Allyson Felix is approaching her final lap on the track.
The 11-time Olympic medalist will compete at her last U.S. Championships this week at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. When she steps onto the track for the women’s 400m on Thursday, it will be 21 years to the day since she first competed at the U.S. Championships.
At that competition in 2001 — also held at Hayward Field — a then 15-year-old Felix didn’t emerge from the first round of the women’s 200m. She finished her heat in 23.44 seconds, more than a second behind Marion Jones, who went on to win (and later be stripped of) the 200-meter national title.
“My family found me somewhere in the stands and I was crying (because) I didn’t make the final,” says Felix. “And my brother (Wes) just looked at me like, ‘What did you think was going to happen? That you were going to beat Marion Jones? As a teenager?’
“I remember being so disappointed, but also, that was my starting point in the sport. I never would have imagined that I would be returning to Hayward so many times.”
Even for an athlete who has spent most of her life running around a 400-meter track, it is a remarkable full-circle moment.
And Felix’s Hayward story could add another chapter in July, when the venue hosts the 2022 World Championships — marking the first time the event is held in North America. Felix is aiming to be named to the U.S. relay team, but hasn’t yet decided if she will compete in the individual 400m event if she finishes in the top three at U.S. Championships.
But while Felix’s days competing on the track are winding down, her impact and legacy in the sport is still evolving.
This season, Felix is working with sponsor Athleta — as well as &Mother, a non-profit co-founded by U.S. teammate Alysia Montaño — to provide free child care to athletes, staff, and coaches at select track & field events, including this week’s U.S. Championships. Felix, Athleta, and the Women’s Sports Foundation have also launched a third round of child care grants through the “Power of She” fund.
Felix, who after last summer’s Tokyo Olympics wasn’t sure whether she would race at all in 2022, says initiatives like these helped convince her to return for one final season.
“Once we started started talking about the childcare opportunities, I was like, ‘Ok, this has me excited. Here’s a reason to do this final season,'” she says.
“It’s kind of refreshing to have a year like this, where it’s not about the outcomes, it’s about these things that are happening away from the track.”
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While much of Felix’s advocacy has been about supporting mothers — from calling for pregnancy protections in contracts to raising awareness about Black maternal health care — it’s noteworthy that the free child care coverage at this week’s U.S. Championships will be available to fathers, too.
“We did a survey about who would be interested in this service and, just seeing the responses from both mom athletes and fathers, I think it is just incredible that we can all be supported in this way.” Felix says. “(Child care) is absolutely needed on both sides.”
Felix has also set an official retirement date. She will compete in her final race — a street race, distance still to be determined “but it’ll be something fast” — on August 7 in Los Angeles at an event hosted by Athleta.
“I never get to compete at home,” says Felix. “I just want my family, my friends, my community to be able to come out and see this last race. And I think for a lot of people, it will be the first time they’ve ever seen me compete in real life.”
As for how she expects to feel on August 8, when she wakes up for the first time as a retired athlete?
“I think it’s going to be weird. I think it’s going to be strange. I’m sure it’ll be tough. This has been a part of my life forever and so I’m not sure what to expect. But I think I’ll probably wake up with a lot of gratitude in my heart.”
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC