My Favorite Olympian

The track and field Olympic trials began last week, and I’ve been watching as much coverage as NBC permits. This is because prior to my accident, I ran track and racewalked (which, I assure you, is a sport, however silly it looks). I wasn’t particularly impressive, but I held my own when thrown into relays, and managed not to embarrass myself in most long distance events. I also managed to score some points for the track team in the 1500m racewalk during my sophomore/part of my junior year, so there was that. My dad asked me a few years ago whether it was painful to watch the Olympics, because I couldn’t run like I used to. But, honestly, I was never good enough to qualify for a state championship. So the way I looked at it, I would have never competed in the Olympics to begin with. Ergo, they’re safe to watch.

Although I ran distance, I tend to pay minimal attention to any distance in the Olympics that is longer than 1500m (with the exception of the steeplechase, because it is a magnificent event). From the Beijing Olympics onwards, I’ve mostly focused on sprinting events.

This is for three reasons:

  1. Sprinting’s fun to do.
  2. Sprinting’s fun to watch (even when NBC botches the coverage and broadcasts events hours after they’ve ended).
  3. When I watch sprinting events, I can cheer for Allyson Felix.

You could say that she’s my favorite Olympian because she’s a total boss. So far, she has two silver medals (200m in Athens and Beijing) and four gold (200m in London, 4x100m relay in London, 4x400m relay in Beijing and London). And she’s got plenty of medals from other competitions. She calls the 200m her baby, and she’s medaled in that race in three different Olympics. And she just qualified for Rio in the 400m with one of the most exciting finishes yet in the trials. I’m sure many Americans would call her their favorite Olympian for the above reasons.

But I have one more reason. Months before she competed in the Beijing Olympics, Allyson Felix visited me in the hospital.

Yes, Allyson Felix. She visited me. She was in my hospital room. She didn’t bring cameras or reporters (which is why I have no news report to verify my story), although her manager came along. I don’t have a picture because I didn’t have a camera (or a phone with a camera and an appropriate cable to hook up to my laptop). And this wasn’t a planned visit with the hospital, because to my knowledge she didn’t visit the rest of the pediatric unit that day. She heard about my accident from the news, contacted my high school to find out where I was inpatient, and then went to NYU Rusk to wish me well. She also gave me some Adidas gear (this was back when Adidas sponsored her).

Here’s the fun part of the story – while I was at Rusk, I had only the faintest recollection of who Allyson Felix was. When she won silver at Athens, I was thirteen, and was not yet interested in track and field. I had read about her in a Sports Illustrated article a while back, but that was about it.

So how did this meeting go? Well, before she entered my hospital room, a nurse came in and said that someone was visiting from my school. I was sitting in my hospital bed at the time and my mom had just helped me get dressed (this was back when I could barely dress myself). In about twenty minutes, I would have to leave my room to go to physical therapy a few floors up.

But I had time to see someone from my school before I went to physical therapy. That’s when Allyson Felix and her manager walked in. I stared blankly at her for a solid ten seconds, and thought about everyone I knew from school who would visit me. I then realized that she did not go to my school. Did she go to my middle school? We looked around the same age.

After a moment of silence, her manager introduced her and himself, which I can imagine made the situation a bit awkward. Her name rang a bell, but, again, I only faintly knew who she was (and was still wondering if we were ever classmates). But I nodded enthusiastically when her manager mentioned that she medaled in the Athens Olympics, and I replied with something that I cannot remember (probably, “Wow!!”). At any rate, the fact that someone I didn’t know was visiting me made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Some time later, it was time to go to physical therapy. A couple of nurses came in to transfer me to my wheelchair. Although I should say that it was not actually my chair – it belonged to the hospital, and it looked hideous. The frame was heavy and clunky, the seat and elongated back were a shade of olive green found only in tacky living rooms, the wheels were positioned so far back that there was no way I could push myself comfortably, and the chair was too wide for my body. To compensate for this, wedges of bright blue padding were placed between the inside of the chair and the sides of my legs (which, as you can imagine, went really well with the olive green). I wore ankle foot orthotics (think of a leg brace that stops at your knee), and oversized secondhand sneakers to go with them, because those were the only shoes that fit. To top this all off, I wore a neck brace.

In other words, I looked like a mess (or, you know, how you never want to look when you’re meeting someone who you know is a big deal…even if you can’t remember the specific contents of that once-read Sports Illustrated article).

As an added bonus, my blood pressure at this time was, to put it pleasantly, unreliable. After I got in the hospital chair, I could immediately feel my blood pressure drop. I started to see dots. Allyson was talking. I nodded slowly. I knew that my blood pressure still refused to cooperate, because it sounded like there were seashells over my ears. I heard every other word she said, but couldn’t string them into a coherent sentence. I think she was wishing me well? The room started to turn green.

“Do not faint in front of Allyson Felix,” I thought. “You are not fainting in front of the nice Olympian who came all this way to visit. Eyes open, blink, blink, breathe. I think she’s getting ready to leave. Oh no, does she notice how pale I am? I must be really pale right now. Yeah, I’d want to get out of here too. I must look like a zombie. A pale, awkward zombie. That’s so sweet, she’s giving me Adidas gear that she signed. Okay, breathe. Keep blinking, and the room will stop being green.”

I started to see dots again as the greenness in the room dissipated. Allyson said something along the lines of it was nice to meet me (which was probably her being as polite as possible to a high schooler who was zombie-fying before her very eyes). I thanked her for visiting and for the Adidas gear. She left. Whew! Didn’t faint.

To her, that may have been something of an awkward hospital visit. And, to be fair, I probably made it a bit uncomfortable. Imagine visiting someone who only kind of knows who you are, and then wondering if they actually heard anything you said.

But her visit made a fan out of me. No one had forced her to see me. And, again, there were no cameras. This was an elite athlete taking time out of her undoubtedly busy schedule to wish a student athlete (with a far heavier emphasis on “student” than “athlete”) well.

Since her visit, I’ve followed her career far more closely, and rooted for her in every race of hers that’s been televised. Which means that I hollered at the television, “YAAASSSSS!” during the 200m at the London Olympics, because I was so happy for her. I cannot imagine what it’s like to compete in the same event for three consecutive Olympics, and to finally win a gold medal.

I guess I didn’t need to meet Allyson to know that she’s a lovely person. She radiates positivity during her post-race interviews (although some of that may be the result of endorphins). But I wanted to write about her visit anyway because it was a genuinely nice thing she did, and although she may never find this blog, I just want to say, to Allyson, a far more coherent thank you than the one I said in 2008.

The 200m trials start on Friday. I’ll be rooting for her.

Full Track and Field Olympic Trials Schedule

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