Why Record-Breaking Olympic Runner Allyson Felix Is Breaking Her Silence
The athlete, who is the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history, is using her new sponsorship with Athleta to inspire women to speak out about issues that matter most.
As a nine-time Olympic medalist and the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history, Allyson Felix is a true trailblazer. But for most of her career, the professional runner felt more comfortable quietly setting world records than speaking out about issues she was facing off the track.
That is, until recently, when she bravely shared her birth story (Felix had to undergo an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of severe, life-threatening pre-eclampsia) and penned a New York Times op-ed about the inequalities female athletes face when they choose to become mothers. Since then, the formerly super-private athlete (who had successfully kept her entire pregnancy under wraps) has used her influence to bring light to the racial disparities in maternal health care, even testifying in front of Congress. (Related: The Rate of Pregnancy-Related Deaths In the U.S. Is Shockingly High)
Now, Felix has partnered with Athleta—marking the brand’s first athlete sponsorship—to keep speaking out about issues facing women while she sets track records. (Felix just qualified for her ninth world championship last month and has her sights set on a fifth Olympics in 2020.)
"Athleta’s mission of empowering women and girls is close to my heart and what I’m passionate about," Felix tells Shape. Felix will also be working with Athleta Girl, which recently launched 'Let Failure Fuel You', a campaign in partnership with the Movemeant Foundation that provides grants and encourages girls to stay in sports. She also serves as a member of the Right To Play board, which helps underserved children in developing regions.
"The idea of redefining what sponsorships look like was really interesting to me because they looked at me not only as an athlete but also as a mother and as an activist," she adds.
How becoming a mother helped her find her voice.
“In the past, it was scary and uncomfortable for me [to speak out about issues] and not what I was used to. But becoming a mother and thinking about the world my daughter is going to grow up in really motivated me and encouraged me to find my voice and speak out about the experiences I've been through. Hearing other women and athletes speak out about these issues [like equal pay] has also made me feel more comfortable joining the conversation."
How powering through setbacks changed her perspective.
"Coming back to the track was a slow process, especially with my C-section and complications during birth. It wasn't what I expected or thought it was going to look like, both from a time perspective and how I expected to feel. It was all new to me; I was dealing with a whole new body. But even though it was harder and took longer, it forced me to slow down, be more appreciative, and not take my health for granted. Everything I went through helped me outside of the track and gave me a greater appreciation for what I've been able to do." (Related: I Crushed My Biggest Running Goal As a 40-Year-Old New Mom)
On competing for the first time after becoming a mom—and training for the 2020 Olympics.
"I had a really great welcome back. Knowing my daughter was in the stands really gave me a different motivation. I've just been trying to gradually get back to 100 percent. This year, competing was really about gaining momentum going into next year and getting back out there. I didn't have the normal amount of time I usually have to prepare, so I was really happy with my performance—to know that, even given the limited amount of training, I'm on my way. When I have a full season to train, I'm looking forward to getting back to feeling like myself and I'm so excited to compete at Olympic trials." (Related: This Tip from Allyson Felix Will Help You Hit Your Long-Term Goals Once and for All)
On reaching the top of her sport and setting new goals for the future.
"I don't think about my past accomplishments. I always think there's more left to do. I love to come up with my goals and work backward from them. That starts with going to practice every day. It starts with the small things and getting through those to tackle the big goals. I love what Steve Prefontaine said: "If you give anything less than your best is to sacrifice a gift." That's something I go back to that a lot if it's been a hectic, long day and I don't feel rested and not a perfect situation. I remind myself that's OK and that I've been blessed with a gift and need to go after it wholeheartedly, and it doesn't always need to look perfect. It's about doing the best with what I have and being grateful to even compete. Sometimes you have to put it in perspective."
Her advice for new moms returning to fitness.
"All new moms face that pressure [to 'bounce back'], but it's important to focus on your own journey. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Just take time and space for you and for your child. It's such a special time. Don't feel like you have to rush it and don't have any expectations for what you think it's going to look like. The biggest thing is to be happy and healthy. Recovery might happen quickly, or it might be a long process, but both of those roads are OK. So often, women put themselves last on the priority list, as they focus on work and trying to take care of a family. But making time for yourself—for me, I try to have some downtime to read after the baby is in bed—is so important."
The women inspiring her to keep fighting.
"Right now is a pivotal time. We're hearing a lot of women speak out, like the women's soccer team, and I feel encouraged and inspired by it. It's about the power of the collective and empowering women to speak up and speak their truth as they do amazing things in all different fields. Equal pay is crucial and something we need to support. We have to continue doing this because we're seeing change happening but there's a long way to go."