sometimes, a silver medal makes for a celebration. Or a bronze. The American Clayton Murphy took third in the men’s 800 just a few moments before the women’s 400, Kenya’s David Rudisha defending his London 2012 gold, and it felt like a party — the first American medal in the men’s 800 since 1992.

“For sure joyous celebration,” Murphy said afterward, adding, “It’s super-exciting. It’s a joyous moment for sure.”

Allyson Felix was not feeling the joy.

For 20 minutes after the race, she lay on the track, on her back, collecting her thoughts. 

Then she went and said a few words to NBC’s Lewis Johnson, managing a smile.

And then she disappeared into the tunnel.

It took her nearly an hour to come meet the press, fighting back tears with seemingly every word.

She said, “I feel emotionally and physically drained at this point.”

A moment later, she added,  “Just disappointment, you know. I don’t think I’ve quite had a year this tough. I just really wanted it.”

The genesis of that disappointment can be traced back to 2011, and the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. That season, Felix stepped away from her specialty, the 200m, the race she has long called “my baby,” to experiment in the 400m.

At Daegu, Felix ran 49.59.

She finished second — behind Amantle Montsho of Botswana, 49.56. That made Montsho Botswana’s first-ever world or Olympic track and field champion.

In London, Montsho finished fourth in the 400m, 49.75, with Sanya Richards-Ross winning in 49.55.

Montsho has not been heard of since testing positive at the 2014 Commonwealth Games for the banned substance methylhexanimine. 

Felix, meanwhile, has said of the Daegu experience: “In 2011, I learned I am a sprinter. That’s who I am. That’s my advantage.”

In London, Felix dropped back to her baby (long-awaited gold in the 200), then ran the 400 in the 4x4 relay (gold) and the second leg of the world record-setting 4x1 relay (40.82 and, obviously, gold).

Aiming for Rio, Felix wholly intended to try both the 200 and the 400. Track and field’s governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, changed the Rio timetable around so that anyone — er, Felix — could have that shot.

At the U.S. Trials, Felix won the 400. But, hobbled by an ankle injury a few weeks before, she finished fourth in the 200 — out.

That left her, as far as individual races go, with just the one option — the 400.

The reality is, Felix was in good shape. But because of the recovery from her ankle problem, not Olympic gold-medal shape.  

"It wasn’t the ideal situation," she acknowledged later.

In the semifinals, Felix ran 49.67, second-fastest time in the world in 2016, and made it look like she was out for an easy jog.

Miller, who earlier this year ran a 49.55, was in that same semifinal heat with Felix; she crossed just behind, in 49.91.

The rain and wind had largely died down by the time Friday’s final went down, at a re-scheduled 11:05 p.m. local. Even so, the race played out before a virtually empty stadium. Just a weird vibe all around for an Olympics, especially one of the most-anticipated races of the Games.

Coming around the turn, Miller was clearly in front. Then, heading down the stretch, Felix appeared to catch and pass her. “I should have been a bit more aggressive and might have let it get away from me,” Felix would say later, meaning earlier in the race.

With 30 meters to go, it looked like Felix would win easily.

Then both started tying up. Down the stretch they came. Miller, desperate or something, fell across the line.

Miller, showing off her bloody right hip later and flashing a big smile, said she has no recollection of what happened. She said she “just went blank.”

She also said, “Things happen,” and then a moment later, “Hey, I got a gold medal.”

Allyson Felix got silver.

“I’m a competitor. I went for it. At the moment,” Felix said amid the storm, Monday night turning to Tuesday morning, “it’s just painful.”

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