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We look up to professional athletes as talented, dedicated people who go the extra mile to reach goals that the rest of us can only imagine. Fans buy jerseys, form clubs, memorize competition schedules and keep track of their favorite athletes’ progress from one year to the next. In running, we also have the opportunity to join many of these champions on the starting line. In the last few years, professional women runners have given their fans innumerable reasons to root for them by winning races against all odds, ending decades-old droughts for American competitors and using their public platforms to demonstrate good sportsmanship and the kind of body positivity that encourages young women to accept and respect themselves. It’s a powerful time for women’s running—but it is perhaps the moments when our heroes reveal their struggles outside the spotlight that bring us to admire them even more.
In an ESPNW article published on December 20, Allyson Felix, the most decorated track and field Olympian in history, shared with the world the emergency C-section she had on November 28 after her 32-week checkup showed problems with her baby’s heartbeat. Before the checkup, Felix and her baby had been doing just fine—no hints of complications, no strange or otherwise off feelings. “I’m an athlete. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to eat right and get enough rest. And I’d been doing everything right throughout the whole pregnancy,” Felix told writer Ramona Shelburne. In coordination with her doctors and coaches, Felix was training through the early months of her pregnancy and even raced as recently as July. As she describes in the article, her plan was to stay as fit as possible—as safely as possible—throughout pregnancy so that she could return to training once her daughter was born and remain a strong contender for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “I mean, Serena Williams won the Australian Open early in her pregnancy,” Felix told ESPNW. “If I had enough willpower, I should be able to do the same.”
The thoughts and feelings Felix described ring true for many women striving to strike that careful balance between professional pursuits and family. The difficulties that athletes in particular encounter on the road to starting a family have over the last few years slowly risen to the surface as brave athletes stepped forward with their stories. Tina Muir made headlines in April 2017 when she documented her struggle with amenorrhea and resulting decision to stop running in order to have a baby. When Neely Spence Gracey announced her pregnancy in January, she was quick to explain that she wasn’t making a choice between one path and another: she could have a professional running career and the family she’d always wanted. Both Muir and Gracey have credited their friends within the running community, many of whom are also fellow mothers, with helping them through the tough times by offering advice and perspective.
The openness within the running community and between the professional athletes and their fans is largely why Felix, who’s typically a private person, decided to share the events that led to her scary delivery on Nov. 28. “I hoped my experiences could help other women who were worried—like I’d been for so many years—of what starting a family would mean to their careers,” Felix told ESPNW. “To let them know that I too have those anxious feelings about sharing the news with my employer, and the repercussions I could possibly face.”
When Women’s Running spoke with Felix earlier this year, her love for children and interest in giving back to her community was one of our conversation’s strongest takeaways. In early 2018, Felix partnered with YMCA for “My Y Story,” a short video series that invited public figures like Felix to return to their hometown YMCAs in order to bring attention to some of the organization’s lesser-known programs. Felix, who recalled visiting the YMCA near her Los Angeles, Calif., home as a child, took the opportunity to explain why the organization’s efforts hit home. “The thing that continues to bring me back is what [the Y] stands for,” Felix told Women’s Running. “It’s right in line with what I believe. Youth development, healthy living and social responsibility are all things that are important to me, and that’s what they do for not only children but communities. It’s really special.” Felix’s determination to help the children in her hometown was also inspired by her mother, who used to teach third grade. “Growing up in her classroom and being around kids, it’s always been a huge part of my life to try to make a difference and do rewarding work,” Felix said.
Around this time, Felix’s dedication to protecting and supporting children was becoming even more personal. As she told ESPNW, “I was so excited to be pregnant. I’ve always wanted to be a mother.” Even so, she described feeling a pull to keep up appearances on the track and while training, to meet the expectations of being a professional athlete and, for a while, hide the news of her pregnancy from those who might doubt her ability to return as a serious Olympic contender. “I was putting other people’s needs and expectations of me ahead of my own,” she told ESPNW. “I was doing things because I felt like I was supposed to, rather than what I wanted to. It felt like ticking off boxes on a checklist rather than living my life.”
Felix and her husband, Kenneth, planned to announce their pregnancy shortly after Thanksgiving—in fact, Felix was scheduled to appear at a photo shoot right after her 32-week checkup, after which she would share the photos and the news with the world. But once Felix’s doctors discovered that her unborn daughter was in danger, everything changed. The pregnancy announcement, the career expectations, the Olympic goals for the future—none of those things mattered anymore. All that mattered to Felix was that her daughter survived.
Nearly one month later, Felix’s daughter, Camryn Grace Ferguson, is still in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) but is getting stronger every day. Felix’s intimate descriptions of spending time in the NICU, sharing the fears and joyful moments with other mothers and fathers that have newborns fighting there, are what make her story so powerful. “One of the lessons I’ve learned on this journey is that you can’t control any of this,” Felix told ESPNW. “You can only control how you react to it. I choose to be grateful for what I have and do my best every day to hold on to it.”
Now that Felix and her daughter have survived what could have been a devastating situation, Felix is determined to help other women by sharing her story—and it’s picking up traction quickly, both within and outside of the running community. In a tweet published earlier today, Felix expressed the early fear she felt about announcing her pregnancy:
In the hours since, women in the professional running community and beyond (including Kara Goucher, Molly Huddle, Kori Carter, Joanna Hayes and basketball player Candace Parker) have voiced their support for Felix on social media. As news of Felix’s story spreads, these athletes continue to commend her bravery, congratulate Camryn’s arrival and draw attention to the common thread uniting them all—because the balance female athletes maintain daily between career and family shouldn’t have to be so difficult.