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Her final race was, in fact, not about the race. Though the promise of it kept the modest crowd hanging on late into the day despite the sun radiating off of the insufferably hot streets of Los Angeles. They came all this way. How could they miss Allyson Felix’s last race?
The event, The Race for Change, held on Sunday August 7, was a celebration of the most decorated track and field athlete in American history. It was organized by Athleta, one of Felix’s primary sponsors for the past few years, and guided by her vision of the perfect finish line.
Felix concluded her 20-year international career by earning bronze and gold medals on U.S. relay teams at the July 15-24 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. But she wanted to run her final race in the city where she grew up.
“My dream scenario would be to run in my hometown, on the streets. I think that would be the coolest thing ever,” Felix told her partners at Athleta. “A lot of friends and family, they’ve never been able to see me run in person. You know, there’s not meets here anymore. I thought that this was a perfect full circle moment to just have a celebration.”
Felix will not only be remembered as a successful athlete, but also as a strong woman who used her platform and voice to advocate for women’s issues. The other details of her farewell event, if not personally selected by Felix herself, were executed with Felix’s vision of a feminine utopia in mind: free onsite childcare, private lactation areas, empowering arts and crafts, mother/daughter races — including an objectively adorable 100 meters Felix ran with her 3-year-old daughter, Camryn.
“The goal of this event was to shed light on the need for equitable support for caregivers while raising funds to help break down barriers that women face in our society today,” says Kyle Andrew, chief brand officer at Athleta.
Important details like areas set aside for lactation and childcare are ones that are more likely to be thought through when you have a female perspective in a position of leadership. Like the maternity return policy implemented by her shoe company, Saysh, which allows women to exchange their shoes if their feet swell to another size in pregnancy — a change that can be permanent. Felix says she hopes to keep pushing the industry when implementing these thoughtful policies.
And those details will allow more women to start and continue participating in running. According to SheRaces, 88 percent of women surveyed would be more likely to enter races that committed to equitable and inclusive treatment for women, including fair deferral policies for having a child and facilities equipped for female-specific needs (menstruation, lactation, etc).
“Child care is a significant barrier that many women face, and we have made it a goal alongside Allyson to break those barriers and show the world that there are solutions to help women — by creating access to resources and opportunity,” says Andrew. Athleta, alongside the Women’s Sports Foundation, created the Power of She Fund Child Care Grants, giving more than $200,000 to date to athletes in need of child care.
These “thoughtful” details, all hard fought, will be a big part of Felix’s legacy. And, yes, the medals and times are in there as well: a women’s record 11 Olympic medals (7 of which are gold) an all-time record 20 career medals from World Championships, 24 Diamond League or Golden League wins, a Pan-Am Games bronze medal, a U20 200-meter world record set in 2004, and two relay world records that still stand today.
But what her retirement party made clear, those accolades will one day be a footnote in an even longer resume. Like Billie Jean King who is now known equally for her tireless efforts to uplift women’s sports as she is a former tennis legend.
In Felix’s final season, she was not focused on setting records or earning more medals (though she did). Instead, she aimed to soak in the joy of running as well as continuing to pave a better way for mothers in the industry. “I think the big win for me was to be able to have childcare at Nationals. That was huge,” Felix says about having a successful final season.
A Star is Born
Felix stumbled into advocacy. As a high-performing international athlete, hyper-focused on competition, she wasn’t one to speak out. But, at 32, when she wanted to have a child, she was met with resistance from Nike, her sponsor at the time. “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 and widely read New York Times opinion piece. Nike declined to support Felix, one of their most widely marketed athletes at the time.
But things changed after Felix publicly called out the sportswear behemoth in what is now called the Dream Maternity Movement. Nike has since expanded its payment protections for pregnant athletes.
Though Felix spoke up out of necessity, demanding a better future for her daughter, she also cites the bravery of her peers like fellow track star Alysia Montaño. Montaño shared her own story of fighting with sponsors for pay protections before Felix did.
“I think one of the greatest things that I’ve got to witness and be a part of in Allyson Felix’s legacy is growing up in the sport with her, becoming a professional athlete around the same time as her, and seeing the processes of women lifting women up,” Montaño says. “And knowing — I’m not taking anything away from myself — but she’s so decorated, to know that part of my story, encouraged her to tell her story, and like, pass the baton her way, and where we ended up being on a team together, it’s something I would have never imagined. And I don’t think that’s how you write your story. When you’re like, gonna be an athlete, you’re not seeing all of that. But that’s what womanhood is. That’s what sisterhood in sports looks like.”
Felix recognizes that her own shaky voice was made louder thanks to the frequency of those who have been speaking up for decades, specifically in the 50 years since Title IX was signed into law. Certainly her exceptional career gave her a platform, but it was the courage to use her voice that has made the difference — just like the brave pioneers who came before her.
“I’m just so grateful for those that paved the way so that I could have an opportunity. I hope to continue that on and it’s because of all the work that was done since Title IX,” she says.
“When I think about my whole career, I’m most proud of the maternal protection component,” says Felix. “And it’s interesting because I never would have thought that. I thought it would be something like a specific race or this or that. But to have just a little bit of impact and say, ‘I hope I’m leaving the sport a little bit better.’”
Putting Her Competitive Energy Elsewhere
Don’t be mistaken with all this talk about advocacy, though, Felix will miss competing. The 36-year-old has been running professionally since 2003 when she signed with Adidas straight out of high school.
The rush of competing is something she likely won’t be able to duplicate elsewhere. “There’s nothing like getting on that starting line and the butterflies and just knowing all the work and preparation that’s gone into it and having that moment,” she says.
If there’s one thing that Allyson Felix is good at, it’s adapting. It’s forging a new path.
So what’s next for the five-time Olympian? Will she turn to coaching? Will she kick back and enjoy a more leisurely existence? Will we start to see her in every plant-based milk and laundry detergent commercial like other retired athletes?
She’ll be kept plenty busy with her obligations, some new, some old.
Among the new, joining Voice in Sport as a board member and mentor. VIS is a media company that offers sports-related mentorship to girls through legacy content, webinars, podcasts, and one-on-one sessions with elite athletes. “I think that the age that they target girls is crucial,” says Felix. “I love the mentorship approach and the resources that they make available. I think it’s gonna make for a healthier generation—just more well-rounded kids that prioritize their mental health at a young age and carry that with them.”
And in July, Felix joined the International Olympic Committee’s athletes’ commission, where she will serve with her fellow electees as a voice for athletes in decisions made regarding future Olympic Games—a role that could be crucial in inching her closer to a dream of providing free childcare at all track meets worldwide.
That dream is shared by Montaño and her organization &Mother, of which Felix is a board member. Felix will continue to work with the non-profit to expand the childcare services they were able to provide at Sunday’s Race for a Change and the U.S. Track and Field Championships this past June. Next steps include garnering more support.
“We have to have a place to have the childcare, we have to be supported by all of the governing bodies,” says Felix. “I think that’s the harder part, like now we have the blueprint—we can put it together—but funding and support and all of that, obviously, those are going to be the barriers to be able to scale it.”
And scaling her lifestyle apparel brand, Saysh, will also be getting a large chunk of her attention. She hopes to keep meeting everyday women where they are — including the launch of a performance shoe in 2023. “It’s not about breaking records at a very elite level, but it is about saying, ‘This is what I think women need for their everyday life.’ And I just want to keep progressing there,” she says.
The Last (Quarter) Lap
As for that final 100-meter race? She took 2nd place in 11.66 to Ashley Henderson’s 11.46. The other competitor, On Running sponsored athlete Chloe Abbott came in third in 12.34. At the finish line there were hugs and tears.
Several times throughout the weekend Felix expressed her thanks to her family and her supporters. “I’m just so grateful,” Felix said between breaths, addressing the crowd after the race was over. “I feel seen. I feel appreciated and valued.”
The women and men of Los Angeles who showed up to send Felix off were saying thanks right back. Allyson Felix’s contributions to the cause of equity for women have resonated, plain and simple.
Her days of competing in global championships may be behind her, but as a champion for women, Allyson Felix’s legacy continues to write itself.