Updated June 21, 2022 at 6:56 AM ET
Allyson Felix is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history. She has 11 Olympic medals, more than Carl Lewis (and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt).
And she’s running some of the last races of her professional career over the coming weeks, dedicating her last season to women athletes like her — especially mothers. Felix has spent recent years advocating for maternal health for Black women. She’s worked to ensure mothers have childcare support when competing.
“I felt like I had to win all the medals, do all the things, before I could even think about starting a family, and that’s something that I don’t want my daughter to feel,” she told NPR’s Morning Edition.
This week, she’s kicking off an initiative with her sponsor Athleta and the nonprofit group &Mother to provide free child care to athletes, coaches and staff at the U.S. Track and Field championships. Felix’s Team USA teammate and two-time world champion, Alysia Montaño, co-founded &Mother.
Felix, Athleta — through its Power of She Fund — and the Women’s Sports Foundation have also opened a third round of child care grants, providing female athletes $10,000 for child care expenses needed so they may train and compete. WSF and Athleta have so far awarded more than $200,000 in those grants.
The runner said the burden of child care costs is “the biggest barrier” to women continuing to compete at a high level.
Felix began her advocacy journey after becoming a mother in 2018. When she was 32 weeks pregnant, she was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition. She had to have an emergency C-section and her daughter spent the first month of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“In track and field, the culture around pregnancy was silence. Athletes would either hide pregnancies to secure new contracts, or their contracts were in place were put on hold almost like they had an injury,” she said.
Felix spoke out against Nike when the company, her sponsor at the time, refused to pay her while she was on maternity leave. That protest led to changes in the maternity policy for athletes not only at Nike but at other athletic apparel companies, as well.
“I felt like I was being used in multiple marketing campaigns to tell women and girls that they could do anything when internally I was having such a hardship,” Felix explained.
“What I was asking for was when a woman has a baby to have time to recover to be able to get back to that top form. And essentially, they told me that I could have time but they weren’t ready to give all female athletes the time and they weren’t willing to tie anything to pregnancy in the contract. And so, for me, that was a real issue and a sticking point.”
The Nike representatives she dealt with at the time were men. “I just think how would that situation have been different if there were women at the table,” Felix said.
Another way that the athlete has supported women is through her sneaker brand, Saysh. The company has a unique return policy. Women whose shoe size goes up during pregnancy — a common change that can be permanent — can get a fresh pair of sneakers in their new size for free.
“It’s just a way really to … say we can show up and support women, and they don’t have to choose between motherhood and anything else,” Felix said.
At the end of this season, she plans to retire. Her last pro races are set to be the U.S. championships this week, June 23-26, and if she qualifies, she will then compete at the world championships in July. Both take place in Eugene, Oregon.
But she’ll still keep running, for herself, and for her daughter too.
“I might only have a few more years where I could beat her, but I got to stay ready,” Felix said.
“I am totally going to continue to train and to enjoy running. It brings me such pleasure and joy.”