Allyson Felix first competed for a spot on Team USA when she was 18 years old. She lined up for the 200 meters at the 2004 Olympic Track & Field Trials — and placed first. At the end of the race, a television analyst described Felix, who went on to earn a silver medal in Athens that year, as “a quiet and unassuming girl.”
On Friday in Tokyo, Felix won her 10th Olympic medal in her fifth and final Games, a 35-year-old woman whose voice has unexpectedly grown stronger even than the legendary legs that have carried her to her newest title: most decorated female Olympic track and field athlete in history.
In the next few days, you’ll hear a lot about Felix’s hardware and the records she owns. The statistics and superlatives will forever reside next to her name when she’s no longer competing, as a measure of the next phenom rising through the sport trying to do her one (or more) better.
And the medal count is, of course, impressive: 19 from the world championships, 14 of those gold — more than any other athlete ever competing on the track, including Usain Bolt; 10 at the Olympics, six gold, three silver and one bronze, with her final 4x400 meter relay on Saturday.
Despite the incomparable record, Felix, like so many other athletes who make a living in a niche Olympic sport, is not a household name. Her presence on the podiums garners her the once-every-four (or five)-years mainstream attention she deserves, but when the spotlight turns away from the Games, the attention fades.
It shouldn’t. Felix’s influence transcends the track. Her reputation may be firmly tied to her athletic accomplishments, but she should also be remembered as an empowering icon who inspired girls, women and mothers around the world. Her fight for a more equitable and just society is as important to her legacy as her feats on track around the world.
In 2018, Felix was pregnant with her daughter, Camryn. She hid the news from nearly everybody, training in the predawn hours and wearing baggy clothes, scared that it would ruin contract re-negotiations with her then-sponsor Nike, which was already proposing that her new contract be reduced by 70 percent. The company wouldn’t add any protections for maternity leave and she had already seen other pro runners, like Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño, lose financial stability after having children. Traditional sponsorship agreements for track and field athletes at that time cut payment if an athlete was unable to compete for any reason, pregnancy and postpartum recovery included.
Her presence on the podiums garners her the once-every-four (or five)-years mainstream attention she deserves, but when the spotlight turns away from the games, the notoriety fades.
And then at 32 weeks, Felix had to deliver her daughter by emergency cesarean section as she was suffering life-threatening pre-eclampsia. Camryn spent the first month of life in the NICU and again, Felix hid the news for weeks.
Finally home from the hospital, Felix dug into the research on Black maternal health care disparities, learning how health care providers spend less time with Black mothers and dismiss their complaints more often. She discovered that Black and American Indian/Alaska Native women were three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women. And that most deaths, regardless of race, were preventable.
Simultaneously, Felix’s contract negotiations with Nike were becoming increasingly frustrating, with the athletic behemoth still refusing to offer financial protection for maternity leave. She wasn’t even planning to have another child at the time, but suspected that she had the power to change such practices for the generation of athletes behind her if she insisted on it.
She was fed up. Felix went to Capitol Hill to testify on behalf of Black mothers and racial bias in health care. As Nike released a “Dream Maternity” marketing campaign, showcasing pro athletes as mothers, she went public with her story in an op-ed in The New York Times, blowing wide open — along with Goucher and Montaño — a long overdue discussion about how mothers are really treated in the industry.
Weeks later, Nike and an array of sports brands announced new policies for sponsored athletes, guaranteeing pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy.
Felix was perhaps an unlikely candidate to emerge as a trailblazer for women’s rights. For years, she kept her head down, preferring not to rock the boat and letting her performances speak for themselves. But when she finally figured out that she could leverage that talent for greater good, there was no turning back.
“I feel like it’s definitely been a journey for me to get to the point where I guess I have the courage to do so and I think that just comes with experience in life,” she said during a press conference Friday. “I feel grateful to have this platform to be able to do so, because without it, it obviously wouldn’t be the same. I’m happy I was able to get to this place because there’s so much that needs to be done and I think it was just my own experience of going through it that really opened my eyes to all of it.”
Now she wears spikes on her feet by her self-created company Saysh. She is sponsored by Athleta, a first pro-athlete deal for the apparel brand that paved the way for another Olympian, Simone Biles. She gives out grants to other female athletes to cover child care costs, including Aliphine Tuliamuk, who competed in the Olympic marathon Saturday morning in Sapporo, seven months after giving birth — no doubt a decision made easier because of Felix’s stand.
“When you see me on the track, I hope you understand my fight. As an athlete who was told I was too old, as a woman who was told to know my place, as a mother who wasn’t sure I would live to raise my daughter,” Felix wrote in a letter to Camryn. “I hope you see that for me, it’s about so much more than what the clock says.”
As the Games come to a close, along with Felix’s Olympic career, it’s impossible not to celebrate the “quiet and unassuming girl” who grew into a mother, advocate, and change-maker leaving the sport better than she found it.
But even if you never watch another race on the track again, remember Allyson Felix’s name. She’s no doubt using that voice to make your life better, too.