In the world of athletics – especially the professional realm – athletes tend to stick with others in their sport, and not venture far from that circle.
But over the last few years, basketball all-star Candace Parker and world-class sprinter Allyson Felix have reached across the sport divide and developed a strong friendship that includes spending time together, and supporting each other at the recent London Olympic Games.
Felix, who took home three gold medals, went to one of the games of Parker and Team USA, en route to their own Olympic gold. Parker was stuck in a team meeting the day of Felix’s 200 final, so she sent husband Shelden Williams to support her friend and see her win. The two also did some sightseeing together when their schedules permitted.
Since then Felix has attended Los Angeles Sparks games, including last week’s round one playoff match up, where Parker put up 25 points. Felix said it is gratifying to see Parker at her best, given that she’s missed large parts of the last three seasons.
“She’s dealt with so much injury in her career, and it’s awesome to see her healthy and taking care of business,” Felix said. “She’s just so good – I love watching her play.”
Parker and Felix’s relationship began in 2003, when they met at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles. Parker, from Illinois, and Felix, from Los Angeles, had both won national high school athlete of the year in their respective sports, and at the awards event, they clicked instantly.
“Our parents hit it off too,” Parker said. “It was a lot of fun to meet her.”
They kept in touch during their college years, but it was challenging with Parker at the University of Tennessee and Felix at the University of Southern California. In fact, it wasn’t until over two years ago that, Parker said, they “became real close, like exchanging numbers and calling each other.”
It was then that Felix, who had been living in Valencia, Calif., moved to the Playa Vista area of Los Angeles to be closer to her training facility and coach. Parker, who was drafted by the Sparks in 2008, lived just down the street.
“Suddenly I could walk to her house,” Felix said.
The two began hanging out, and their dispositions fit well together.
“She’s super-genuine, no matter who you are,” Felix said of Parker. “She’s super-competitive on the court, but off of it, she’s really laid-back.”
Parker said Felix is somewhat reserved at first.
“Once you get to know her, she’s hilarious, sarcastic, and really fun to be around,” Parker said. “She’s a very nice person.”
Equally important, Parker and Felix discovered that they both prefer home activities over going out on the town and hitting clubs. When asked to elaborate, they each used the term “low-key” to describe their idea of a fun evening.
“We like to roller skate, sometimes we’ll hit a movie, but we’re not big on going out,” Parker said.
Felix, who does her share of traveling, recognizes that her friend is often also gone from home more than not.
“Especially with her life and spending so much time away from home, she appreciates it when she’s there,” Felix said.
As Shelden Williams and Felix’s boyfriend Kenneth also became friends, one of the couple’s favorite activities is playing spades – although Team Felix has yet to win.
“Allyson and Ken are still trying to beat us in spades,” Parker said with a touch of pride.
Felix was slightly less enthusiastic about the game.
“It’s not as much fun for us,” she said.
Parker and Williams’ three-year-old daughter Lailaa has also adopted the couple, sometimes referring to Kenneth as her boyfriend. Felix said it has been fun to see Parker as a mother, and said she is great at it.
“Candace is awesome as a mom,” Felix said. “She’s very patient, but at the same time, she means business. Lailaa sees her busy lifestyle and is able to roll with it. She’s an amazing little girl.”
Parker admires Felix’s confidence, and said she wasn’t at all surprised by her success in London.
“She was so focused (before her races),” Parker said. “Not cocky – just confident.”
Felix said both she and Parker have watched each other grow up and mature through the years.
“We both have the same basic personalities as we did back then, but we’re both making it through the professional athlete experience,” Felix said.
Parker enjoys the aspect of cross-sport connection.
“It’s cool that we support each other in our different sports, and it’s fun to see how other athletes train,” Parker said. “I don’t know much about track. I’ve told Allyson, ‘your sport is our punishment.'”
Felix played basketball for her high school as a freshman, but said if Parker was to try to run with her, or if she were to try to play her friend in hoops, someone would be “completely out of their element.”
“Energy and competition-wise, we’d be evenly matched, but to actually compete against each other would be so hilarious,” Felix said. “It would be pure entertainment.”
One thing that did bring their sports worlds together in August was a “gold medal party” in Los Angeles, which was attended by the Sparks and several USA track and field team members. Athletes dressed up and took a lot of pictures, which both Parker and Felix said was a lot of fun.
For now, however, Parker and the Sparks are in the Western Conference finals, which begin this week and guarantee Los Angeles at least one home game. Felix attends as her apperance schedule permits.
“I hope to be there,” Felix said. “Candace will do well.”