Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix

One of the stars of the U.S. Olympic team at the London Games, Felix talks about her advocacy for a number of issues, including childhood obesity.

At age 18, Allyson Felix competed in her first Olympics (the 2004 Summer Games in Athens) and, this year at the London Games, made her way to the top of the medal stand three times to accept the gold for the USA. A teenage sprint prodigy, the Los Angeles native fell in love with the sport at age 14. She excelled from the start and turned pro after high school—giving up NCAA eligibility while attending the University of Southern California. Felix is the U.S. Olympic Committee's 2011-2012 SportsWoman of the Year and a three-time recipient of the Jesse Owens Award, the USA Track & Field's highest accolade.


Tavis: Allyson Felix is one of the most decorated female track stars in recent memory, thanks to her stand-out performance at the London Games this past summer. Not only did she win three gold medals there along with her teammates, she set the world record in one of the marquee Olympic events – the 4 X 100 relay.

She’s also an advocate for a number of issues, including childhood obesity. Just last month she spoke on the issue at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Allyson Felix, good to have you on this program.

Allyson Felix: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Felix: I’m good.

Tavis: Can I, can I get this out the way first? Can you, can you hand me –

Felix: Of course, of course.

Tavis: Yeah, come on, let’s do this, let’s do this right. Bam.

Felix: Good, take them out. There.

Tavis: I ain’t going to touch them, now –

Felix: Oh, go ahead.

Tavis: Okay. Oh, cool. These things are heavy.

Felix: Everybody’s been touching them.

Tavis: Two –

Felix: This is a third.

Tavis: And three.

Felix: Yup.

Tavis: I love this. (Laughter) These things are very, very heavy.

Felix: Yeah, they’re heavier than you would expect.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. See, if I were on the stand, I’d be doing like this. (Laughter) Yeah.

Felix: They can get heavy.

Tavis: I know you’ve been asked this before, but not by me. So how did it feel to finally get that monkey off your back?

Felix: It was amazing. I think it was just a mixture of joy and relief at the same time. It’s just such a long time coming, so finally I can say I’ve done it.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk, and I don’t even necessarily mean in competition, but in life, when – I want to phrase this properly – in life, when you find yourself, my word, not yours, in a rut, or in a situation where you can’t seem to push beyond it – in your case, losing to the same person two Olympics in a row – tell me about the mental process.

I know Bobby Kersee will push you to the limit, but tell me about the mental process you had to go through of getting beyond losing to the same person in two consecutive Olympic Games.

Felix: It’s difficult. I don’t think I ever really got over it, and I think that is what made me work so hard for the last four years. It’s just you feel like you’ve made some progress and then you do run faster, but then you lose to the same person again.

So it was, it was difficult just to pick up and to decide to keep going on and to actually see progress being made. You have those doubts – is it ever going to actually happen?

Tavis: How did your training regimen change from 2008 to this time around? I ask that because it was clear to us that you were focusing clearly on the 200 this time around.

Felix: Yeah, definitely. Through the last four years I explored other options. I tried out the 400 and I learned that I needed to run the 100 to do well in the 200. So I focused solely on the sprints, dedicated my time there, got in the weight room, just really did everything I could to make sure I would be in the best position to run for gold.

Tavis: Yeah. When you said “got in the weight room,” I know the joke, the one-liner that used to – chicken legs, that’s what I was trying to say. They used to –

Felix: It’s just, it will not let – (laughter) I’m like, I got the gold medal –

Tavis: They used to call you chicken legs.

Felix: They still do. It won’t go away. I’m like I finally got it and the announcer is like, “Chicken legs got her gold medal.” (Laughter) Okay.

Tavis: So how much can you leg press now?

Felix: I used to be able to leg press 700 pounds.

Tavis: Oof. Did you say 700?

Felix: Seven hundred, yeah. I found out it wasn’t the best for my body. It was tough, but I’m competitive, so we’re in there with the guys, who like to go toe-to-toe.

Tavis: I feel like a punk, sitting here. I thought my leg press was decent. Seven hundred, that’s pretty significant. I was fascinated, I’m always fascinated by the back stories of the people I get a chance to talk to, and I was fascinated – and of course you learn some of this by just watching the coverage and hearing the commentators tell a little bit about your life.

But you come from a family where your mother and father are persons of deep and abiding faith.

Felix: That’s true.

Tavis: You pray with your mother before every race, on the phone or on Skype or something in that regard. Your father gets up in front of the whole church and says (laughter) “I don’t care how many medals Alex wins, if it ain’t about Jesus, it don’t -” how has that aided and abetted you in your professional and your athletic life?

Felix: It’s the only thing I know. I grew up in the church; I’m a person of faith. I definitely feel like I have this gift to run, and my whole goal is to use it to the best of my ability to glorify God. So it just makes sense that I come from this family who is so involved in the church.

My dad’s a pastor and a seminary professor, my mom, she has such great faith. Like you said, I call her before every race and I pray. I think it’s just a peace of mind. It helps me put what I do into perspective, that it’s great to have this race, but what I’m doing, life is such a bigger picture than that. I want to run for eternal glory and track is great, but it’s not what life is all about.

Tavis: I grew up in the same kind of family. My mother is – and your father is a minister; my mother is an evangelist.

Felix: Okay.

Tavis: My mother’s a minister, my father, trustee, deacon board all those years. Whenever I would go into – I wasn’t on the track team, I was on the speech team.

Felix: Okay.

Tavis: I know that’s hard for you to imagine, a talk show host on a speech team. But I was on a speech team, on the debate team, throughout high school and college, and I do the same thing. Before every tournament, my mom and I would have prayer on the phone.

I used to laugh sometimes when I got done with those prayers, and I was like, “What if my opponent was on the phone with her mama, praying?” (Laughter) Before they walked into the room. So have you ever had that thought? So you and your mama and daddy are praying, but what if they’re praying, too?

Felix: I think a lot of times they are. But I think that’s the thing – the prayer isn’t necessarily to win.

Tavis: Right.

Felix: But it’s let me be used in whatever way the Lord sees fit, and that’s what it’s all about.

Tavis: I’m glad you raise that. How do you think that you can best be used, with all these medals and all the accolade, how can you best be used now, particularly in a field that has been so burdened with the story of illegal and rampant drug use? Now, of course, it’s the Lance Armstrong story every day in the news.

Felix: Yeah.

Tavis: How do you think you can be used in that kind of environment?

Felix: I try to be a positive light in that situation. I myself am frustrated in just where sports are at. It’s a hard thing when you’re out there working every day, and you know that someone else is cheating and they may not necessarily get caught.

You have to be okay with maybe getting second sometimes just because of the state of where sports are at. But yeah, I can be a voice. I can use my platform to help the younger generation. I think it’s really important for them to understand how to do things the right way, and not just in sports, in life in general.

Tavis: Is it your belief that you have run against people who were cheating?

Felix: Yeah. I think if I were to say no, honestly – yeah. I think you have suspicions. You don’t want to ever accuse anyone, but yes.

Tavis: I wasn’t going to ask you for names, so you can relax. I only raise that because I have been moved at one point at my kitchen table reading the paper, moved to tears, in fact, at the story of a particular woman, but more broadly, just a litany of people who felt that Lance Armstrong was the devil incarnate.

The things he said to them, the things he did to them. Yeah, I don’t know where the truth lies in this, so I’m just saying what I’ve read in the papers here and there, but they say this guy was a tyrant with regard to trying to keep secret what he and his teammates are doing.

Even now, with all these teammates saying he did this, that, and the other, he still won’t come out and acknowledge that. I raise that to ask, to go back to this point of what it feels like to run against somebody who you know is cheating, because there have been a lot of people for years, and particularly this woman, who worked for the U.S. Postal Service team when Armstrong was the leader of that team, who talked about what she endured and what Lance and others – Lance particularly – put her through.

And how all these years, nobody believed her, and she lost her job. She was just crushed in this whole process. Now years later the truth is finally coming out, and she feels a sense of redemption, but she went through hell for all those years while she was trying to tell the truth.

So one, I’m sympathetic to her story, but I think about the other guys. Now obviously, the drug use in cycling was rampant, but there were some guys who were doing it clean, who were doing it right.

Felix: Exactly.

Tavis: They’re looking at Lance and others who are beating them, and they can’t say nothing about it.

Felix: Yeah.

Tavis: So how do you survive in a sport where you know you’re running against folk who are cheating, and to your point, you just really got to be okay with coming in second or third. You can’t say anything about it?

Felix: You have to know why you’re doing it. You have to not stoop to that level. You have to be okay with knowing that that’s going on. It’s something that is so frustrating, because there’s a lot of cases where you can look at somebody and you can say, “I knew you back when. You were not this.” (Laughter)

Now you’re huge and you – it’s just you can see it with your eye. But you’re not getting caught, and so it’s hard and you have to go out there and work hard and say my integrity is that important to me, that that’s somewhere I’m not going to go.

Tavis: So there is always an opportunity – Dr. King used to always say that the time is always ripe, R-I-P-E, to do right, R-I-G-H-T. The time is always ripe to do right. I would think if ever there were a time that was ripe for somebody to do right in sports, that time is now. So I’m wondering what sense you have, or whether people like you and even Usain Bolt and others, this is a new generation, and of course you’re going to be 30 by the time the next Olympics. That’s old in track and field.

Felix: It is.

Tavis: Sorry to call you old. (Laughter)

Felix: It’s true.

Tavis: But you guys are pushing that 30 number by the time the next Olympics rolls around. But do you think it’s possible for your generation of track stars to change the narrative, to turn the story?

Felix: I hope so. I think that’s why you put the word out there. That’s why you spend the time in the classrooms and trying to get through to the kids of the next generation, because I think it definitely lies in the choices and the decisions that they make. So I’m very hopeful that in Rio, maybe it’ll be less of a problem.

Tavis: You’ve said that when you pray with your mother on the phone before these races, the prayer isn’t to win but to do your best and to let God get the glory, whatever the outcome may be. Talk to me, though, about the pressure. What brings on steroid use and other enhancements in sport?

Is the pressure that people feel to win, if I can borrow a phrase from Malcolm X, “by any means necessary?” They just want to win, because the pressure is there, the sponsors are pushing, the coaches are pushing. There’s so much riding on it. Talk to me about how you navigate that level of pressure.

Felix: The pressure is hard. You get – the world is only watching every four years, and I think lots of people feel like they have to win in that time frame. For me, there’s a lot of expectations and you want to be able to live up to them.

For me, I just try to take it day by day. I’ve had the failures before, and so I guess I was just more comfortable, I was more at peace this time around, that whether I win or whether I lose, I’m going to go out giving everything I have and having no regrets in the situation. That’s how I try to deal with the expectations.

Tavis: There’s some folk who if they don’t succeed, if they don’t win on the larger stage when the world is watching, as you said, every four years, if they don’t win and if they do that twice and don’t win, they might not come back.

Felix: Yeah.

Tavis: What kept you coming back?

Felix: Well, I never let track define me. That’s something that’s really important to me. That’s what I do and it’s what I love, but I think by having other things I’m passionate about and interested in, it helped me to come back. It helped me to have renewed love for the sport by being able to step away and then come back.

Having two silver medals, there’s no more motivation than that. That was the driving force these past four years, and I’m super-competitive, and so I just wanted another opportunity to get out there.

Tavis: I feel blessed to call Jackie Joyner Kersee and Bobby Kersee personal and dear friends, friends for many, many years now, and as much as I love Jackie, I would not want to be coached by Bob Kersee.

I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek.

Felix: Of course.

Tavis: Bob is the best there is. But Bob, and everybody knows this, Bob will push you. How do you navigate having a coach of his ilk?

Felix: Jackie. Jackie. (Laughter) Jackie helps me. She has been through it worse than I have, so there’s plenty of times I have to get on the phone and call Jackie and be like how, what do I do, I don’t know.

But he is demanding and he yells and he screams and he demands excellence of you. But that’s what makes him so genius. I think every genius person has a bit of insanity, (laughter) and he’s no different. But he produces results and he’s so respected, has so much wisdom, and I love both of them.

Tavis: So now that you have this acclaim, I mentioned at the top of the show a number of issues that you’re passionate about. So what are you, long-term, you mentioned, we mentioned Jackie, we know that Jackie’s always been passionate about children, and we know her work in East St. Louis and beyond with regard to kids. In the long term, what do you want to do with this platform that you have?

Felix: Well, I grew up in my mom’s third grade classroom and always helping her, and I also got a passion for kids that way. I got a degree in elementary education from USC, and now what’s really heavy on my heart is fighting physical inactivity.

So that’s something that I definitely want to do long-term. Just the amount of time I spend in classrooms and seeing the drastic changes from when I was even a kid, and the amount of inactivity that’s going on is something that I definitely think we have to do something about, and the time is now. It’s an urgent situation.

Tavis: What most concerns you about the state of America’s children today?

Felix: The health issues. I think by having that inactivity, and that it’s now a normal thing that our kids are not – they’re spending so much time in school where they’re not moving at all.

They have diseases that we see in older people, and it’s just frightening. This generation now is the first generation that will live five years less than their parents, and when I hear that, it’s just mind-boggling. Who wants their child to live shorter life expectancy than themselves? Something definitely has to be done.

Tavis: Obviously the Olympics is always about the crème-de-la-crème, the cream of the crop, but do you think that the obesity issue that is so rampant with our kids might have some long-term effect on our international competitiveness down the road?

Felix: I think it definitely could. Of course. I think that kids aren’t even exploring the option of sports anymore, and they don’t even know what they could do. For myself, I know that I wasn’t bred to be an Olympian. I didn’t start running until high school, and I just stumbled upon to.

But if I wasn’t active and involved in different sports and just moving around, I wouldn’t have even known that I had the potential to become an Olympian. I know that there’s other stories out there like that, so I think it’s very important, even if you’re not in organized sports, but just to be active, to be healthy.

Tavis: How did you come to running so late? High school, that’s –

Felix: I was playing basketball. Playing basketball, I was in gymnastics; I was doing pretty much everything but running.

Tavis: But running, yeah.

Felix: I was at a new school. I went out to meet new people and I just, after the first year I fell in love with the sport, and it was kind of a whirlwind since then, yeah.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that to your point, you were doing everything except running, and running ends up being the lane – no pun intended -?

Felix: Yeah.

Tavis: – the lane that you should have been in all along? What do you make of that discovery?

Felix: It’s funny. But I think that I had to find it myself. I had to see what I enjoyed, what I was passionate about, and I’m grateful for that experience and that it took some time. I think that so many things in life are a journey, and I was able to find my path.

Tavis: I ask that question in part because I think there’s a lesson in there for parents. So often, parents push their kids into a particular – you see where I’m going with this.

Felix: Yeah, definitely.

Tavis: But your parents allowed you to discover that on your own.

Felix: Yeah, and I think that that’s something that parents have to understand. Even if their child isn’t showing athletic excellence in a certain sport, they still need to be involved. They don’t need to be involved in a military type of setting, they just need to get out and play and enjoy themselves and find it themselves.

Tavis: You finished, as you said earlier in this conversation, you finished your degree at USC – not a bad school if you want a good education. But again, we live in a world now where emphasis is put on everything, it seems, but education. How important was it to you to make sure that you finished your work at USC?

Felix: Oh, it was extremely important. I come from a family of educators, and I promised my dad –

Tavis: So it was important to them, then.

Felix: It was important to everybody. (Laughter) I wasn’t going to survive if I didn’t finish, and I promised my dad that I would. I did it the same time as competing in international track. It was tough, but I was just so happy that I was able to be fortunate enough to get it done.

Tavis: I was reading a stat, and I will probably get this wrong, but I think I’m pretty close here. Certainly where the U.S. team was concerned, there were more women in this Olympics than ever before. I think 44 percent was the number of women competing in the Olympics, and – let me (unintelligible).

I don’t want to screw this up. I think I wrote this down, let me make sure I got this right. Yes. That was pretty good. Women in London, 44 percent of participants, the most ever; women, 29 of 46 gold medals won by the U.S.

Felix: That’s pretty awesome.

Tavis: So women are coming on strong, huh?

Felix: Yeah. It was so unexpected. We didn’t go in there really talking about it or knowing that that was going to happen, but I’ve heard so many stories of young girls watching the Olympics and being inspired by it, and I think that’s what it’s all about. They want to do it now, and that’s really cool.

Tavis: What do you make about – this, of course, is a huge anniversary for Title IX. What’s your sense, though, of how the field is or is not being leveled for women’s sports across the board?

Felix: I think there’s always work to be done, of course. The men’s sports are a driving force in college athletics, but I’m just so grateful for how far we have come, and the work that women before have done so that we could be here.

I think it’s just amazing on this anniversary to be able to see what was done at the Olympics just because of that. So it’s an amazing thing.

Tavis: I mentioned earlier that you spent some time with President Clinton recently at the Clinton Global Initiative, speaking there. You like these platforms to be able to speak, these stages? Are you comfortable with that or are you getting comfortable with that kind of public speaking all the time? You’re pretty good here.

Felix: I’m getting comfortable with it. I think it’s just such an opportunity, to be able to speak about things that you’re passionate about, and hopefully have some influence on something. So it’s something that I do enjoy doing, and I’m passionate about the causes. So that makes it really easy.

Tavis: I’ve been waiting to talk to you about this, so I can hear this from a person that could help me understand it. So I’ve been reading a lot lately about this union that the runners are trying to get organized. Tell me what this is about, the reason for it, what they’re trying to do, how it’s coming along. I’ll just shut up and let you just clue me in about this union.

Felix: Well, I think just the idea is that the athletes are coming together and trying to have a voice. There’s a lot of decisions that have been made, and I think a lot of athletes feel that we didn’t have representation. So I think it’s just about having someone at the table when these big decisions are being discussed, and that’s what we’re trying to come together to do.

Tavis: I mentioned earlier in this conversation that you will be right at 30 in Rio.

Felix: Mm-mmm.

Tavis: So what do you think? You going to try to do this again?

Felix: I am going to try to do it again. I’m still just really enjoying what I’m doing. I’m very passionate about it, and I feel like right now I’m in my prime and yeah, I’m going to give it a shot.

Tavis: So help me understand what your process – I’m talking about your workout process. So the Games are four years from now, a little less than four years now. So take me through a four-year journey of how you will – like, when will you start to ramp up again? I know you’ve been doing other stuff between now and then, but take me from now to Rio.

Felix: Well, I’ll go back to training, actually, in a few weeks, and I’ll be preparing for the 2013 world championships in Russia. So those, we have those, which will be 2013, and then we have an off year. That’s a year where we’ll just have our season, and our season is in Europe, and it’s kind of like golf, where you go on the tour and you go from place to place, and you’re competing against the exact same people who are in the Olympics.

So it’s still extremely competitive and it’s how we make our living. Then the next year we’ll have the world championships again, and the cycle keeps going. Before you know it, it’ll be time to gear up for the Olympic trials and do it all over again.

So it’s a cycle that just keeps going, and each year you’re preparing yourself for the Olympics. You’re building on the base that you have from the previous year.

Tavis: I’m not asking you to give me numbers, I’m not that tacky, (laughter) but we read every day in the paper about what Michael Phelps is making for endorsements, a guy at that level. Obviously, you’ve got some hardware as well. So I’m not talking numbers, per se, but when you say you make your living by running these races, you make a pretty good living doing this if you’re Allyson Felix?

Felix: I’m blessed to be able to do that. I have a lot of great sponsors, and so from Nike to Gatorade, AT&T, just so many great companies behind me. Then you go to meets and you get appearance fees and you get prize money, and you get salaries from different companies.

So yeah, I’ve definitely been blessed to be able to make a living doing what I love.

Tavis: I want to go back to your parents now. Obviously, they’re proud of you and all of that, but how do they contextualize all of this success?

Felix: They are very, very proud of me, but my dad, his famous line is “This is all great,” but his joy and him and my mom’s joy is to see me walking with the Lord. So it always comes back to the reason why you do it. This is great, but it’s fleeting.

Tavis: So that year – I want to go back to what you said just a moment ago – so that year of 2014, when you have kind of like the year off, so does that mean for a whole year you ain’t got to talk to Bobby?

Felix: I wish. (Laughter) It doesn’t quite work that –

Tavis: Does that mean the whole year, Bobby Kersee doesn’t yell at you for a whole year?

Felix: Not quite. It’s just a year without a major championship, so we just don’t have world championships. But I still put up with Bobby on a daily basis, so not quite.

Tavis: It could be worse. Bobby did his job.

Felix: See? That’s why we deal with the craziness.

Tavis: Yeah. More important, Allyson Felix did her job. I feel like I own – I should give these back to you, I guess. (Laughter) I’ve been talking for 30 minutes like –

Felix: You can get comfortable with them.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I got way too comfortable holding these things, so I will –

Felix: Not a problem.

Tavis: – hand these back to you one at a time.

Felix: All right.

Tavis: Congratulations.

Felix: Thank you so much.

Tavis: It’s an honor to have you on the program.

Felix: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: You can come back any time.

Felix: Thank you.

Tavis: You don’t have to wait four years till you win again to come back.

Felix: That sounds good to me.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Felix: Appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm