US sprinter Allyson Felix (© Getty Images)
As she rounded the turn and began ramping up speed, Allyson Felix felt a sharp pain in her right leg, a stabbing sensation unlike any she had ever experienced.
After three hobbled steps to decelerate, she fell to the blue track wincing as she grabbed the back of her leg and watched as six other women gave chase in the Moscow night to streaking Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
For the first time in her illustrious career, the injury bug bit Felix hard, preventing the three-time 200m gold medallist from finishing at the IAAF World Championships. Some 10 months later it has also left the decorated sprinter in uncharted territory, having to navigate back from a serious injury.
The 28-year-old took her second step on the road back at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene on 31 May, finishing third in the women's 200m in 22.44 at the Prefontaine Classic.
"This was decent," Felix said. "I found out where I am at. In terms of speed, I am not there yet but I am coming around. I haven’t had a lot of injuries so it is kind of a new experience for me. I think I expected to just do the rehab and be able to feel back to my old self again and that hasn’t been the case. It's been a lot of ups and downs with the process of coming back. I'm just hanging in there and trying to get back into top form. That is kind of what the year is about for me."
Looking back on the injury, Felix doesn't initially recall the excruciating pain as much as she does the utter disillusionment of promise unfulfilled.
"When I went down, the immediate feeling was disappointment," she said. "You know the way that Bobby [Kersee] trains us. We're peaked to go at the World Championships, and so you don’t get a lot of chances to put times out earlier in the season. So for me, I had trained all of that time and didn’t get a chance to really show the work that we had done. Having to watch the race from the ground was not fun and not something I ever want to do again."
What she watched was Fraser-Pryce claim gold in 22.17, the Ivory Coast’s Murielle Ahoure get silver in 22.32, and Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare earn bronze in the same time. As those three celebrated, several people fumbled to help Felix on to a stretcher before her brother Wes picked her up and carried her off the track as she wiped away tears.
"I remember looking up and him being there and I just didn’t expect to see him," Felix said of her brother. "I didn’t even know how he got down there. But it was just perfect timing because I was pretty devastated at that point and to just see someone who you love, who you know is in your corner, at that moment was really special."
An ultrasound performed in Moscow revealed that Felix suffered a tear of the right medial hamstring. Doctors there speculated that she would need surgery. Felix immediately flew home to Los Angeles and was examined by her own doctors, who determined the injury would heal through rest and an intense course of rehabilitation, something Felix called "a huge relief."
"I did about three months of rehab before eventually making my way back on to the track," she said. "The rehab entailed lots of tedious things. Going back to the basics, lots of band work, little movements. You're going back to things that you don’t even think about when you're normally training in the weight room. It was a huge learning experience dealing with all of that stuff. I know I took a lot for granted before being healthy for so long."
Felix said the injury has been a significant setback at this stage of her career in that she has yet to return to the high level of training she has become accustomed to while healthy.
"I look at some athletes and they get injured and come back and it's as if they never missed a beat," she said. "For me, I just didn’t have that experience, in training, getting back to where I typically am at during the year. It's been tough.
"My timeframe is different now. I feel like where I would have peaked out at a certain level in previous years, I'm not there now. I feel like it is definitely coming. I am still doing the rehab stuff and will continue doing it, just as a precaution, moving forward."
Felix's hamstring has yet to respond uniformly during her races. After finishing fifth in the 400m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, she said her leg felt tight. After her 200m race in Eugene, she said the leg was "feeling pretty good." That inconsistency – she anticipates that she is running at only 80-85% strength – is forcing her to be patient with her progress, something she admits is not easy.
"Yeah, it's tough because I have those expectations," Felix said. "I am still going into races looking to win. I am not looking at things any differently. It may take a while to build myself back up but you never know. I think I can still get in there and be competitive, but I think the tightness and stuff is going to linger for a while."
Felix said she will focus primarily on the 200m and 400m this season – she will race the 200m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Oslo on 11 June before running a 400m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris on 5 July – but didn’t rule out the possibility of jumping into the 100m at the US Championships on 26-29 June.
The ultimate goal is regaining classic Felix form before the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing and beyond.
"I would love if I could round back into top form before then," she said. "I would welcome that, of course. Most importantly it's building back to get to top form so I can build on it for the next three years and be ready to go again."
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF