Some races are won before they begin. While the crowd is screaming and the other runners are preparing, Felix is already running. In her head, as she stands at the line, she visualizes her race: driving from the blocks, slowly rising, propelled by relentless ambition, the big swing of her arms. You can tell just by looking at her. Before she’s even introduced, she’s gone.
When the announcer calls her name, for a brief moment she’s back in the present. She raises her arms, waves at the crowd, twitches her mouth into a slight smile. Then she disappears again, back in her mind’s race. She’s thinking of the technical things she needs to do, the miniscule adjustments that mean the difference between first and second, between the podium and disappointment. “I’m not aware,” she says, “of anything else.”
When the camera cuts to her, and her image appears on the stadium’s big screen, her older brother Wes studies her face. He can read the ripple in the right side of her jaw, the furrow on her brow. He can tell, he says, whether it will be a fast day, the kind of day when medals are won, when records might fall. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really been wrong,” he says.
Felix is the reigning 200-meter gold medalist and the reigning 400-meter World Champion. She has four gold medals; she wants four more. She hopes to win gold in both the 200 meters and 400 meters at one Games. The schedule of track events in Rio was changed to make it possible for her to try.
If she wins both, she will be the first woman to do so. There are good reasons no one has done it before. No one has solved both the physical challenge of surviving round after round and the mental challenge of moving between the intense burst of speed in the 200 meters, where the start is paramount, and the long tactical sprint of the 400 meters, where a runner has to know when to move, when to kick, when to close. The margins are so thin. After four years of work, even the favorite can fail because of the tiniest falter in technique. Felix won two silvers, in 2004 and 2008, before her first individual gold in 2012. She is 30 years old now, competing in her fourth Games. This is what it comes down to: the endless hours in the gym, the excruciating intervals on the track, the mind games her coach plays on her in practice, the restless days of enforced rest, the minute attention to how to position her right hand, the long runs down San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles.
“If you look at the majority of the female athletes who are competing, we all have speed. When four or five or six or eight of us are in a race closely together, it will come down to who will break in terms of technique.”
One questionnaire before a competition had a question about what she fears. Distance, she answered. “Everyone talks about this runner’s high that they get,” she says. “I’ve never experienced it.”
Watching her is its own high. Felix is one of the most elegant runners, impossibly light on her feet. The pace is almost an afterthought, a consequence of her smooth, efficient form. Don’t be fooled: most races are tough, grinding and painful. But on the rarest days, it is easy. Everything comes together — the technique, the drive, the speed. “It flows and makes sense and it connects,” she says. “It’s only happened a few times in my career but it just…” She searches for words to describe the indescribable. “It almost is like an effortless feeling.”
Her brother is still waiting for the race when it all comes together. He’s seen what she can do in relays, when she just runs — simply and freely. “It’s like the most beautiful running I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I still wait for that moment, where it looks like she’s just in her own world, just out for this fast like stroll that only she can do.”
You can glimpse it when she closes in on the finish. No one can hold their speed like she can. “Most people are dying,” she says, “when I shine.”