Allyson Felix has always been “a planner.” But, over the last year, the famed track and field star has faced challenges even the most meticulous people couldn’t prepare for. Since November, Felix — who’s won a total of nine Olympic medals — went from decorated athlete to patient to mother to advocate. She gave birth to her daughter, Camryn Grace, through a complicated c-section at 32 weeks that threatened both of their lives, she shared in an essay for ESPNW. The problem was preeclampsia, which is a disorder that occurs during pregnancy, causes high blood pressure, and can affect your organs. Black women are affected by preeclampsia at a 60% higher rate than white women, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Since the experience, Felix, 33, has fought passionately to advocate about the racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. She even testified in front of Congress.
Then in May, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about how female athletes risk pay cuts when they decide to have children. She asked sports apparel companies such as Nike (she’d been negotiating a contract with Nike since her previous one ended in December 2017, according to Self) to continue to pay women throughout their pregnancies and recovery from childbirth. She said Nike wanted to pay her 70% less than before her pregnancy and emergency C-section in the op-ed. (Nike recently announced that their new contracts will include language protecting female athletes' pay during pregnancy.) Refinery29 reached out for comment from Nike but hasn’t heard back yet.
Today, she’s announcing a partnership with Athleta. She and the company will work together on “initiatives to empower women and girls through sports – building confidence and encouraging voice.”
For Felix, it seems that life will continue to move at a rapid-fire pace — good thing she’s fast enough to keep up.
What motivated you to write your op-ed?
It definitely was really scary and was out of my comfort zone. The strength came from hearing other women speak. There was power in hearing their voices, and I felt like mine could add to the story as well. I felt that if this was happening in our sport, it was probably happening in others, and in other industries. There wasn’t a light on about it — people weren’t aware. Even though it was uncomfortable, once I did share, I was encouraged by the number of people who reached out to me to share their own experience.
In ESPNW last December, you wrote: “Having a child felt like I'd be risking my career and disappointing everyone who expected me to always put running first.” Do you still feel that way?
No. I feel happy with my decisions — but I feel like that’s the choice that women are presented. You feel like you have to either choose career or family. That's something I don’t want others to experience. Even though it’s a hard thing to go through, I feel like I'm not alone in that. There’s tons of women who feel that way.
Is there any advice you’d give to a mother who feels like she has to choose between career and family?
I would say: Do what is on your heart. I think that we have to stop feeling like we can’t do it all. We’ve been told for so long: You have to wait. You have to do this or that. If I can leave anything behind with my legacy, this is what I hope to do: I want women to know that they’ll be supported and that they can make that choice for family and still come back to career.
What have you learned from being both a mother and an athlete?
Never giving up. I’m a planner, I like things to go according to my schedule, but as a mother, that is thrown out of the window completely. You can’t plan for anything. You’ve just gotta roll with the punches. As an athlete, it’s the same thing. You never know if an injury is going to come up. You don’t know how a season is going to go. You want everything to work out perfectly, but it’s just not reality. Now I know that it’s all about the journey. It’s about learning from your failure. I’ve learned some of the biggest lessons when things don’t work out.
Why did you decide to partner with Athleta?
Immediately there was connection of values — they’re sustainable, and they're champions of women and girls. I am more than an athlete. I have so much left to accomplish — next year in the Olympics, but also creating change away from the track.
Tell me more about what you want to accomplish off the track in the next year.
I’ve shared my experience with childbirth, and I want to spread greater awareness about the maternal mortality rate of African American women. That’s been an eye-opening experience for me. I went before congress on the issue, and I want to continue to bring awareness.
We are risk. Women should be aware that we are at risk. We have to advocate for our own health. I wasn’t so aware, I had heard, but I thought: I’m healthy. I had a relatively easy pregnancy until the delivery. I just want women to have these things on their radar. When you go into your appointment. Know what to look for and what to ask.
What do you wish you’d asked?
Questions about signs to look for. And having a plan in place when things don’t go according to plan. I was so shocked and surprised to find myself in an emergency situation that I wasn’t prepared for. I wish I’d known: Okay, if things do go wrong, this what I’m going to do.
This November, you posted a quote from Erica Jong on instagram that said, "If you don't risk anything, you risk even more.” Tell me about how that quote has come into play in your life in the last year.
I think it’s really about getting outside of your comfort zone. For me, that’s a scary thing. To have reach and make change, you have to do things that are a little bit scary for you. That’s where growth happens.