Allyson Felix spoke recently to students at the YMCA where she played as a child in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. But she wasn’t there to discuss fitness or her path to Olympic gold.
“What we’re actually going to be doing is a really cool science experiment,” the champion sprinter told students gathered after school.
Felix’s appearance was part of the YMCA’s new campaign to raise awareness about community services fostering youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The programs include diabetes prevention, providing teens with mentors and resources to improve their college readiness and promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
The Crenshaw Y students built small balloon-powered vehicles with Felix, attempting to propel their creations faster than the approximately 10 meters per second that Felix covered in her best 100-meter time of 10.89 seconds.
Some of the vehicles didn’t budge. Others burst forward, although perhaps not as quickly as Felix. But the experiment was in keeping with the YMCA’s mission to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking, to get students comfortable with failure and to urge young people to envision themselves in STEM careers.
“A lot of people see the Y as just a gym and a place to swim for their kids, or for after-school programs,” Felix, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in elementary education, told The Undefeated. “But they don’t really see how it does affect the community and even how the programs are tailored to what communities they are in.”
The YMCA is the nation’s largest provider of child care and serves 22 million people of all ages at 2,700 locations. Felix grew up at the Crenshaw Y, where she loved to play basketball. “Rebounding was the best part of my game. Before everyone caught up to me heightwise, I used to be one of the tallest,” said the 5-foot-6 athlete.
Felix has competed in four Olympics and won six gold medals, more than any other woman in track and field, and nine total Olympic medals, tied with Merlene Ottey of Jamaica for the most track and field medals. Felix helped set the 4×100 relay world record of 40.82 seconds at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Now 32 years old, she is determined to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games. She hopes to qualify for the 400, where she was denied gold in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games when Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas dived at the tape. To qualify at her favorite distance, the 200, would be an added bonus.
“My biggest goal is to be able to make the team,” Felix said. “It would be a really great way to kind of end my career at the Olympics, to be able to make a fifth Olympic team, you know? You couldn’t really ask for more than that.”