When runner Allyson Felix read fellow Olympian Alysia Montaño’s explosive Mother’s Day op-ed in the New York Times, calling out Nike for the lack of support and protection it offered to its sponsored female athletes in the event of pregnancy, it struck a chord. After all, aside from both being world-class athletes sponsored by Nike, the two runners are both black women, and, as of last fall, both are mothers.
Nike—and several other athletic brands—were shamed into making changes, but Felix had her own story to tell; a tale even more harrowing than the ongoing fight for equity, respect, and compassion. Despite being one of the most decorated athletes in history, she’d been waging her own battle with Nike, having reached a stalemate in her postnatal contract negotiations. She was also fighting her way back to the track after severe pre-eclampsia forced her to have an emergency Cesarean-section last November, two months before her due date. Publishing her own essay in the Times on May 22, Felix began by writing:
I’ve always known that expressing myself could hurt my career. I’ve tried not to show emotion, to anticipate what people expect from me and to do it. I don’t like to let people down. But you can’t change anything with silence.
Both Felix and her baby daughter recovered from the trauma of the premature delivery—and 8-month-old Camryn is thankfully now thriving. But after keeping her pregnancy relatively secret to protect her career, the life-threatening circumstances of her birthing experience were ultimately life-changing for Felix, and she knew her focus had to change as well. With a daughter to raise and athletic career to return to, it was time to raise her voice.
“The birth of my daughter really helped me find my voice,” Felix recently told The Glow Up. “I’m a pretty private person, [but] going through the experience I did...feeling more confident sharing my story—and also, being inspired by other women who have come out and shared their truths. I think there’s power in that, and I wanted to join.”
Felix admits that while she was aware of the maternal mortality risks for black women, she had no idea of the extent of the threat. “To me, it was scary that I was relatively aware, but I wasn’t fully educated,” she said. As an athlete who’d experienced no prior complications during her pregnancy, it never occurred to her that she, too, was at risk of becoming a statistic.
“I wasn’t ready when things went wrong; I wasn’t prepared with the questions to ask, and a plan in place,” she recalled. “I want the next woman behind me not to feel that way.”
In the months since giving birth, Felix has added her voice to a rising tide of high-profile women, including Serena Williams and Beyoncé, who have gone public with what can only be described as an expectant family’s worst nightmare: the threat of mother, child or both not making it through pregnancy and delivery safely.
“I think, as a black woman, it’s already hard enough,” Felix said. “You feel like you have to be twice as good. You’re constantly aware of these things, as it relates to your image—you know, you almost feel like you have to be perfect—and it’s a constant struggle and a constant battle to be able to do that...And I feel like if people like me are going through this—you know, people who are healthy and [have resources]—and I’m going through this, then I know other women are, as well. My feeling was that I could bring more awareness to this.”
“Having the confidence to speak up—you know, sometimes, I feel like we might be intimidated in a doctor’s office, or lots of time we are overlooked or our pain tolerance, they feel like it’s higher. All these different factors that come into play,” Felix later added. “Speak up. If you feel like something is wrong, you have to advocate for yourself. Unfortunately, that’s where things are...I want black women to understand that they are at a higher risk, and to be ready for situations they might find themselves in, and to be able to ask the questions, and to know what to look out for.”
Felix, now in partnership with the March of Dimes (which honored her at a June event in Los Angeles), is also the cover star of Self magazine’s groundbreaking Black Maternal Mortality issue (above), which hit stands on Wednesday. And on the same day, the Tokyo 2020 contender also proudly announced that after cutting ties with Nike she has a new sponsor: women-focused brand Athleta. Felix, who returned to competitive racing last weekend for the first time since giving birth, is Athleta’s first-ever sponsored athlete, a milestone that confirms that she has met her ethical match in a brand that doesn’t consider motherhood a liability.
“I am really excited that they’re taking this approach,” she said. “I feel like they’re really redefining what sponsorship looks like...their approach is looking at me holistically—as an athlete, as a mother, as an activist—and being supported in that way is just so important.
“Our values align; their mission is so close to my heart, affecting women and girls and empowering them,” Felix continued. “I couldn’t ask for a better connection there, and I’m so excited about the possibilities of what we’re going to create together.”
And Felix will be far more than a campaign star; in addition to supporting her training for 2020 and her activism, she and Athleta are co-branding a line of products for women and girls.
“When I think of being a mom, and having my daughter, I love the fact that I can be proud of the imaging that she’s going to see—their inclusivity, they don’t Photoshop—she’s going to see a healthy example of what a woman actually looks like, and I’m really excited for that,” Felix muses.
Felix is also excited at the profoundly positive effect her activism could have upon her daughter’s future options.
“I think that’s the driving force behind it all: I hope that things will be a lot different when she is older, and she will never feel like she has to choose between a career and motherhood,” Felix said. “That she’ll have equal pay and all that stuff. I’m sure there’ll still be a fight going on, but [I hope] that significant progress will have happened.
“I think what we’ve learned is the power of the collective; of coming together and using our voices” she continued, reflecting on how she, Montaño and the other female athletes who spoke up affected change not only for themselves but women throughout the industry as they continue to seek more parity across the board. “This does work, so that’s something that I feel proud to be a part of; I think it’s a really important time in women’s sports right now,” she adds.
As a new mom, professional athlete, wife, activist and brand ambassador, it’s safe to say that Felix’s plate is full as 2020 nears—but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s been a balancing act of getting it right, but at the same time, it’s absolutely what I love and where I want to be,” she said, later adding, “When I think about my legacy, I think this partnership with Athleta is really what I want to leave behind...making change for the women coming after me.”