For a runner, Allyson Felix was a late bloomer. She didn’t discover that she had a gift until she joined her high-school track team, Felix wrote in a column in Magnolia magazine. By age 18, however, she had entered her first Olympics, “and never looked back.”
For most of her life, she concentrated on winning medals, Felix wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times in 2019. “At 32, I was one of the most decorated athletes in history: a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and an 11-time world champion.”
Her focus expanded when, in 2018, Felix got pregnant. She wanted to be both an athlete and a mother, although she knew that, for professional track and field athletes, pregnancy is called the “kiss of death” for their careers.
Her daughter was born in November 2018, and Felix felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible, she wrote in The New York Times, “even though I ultimately had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of severe pre-eclampsia that threatened the lives of me and my baby. The culture around pregnancy in track and field is silence.”
When it came time to approach her contract with her athletic sponsor, Felix was successful in negotiating a clause that protected her rate of pay for a year after birth. She should have felt relieved, she wrote in Magnolia, “but something wasn’t sitting right.”
“It hit me,” she wrote, “that I was the only woman who this clause protected.” It wouldn’t apply to any of the other female athletes running beside her.
Felix found that she couldn’t stay silent, thinking about the sisterhood who had paved the way for her. She spoke out to hold athletic sponsors accountable, calling on them to provide maternity protection for all professional female athletes.
She also began speaking out about the disparity that exists for Black women in maternal health outcomes. In 2019, Felix testified about her experience as a pregnant Black woman before a congressional hearing on racial disparities in maternal health and mortality, as part of a panel of doctors and health policy experts. Black women are more than three times more likely to die from childbirth than white mothers in the United States and suffer severe complications twice as often. Felix hadn’t known she was at risk, she told the panel.
“I thought maternal health was solely about fitness, resources, and care,” she told the committee. “I get to do what I’m passionate about. That brings me joy. But there’s no greater issue than what we’re talking about today,” she added.
Last summer at the Tokyo Olympics, Felix added two more Olympic medals — a gold and a bronze — to her record, making her the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history. Her daughter, now three, is too young to understand her story, Felix wrote in Magnolia. One day, Felix will tell her: “You can’t even imagine what’s possible when you find the courage to stand up for what you believe in, when you decide it’s time to step out into the light.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.
Register Now for Convening Leaders 2023
Allyson Felix will speak on Jan. 9 at 9 a.m. with Thomas Brag and Ammar Kandil of digital media brand Yes Theory during the opening main stage session. Register for Convening Leaders 2023 today.