The all-around inspiring human knows what it's like to be tested both personally and professionally, and she has plans to "make the world better for women" when she retires.
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ALLYSON FELIX INTERVIEW
Credit: Bridgestone

She's the most decorated track and field Olympian of all time, with 11 medals (six golds, three silvers, and one bronze) to her name. Allyson Felix has been a force in the running world for years, but on Monday she announced that the 2022 season will be her last.

In an Instagram post, the record-breaking athlete reflected on reaching this point in her career and shed some light on her decision to retire. "As a little girl they called chicken legs, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I'd have a career like this," she wrote in her caption. "I have so much gratitude for this sport that has changed my life. I have given everything to running and for the first time I'm not sure I have anything left to give."

For her, the best way to say goodbye is "with one last run," which she plans on taking this year. But unlike in past seasons, she's less focused on breaking records now. "This season isn't about the time on the clock, it's simply about joy," she wrote in the recent post.

She's also dedicating her final season to women and "a better future" for her daughter, teasing that she has concrete plans in the works. "I'll be sharing a series of announcements that I'm hoping will make the world better for women," the runner wrote.

Knowing Felix's past, her plans for the future aren't surprising. The Olympian is no stranger to a challenge. She faced a nine-month hiatus in 2014 due to a hamstring injury, sustained significant ligament tears after falling from a pull-up bar in 2016, and was forced to undergo an emergency C-section in 2018 when she was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia during pregnancy with her daughter Camryn. After she emerged from the traumatic episode, Felix ended up cutting ties with her then-sponsor Nike, after publicly expressing her disappointment with what she says was unfair compensation as a postpartum athlete.

But that experience — and all the other personal and professional challenges that came before it — ultimately helped prepare Felix for the life-altering record-scratch of a year known as 2020.

"I think I was just in the spirit of fighting," Felix tells Shape. "I had been through so much adversity in my career coming after the birth of my daughter, contract-wise, and the literal fight for my health and my daughter's health. So, when the pandemic hit and then there was the news of the 2020 Olympics being postponed, I was already in this mindset of, 'there is so much to overcome that this is just another thing.'"

That's not to say 2020 was an easy year for Felix — but knowing she wasn't alone helped ease some of the uncertainty. "Obviously it was in a different way because the whole world was going through it and everyone was experiencing so much loss, so it did feel like I was going through it with other people," she says. "But I had some experience with hardship."

Drawing on the strength that propelled her through other tough times is what Felix says helped her soldier on, even as her typical training regimen was turned upside down and she, along with the rest of the world, endured the daily anxiety of the unprecedented global crisis. But there was something else that pushed Felix forward, even on her toughest days, she says. And that was gratitude. "I remember those days and nights being in the NICU and at that time, obviously competing was the furthest thing from my mind — it was all just about feeling grateful to be alive and grateful that my daughter was here," she explains. "So in the midst of the disappointment of the Games being postponed and things not looking the way I'd imagined, at the end of the day, we were healthy. There's so much gratitude in those basic things that it really put everything into perspective."

In fact, motherhood helped shift her perspective on just about everything, including the ways women — particularly Black women — are not getting the care they need in this country, says Felix. In addition to speaking out on maternal health care and rights and the unfair treatment of pregnant athletes, Felix has made it her mission to advocate on behalf of Black women, who are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (See: Carol's Daughter Just Launched a Powerful Initiative to Support Black Maternal Health)

"It's important to me to shine a light on causes like the maternal mortality crisis facing Black women and advocating for women and trying to move toward more equality," she says. "I think about my daughter and the kids in her generation, and I don't want them to have these same fights. As an athlete, it can be scary to speak out because people are interested in you for your performance, so to shift and talk about things that affect myself and my community was something that doesn't come naturally to me. But it was becoming a mother and thinking about this world my daughter will grow up in that prompted me to feel the need to speak out on those things." (Read more: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Black Female Doctors)

Felix says that becoming a mother has also helped cultivate kindness and patience toward herself — something that's adorably evident in her commercial in the Bridgestone Olympic and Paralympic campaign for Tokyo 2020. The ad shows the unbelievably accomplished athlete just trying to prevent her toddler from flushing her phone down the toilet — a scene many parents can likely relate to.

"Being a mom has shifted my motivation and desire," shares Felix. "I've always been really naturally competitive, and I've always had that desire to win, but now as a parent, the reason why is different. I really want to show my daughter what it's like to overcome adversity and what hard work is like and how character and integrity are important to anything you do. So, I really look forward to the days when I can tell her about these years and show her pictures of her being [with me during] training and all that stuff that has shifted who I am as an athlete." (Related: This Woman's Incredible Journey to Motherhood Is Nothing Short of Inspiring)

Felix has also had to change the expectations she has of her body, which has been her ultimate career tool for nearly two decades. "It's been a really interesting journey," she says. "Being pregnant was amazing to see what the body can do. I trained throughout my pregnancy and felt strong and it made me really embrace my body. But giving birth and coming back was really challenging because you know what your body did before and you're constantly comparing it and trying to get back and it's this really ambitious goal. For me, it didn't happen right away. So there were really doubts in my mind, like 'am I ever going to get back to where I once was [with my fitness]? Can I be even better than that?' I had to just be kind to myself — it's a really humbling experience. Your body is really capable of such amazing things, but it's about giving it time to do what it needs to do."

Felix says a big part of learning to love and appreciate her postpartum body has been to opt out of the constant deluge of social media messages targeting women. "We're in this age of 'the snapback' and 'if you don't look a certain way two days after giving birth, then what are you doing with your life,'" she says. "It's about not subscribing to that and, even as a professional athlete, having to check myself. [Being] strong looks a lot of different ways, and it's not just this one image we have in our minds — there are so many different ways to be strong, and it's about just embracing that." (Related: Mothercare's Campaign Features Real Postpartum Bodies)

One way Felix has embraced her strength is to integrate Peloton workout classes into her regular routine, even teaming up with the company (alongside eight other elite athletes) in May 2021 to curate a Champion Collection of recommended workouts and playlists. "The Peloton instructors are so good — I love Jess and Robin, Tunde, and Alex. I mean you feel like you know them going through all the different rides and runs!" she says. "It was actually my husband who got me into Peloton — he was really hardcore and was like, 'I think this can help your training' because, for me, it was always a challenge going for longer runs or getting that extra work in. So it was great with the pandemic, especially with a young daughter. And I also use it for recovery rides, yoga, stretching — it's really now incorporated into my actual training plan."

While she may modestly admit to huffing and puffing along with the everyone else during at-home workouts, Felix is still one of the world's most elite athletes. With 11 medals under her belt, she's more than earned her retirement. Until then, it seems like she still has a few races left in her, and fans will be waiting to see everything she does next.