Allyson Felix comes out of retirement for 4×400 relay race

Allyson Felix was content to be retired. Days after winning her record 19th medal at a track and field world championship, she was back in Los Angeles indulging in what she called a cheat meal: hot wings and a root beer float at Hot Wings Café.

She had reason to celebrate. For two decades she had been one of the sport’s consummate performers. Her 11 Olympic medals make her the most-decorated U.S. track athlete in history. With her bronze as part of a mixed 4×400-meter relay team on July 15 came a record she’d achieved by medaling in eight world championships over the span of 17 years — another record.

It was a fitting place to say goodbye for an athlete who always wanted to run in a global championship in the United States, and afterward, she had spoken of being a fighter, verbally putting a bow on her career.

A few days later, the iconic sprints coach Bobby Kersee called to interrupt a meal of Felix’s favorite wings. Could she be available to run a leg on the U.S. women’s 4×400 team in Saturday’s preliminaries?

“Of course I was ready,” she said, adding: “Had no plans to be back here for the rest of the meet — but things happen.”

Allyson Felix receives the baton from U.S. teammate Talitha Diggs during a heat in the women’s 4×400-meter relay. Felix’s split of 50.61 seconds was the Americans’ best.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Felix finished a pair of workouts assigned by Kersee, hopped on a plane and put her retirement on hold to be a “team player,” she said. She also put herself in position to add to her record haul if the U.S., which ran the fastest qualifying time of 3 minutes 23.38 seconds, medals as expected. Felix was asked to run only in the qualifying round, not Sunday’s final — and if her 50.61-second second leg was truly her final race, then she went out in a fashion appropriate for a career notable for its speed and endurance.

Of the 31 women who raced in the United States’ heat — the Netherlands was disqualified after three legs — only two clocked a faster split than the 36-year-old Felix.

“You get back in the routine,” she said. “Bobby gave me a couple of workouts at home and you just snap right back into it. It had only been a few days.”

Felix took her handoff from Talitha Diggs to cheers inside Hayward Field in recognition of her unexpected return.

“It was definitely a little unexpected but since she was in the relay pool it wasn’t too big of a shock, but since she had retired and for her to come back, I was like, oh this is going to be cool,” Diggs said. “Just to give her her last relay exchange is pretty awesome.”

By the back straightaway Felix had built a sizable lead, handing off to Kaylin Whitney more than a second ahead of Britain.

“It’s kind of come full circle, literally, just kind of being in the short sprints and idolizing her,” Whitney said. “To move up to this event has just been amazing. To be able to be run alongside her as well as these other great ladies is a privilege.”

Felix will watch Sunday’s final in Eugene before returning to Los Angeles, where her retirement will commence again. The advocacy that defined the latter years of her career, when she publicized the ways in which shoe sponsors would cut pay for athletes while pregnant and pushed for more representation for mothers, will be a full-time role.

She’ll finish that hot wings meal now, she said.

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