Allyson Felix

In the end, despite the prevalent threat of COVID-19 and constant controversy reverberating over whether the Tokyo Olympics should have been cancelled a second time, several amazing stories made these Games memorable in spite of all the problems. But none were more compelling than those of USA women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley and track star Allyson Felix. Their victories were part of an overall impressive showing by American women, but they also represented very special personal achievements for Staley and Felix.

Staley became the first Black woman to coach an Olympic team, and (shockingly) only the third African American to ever do it period. John Thompson (1988) and Lenny Wilkins (1996) are the only Black men to be appointed head coaches. Staley’s calm presence and smart tactical decisions led the women’s team to its seventh consecutive Olympic goal medal, a record that tops all other American teams in any sport. It also culminated an extraordinary career that has seen Staley win two Olympic gold medals as an assistant, and also be an acclaimed and highly successful college and professional player, and later championship college coach.

It wasn’t lost on Staley’s players that she was and is a record setter. “Having her here at this point in time, where we’re in a place where history is the way it is, it’s tremendous that she had this opportunity to coach this team,” Sylvia Fowles, who

Dawn Staley

won her fourth and final gold medal Sunday, told USA Today. “I’m just happy. Hopefully we can get more faces like her, male or female, to come out and represent what we stand for.”

Staley didn’t talk much before the Games about her historic role, though she’s long been an outspoken advocate for more Blacks in coaching, and in particular more opportunities for Black women. But after her team’s resounding defeat of Japan in the finale, she voiced her opinions on the subject.

“It wasn’t on the forefront of our mind, but now that it’s over I’m happy,” Staley said. “I’m happy that I was able to do it — not because I’m a Black woman, but because of what I put into USA Basketball. It created other aspirations. First, I just wanted to be a player and be a gold medalist, then because of that and those experiences it made me aspire to be an assistant coach, and because of that, it made me aspire to be the head coach. But I’m super proud that I am the first. I hope that other Black women get an opportunity to do this, or Black men, because it’s pretty special.”

At 35, Allyson Felix is at an age when most athletes, male or female, are either retiring or near the end of the line. There were questions whether Felix, who had a daughter in 2018, would even be able to get into the necessary shape to defeat top athletes. She showed in these games that she was more than ready. Felix broke Olympic records over the weekend by

Allyson Felix

winning her 10th and 11th medals. Her victories, and in particular the gold medal as part of the women’s 4 x 400 team, smashed Carl Lewis’ mark of the most by any American track and field athlete. It was a magnificent race, with Felix and teammates Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu not only winning as a team but each member also earning individual medals. The gold medal relay race competed Felix’s extraordinary career that spanned five different Olympic Games.

“I think this one is my favorite medal because of the journey it represents,” Felix said after the race. “Sitting in the NICU listening to Cammy’s monitors beeping as she stopped breathing again and I thought we might lose our daughter again. The days with no sponsor when there were so many voices of doubt telling me to just retire. There were days that I never thought I’d be able to get back into race shape ever again. These are some of my struggles, but I know you’ve been going through your own, but look at us still smiling!!”

Felix made headlines prior to the Olympics by taking a stand against Nike, the corporation that was her main sponsor. She took them to task for not doing enough for women athletes who need to take time away due to pregnancy. Her public stance led Nike to make major changes, and they were quick to embrace her after her medal wins.

There were many other amazing stories at these Olympics, many featuring great performances by athletes from such nations as Namibia and India winning medals for the first time in their country’s history. But none were more compelling and satisfying than the triumphs of Dawn Staley and Allyson Felix. The standards they’ve established and examples of grace under pressure that they repeatedly demonstrated will positively influence the generations that follow them.