A fundamental tenet of being a sprinter is staying in your lane, and for years, Allyson Felix applied it to every portion of her career. Obsessive focus helped make her the most decorated American woman in Olympic history. By age 30, she had won nine Olympic medals — six gold, three silver — and nine of her 11 world championships. She ran for an apparel company, endorsed products and stayed silent on issues outside of her performance. The thought of using her platform for other purposes scared her. She viewed herself, first and only, as an athlete.
“I’m not one to shake things up,” Felix said Monday in a phone conversation. “I don’t know, I’m just — I’ve always been very laid-back, sometimes quiet. It’s just not natural to come out and have a hard stance on different things.”
The past year, the most harrowing of her life, transformed Felix. In November, Felix delivered daughter Camryn early via emergency Caesarean section. The birth left Felix with physical complications. Camryn spent her first weeks in the NICU, fighting for life. Meanwhile, her Nike sponsorship contract expired, and according to Felix, the company greeted her maternity with a drastically reduced renewal offer. As she fretted for both her and Camryn’s health, she wondered whether she would ever compete again.
This past weekend, Felix returned at the U.S. track and field outdoor national championships in Des Moines, running unattached. She ran slower than usual but advanced to the 400-meter final before falling short of making the world championships as an individual. She qualified to be a potential member of the 4x400 relay in Qatar this fall.
She felt grateful and showcased a new, unrestrained sense of purpose. In May, Felix wrote an op-ed, published in the New York Times, denouncing Nike’s maternity practices and calling for greater support for athletes who become mothers. Now, she has further plans to wield her formidable voice. She defines herself as more than an athlete, and even something in addition to a mother. For the first time, Felix describes herself with a word she once would have run from: activist.
“When you are talking about life-changing situations, I think becoming a mother and having a daughter and understanding what she’ll face in the world, it’s just bigger than myself and any comforts that I’ve experienced,” Felix said. “It’s time for me.”
When Felix denounced Nike, many within and around track and field wondered what club or company she would end up running under. She announced this week that Athleta, which had never backed an athlete, will be her primary sponsor. She chose Athleta, she said, because the company shared similar values and agreed to help her launch initiatives to empower and support women.
“I think it’s really redefining what sponsorship looks like,” Felix said. “They’re excited to celebrate me as a whole athlete. That’s not just my performance, but being a mother and an activist as well. I’ve really never experienced that before.”
Felix has not finalized how she’ll “get my hands dirty and create change,” she said, but she has ideas. She wants to address the maternal mortality rate of African American women, which is three times higher than that of white women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She wants to effect change in track and field, to find better solutions for athletes who become mothers and “ways that you can support the whole athlete so that we can be our best.” She noted, after a weekend of trying to find time to sleep and wash bottles in a hotel room, that the women’s professional tennis tour offers child care. She called for women in positions of power in both apparel companies and governing bodies such as USA Track and Field and the IAAF, the sport’s global organization.
“More women at the table, decision-makers — that is definitely what is needed,” Felix said. “Women who have been through this. Who have experiences. Who can come up with a number of things off the top of their head of ways we can be supported.”
There was a time when Felix, 33, would have felt uncomfortable speaking about any of these issues. But her experience over the past year changed her.
“It helped me find my voice,” Felix said. “It helped me understand what was important to me and just really made me feel like I couldn’t sit down silent any longer. I just had never expected to face challenges giving birth. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I can say that I definitely took my health for granted. Being a professional athlete, it’s what I do. That really shook my world. … Previously, I was so focused on my performance on the track, and it was scary for me to talk about these other issues. But I finally feel like I’m in a place where I have something to add to the conversation. I’m excited to continue to do that.”
In December, Felix remained in the hospital, and her daughter stayed a floor below hers, in the NICU fighting Bradycardia, a condition that causes infants to struggle breathing. One day when she visited her daughter, Camryn stopped breathing. Doctors had to stimulate her to start breathing again. Machines beeped. Alarms sounded. In a nearby room, Felix heard a woman’s piercing scream, and she knew something awful had happened. Nurses scurried to close doors.
She remembers thinking: “Am I still going to be running track? Is that something that is still important to me? I’m not healthy. My daughter is not healthy. We’re fighting for health right now.”
Track was not on her mind.
“Those were definitely days where I wasn’t sure if it was important enough to me to be able to continue on,” Felix said.
Felix found strength in talking with other mothers in the NICU. During weeks in the hospital, she leaned on others and started to realize she could offer the same support.
“There was just something about the power of knowing that you’re not alone,” Felix said. “Hearing someone else’s story, being able to talk to someone when you’re going through these difficult times, and I think I understood more than ever when you share your story, what that does. I don’t think I understood that before. I always felt like, ‘What do I really have to add?’ Or, I’m not going to be able to change anything. Really coming to the point where I know there is power in what I went through.”
When Camryn improved to the point she could go home, Felix drew motivation from a desire to share her story, and she knew returning to track would provide a larger platform. She took inspiration from other Olympians who became mothers: Alysia Montano, Nia Ali, Stephanie Bruce and more. After her op-ed, she heard stories from mothers outside of track who were afraid to tell their bosses they were pregnant.
“I just felt like there’s no way I could just sit by and be silent,” Felix said.
To be clear, Felix remains an athlete with plenty of ambition. She plans to compete next summer in her fifth Olympics. After limited training following recovery from physical trauma, her performance this past weekend, while modest by her standards, convinced her she can return to elite form.
“The fire is still there,” she said.
She may appreciate competing more than ever. In Des Moines, she experienced a first. She used to dread the immediate aftermath of races — the sensation of lactic acid flooding her muscles, giving interviews feeling “delirious” and wondering if her words made sense. On Saturday, she walked from the finish line to the stands. Her husband, Kenneth Ferguson, passed Camryn to her, and Felix hugged her daughter.
“It was the most amazing thing,” Felix said. “To be able to see her face, it just kind of sent all that away for the moment. It was just the best feeling, regardless of the result.”
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