At 32, Allyson Felix was one of the most decorated athletes in history: a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and 11-time world champion. She was one of the most recognizable faces in U.S.A. Track & Field in a generation.
But when she decided to expand her focus from winning medals to winning medals and starting a family, Felix faced surprising adversity. She was in the midst of negotiating a contract renewal with her career-long sponsor Nike. “I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth,” Felix wrote in a powerful New York Times opinion piece in May. (A point that would be particularly significant in her case: In November 2018, Felix ultimately had to undergo an emergency C-section in at 32 weeks pregnant because of severe pre-eclampsia that threatened the lives of her and her baby.) “I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could?”
Nike declined, and after after a standstill, they parted ways. Allyson Felix, one of the Greatest Of All Time, was without a sponsor.
“I was terrified to speak out. It was so far out of my comfort zone. I was concerned about the consequences and how it would affect my future,” she said. “I finally got to a point where I was willing to risk it all because I believed what I was doing could bring change for the next generation.”
And it has. Felix—with peers Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher who also shared their pregnancy stories with Nike in what became known as “Dream Maternity”—started a movement that ripped through the professional running world and extended far beyond. Women started demanding more from their employers. Companies began publicly re-evaluating their maternity leave policies. When Felix signed with Athleta, it took out a full-page ad in the New York Times celebrating Felix as not only an athlete—but as a mother and an activist.
“When I was younger I associated power with individuals who I felt were important or held authority,” Felix says. “I often felt before that my voice didn’t carry enough power. Dream Maternity showed me that speaking your truth matters; that my experience matters and when we collectively come together, we can create great change.”
Going into 2020, with hopes of making her fifth Olympic team, the past year has done nothing but strengthen Felix’s determination and resolve. At the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, she won her 12th and 13th gold medals—surpassing Usain Bolt and setting a new all-time record. “My daughter has given me a new motivation and drive. I want to be an example to her of what hard work looks like. I want to show her that you can’t let adversity get in your way. I want her to see what a strong woman looks like.”
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.