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Allyson Felix launches a child care initiative for athlete moms

Updated June 21, 2022 at 6:56 AM ET

Allyson Felix is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history. She has 11 Olympic medals, more than Carl Lewis (and Jamaica's Usain Bolt).

And she's running some of the last races of her professional career over the coming weeks, dedicating her last season to women athletes like her — especially mothers. Felix has spent recent years advocating for maternal health for Black women. She's worked to ensure mothers have childcare support when competing.

"I felt like I had to win all the medals, do all the things, before I could even think about starting a family, and that's something that I don't want my daughter to feel," she told NPR's Morning Edition.

This week, she's kicking off an initiative with her sponsor Athleta and the nonprofit group &Mother to provide free child care to athletes, coaches and staff at the U.S. Track and Field championships. Felix's Team USA teammate and two-time world champion, Alysia Montaño, co-founded &Mother.

Felix, Athleta — through its Power of She Fund — and the Women's Sports Foundation have also opened a third round of child care grants, providing female athletes $10,000 for child care expenses needed so they may train and compete. WSF and Athleta have so far awarded more than $200,000 in those grants.

The runner said the burden of child care costs is "the biggest barrier" to women continuing to compete at a high level.

Felix began her advocacy journey after becoming a mother in 2018. When she was 32 weeks pregnant, she was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition. She had to have an emergency C-section and her daughter spent the first month of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit.

"In track and field, the culture around pregnancy was silence. Athletes would either hide pregnancies to secure new contracts, or their contracts were in place were put on hold almost like they had an injury," she said.

Felix spoke out against Nike when the company, her sponsor at the time, refused to pay her while she was on maternity leave. That protest led to changes in the maternity policy for athletes not only at Nike but at other athletic apparel companies, as well.

"I felt like I was being used in multiple marketing campaigns to tell women and girls that they could do anything when internally I was having such a hardship," Felix explained.

"What I was asking for was when a woman has a baby to have time to recover to be able to get back to that top form. And essentially, they told me that I could have time but they weren't ready to give all female athletes the time and they weren't willing to tie anything to pregnancy in the contract. And so, for me, that was a real issue and a sticking point."

The Nike representatives she dealt with at the time were men. "I just think how would that situation have been different if there were women at the table," Felix said.

Another way that the athlete has supported women is through her sneaker brand, Saysh. The company has a unique return policy. Women whose shoe size goes up during pregnancy — a common change that can be permanent — can get a fresh pair of sneakers in their new size for free.

"It's just a way really to ... say we can show up and support women, and they don't have to choose between motherhood and anything else," Felix said.

At the end of this season, she plans to retire. Her last pro races are set to be the U.S. championships this week, June 23-26, and if she qualifies, she will then compete at the world championships in July. Both take place in Eugene, Oregon.

But she'll still keep running, for herself, and for her daughter too.

"I might only have a few more years where I could beat her, but I got to stay ready," Felix said.

"I am totally going to continue to train and to enjoy running. It brings me such pleasure and joy." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Allyson Felix is the most decorated U.S. track-and-field athlete in history. She has 11 Olympic medals - more than Carl Lewis, even more than Jamaica's Usain Bolt. But running track wasn't always a lifelong goal. In fact, when she was a high school freshman and tried out for the team, it didn't seem like Allyson was ready to sprint.

ALLYSON FELIX: I came straight from basketball practice. I had, like, my basketball shorts and shoes on and ran 60 meters. And the coach was like - he had this puzzled look on his face and asked me to run it again. And so I did. And then this time, he brings out, like, a measuring wheel and measures the distance and has me do it over and over, and finally, like, comes to this realization that, like, I have a lot of speed and a lot of potential. But I totally had no plan to be an athlete or a runner or anything. I just kind of stumbled into it, trying to make some friends.

MARTINEZ: It was a revelation that changed her life. She turned pro after high school and then proceeded to win a medal in five straight Summer Olympics. But then in 2018, something else happened that not only changed her life but radically altered her view on what her legacy could be.

FELIX: So in 2018, I decided to start a family. In track and field, the culture around pregnancy was silence. Athletes would either hide pregnancies to secure new contracts or their contracts that were in place were put on hold, almost like they had an injury or something like that. I went through a really difficult renegotiation period with Nike. What I was asking for was when a woman has a baby, to have time to recover, to be able to get back to that top form. And essentially, they told me that I could have time, but they weren't ready to give all female athletes the time.

MARTINEZ: Now, by August of 2019, after your New York Times opinion piece where you talk about all this stuff, Nike altered their policy. But there was just a huge public outcry and a congressional inquiry. Nike's changes to its maternity policy - were they enough?

FELIX: I thought that this was a great starting place, but I think that there is definitely, you know, more that we can do. I felt like, you know, I was being used in multiple marketing campaigns to tell women and girls that they could do anything when, internally, I was having, you know, such a hardship. So that's why I really felt strongly that I couldn't let that go.

MARTINEZ: What do you think is problematic about female athletes, in particular, having to rely so heavily on corporate sponsorship?

FELIX: A lot of times they're not supported in a holistic way. I felt like I had to win all the medals, do all the things before I could even think about starting a family. And that's something that I don't want my daughter to feel.

MARTINEZ: And how difficult is it when these corporations and these decisions are made by men - men making decisions about women's bodies?

FELIX: Yeah, it's so tough. Everybody that I dealt with at Nike was a man. I just think, how would that situation have been different if there were women at the table, women who were in positions of power? I think it would have been a totally different situation.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And women in power brings us to what happened next because then you signed with apparel company Athleta, Inc. And you started your own sneaker brand, Saysh - that was in June of 2021 - that you describe as designed for and by women. And one of the ways that you deliver on that is through a very, very unique return policy. Tell us about Saysh's return policy.

FELIX: When a woman becomes pregnant, their feet can change by half size and go up. And typically, that change is permanent. And so if you own a pair of our Saysh One shoes, we will give you your new size for free. And it's just a way, really, to say, like, we can show up and support women. And they don't have to choose between motherhood and anything else.

MARTINEZ: You know, I'm kind of a sneaker nut. I was looking at the website. Would a Saysh One size 13 fit me?

FELIX: Absolutely. It's my most favorite thing to tell men, you know? Because I am a sneaker nut myself. I've been a sneaker-head all my life. And I just have always sized my shoes in mens' sizing. Men get to do the reverse with us.

MARTINEZ: If you say that a 13 fits me, I will buy one. And I'll complain to you directly if it doesn't fit.

FELIX: (Laughter) Yeah, let me know. We got you covered.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, what are you doing for mom athletes, starting this week, during the U.S. championships?

FELIX: I'm so excited that, together with Athleta and the nonprofit &Mother, we are offering free child care for athletes, for coaches who are participating in our national championships.

MARTINEZ: You know, my mom was a single mom for a long time, and she was lucky to have my family - her parents, my grandparents - to help take care of me. How much of a burden or a barrier is child care for athletes?

FELIX: We're seeing and hearing from women that it is the biggest barrier to continuing competition at a high level.

MARTINEZ: Allyson, I know that you're not done sprinting. But when it comes to your career, I mean, you're kind of on the last turn of the last lap. So last year in the Tokyo Games, you won a bronze in the 400 meters. But then you were the second leg of the 4x400 relay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Sydney McLaughlin, running strong, will hand it to Allyson Felix.

MARTINEZ: Then you handed the baton to your teammate Dalilah Muhammad, who widened Team USA's lead. And then anchor Athing Mu just shot out of a cannon to make it all a wrap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Mu is going to bring home the championship. And for Allyson Felix, she is the goodbye gold for her.

MARTINEZ: The way it looked to me, it was over when Muhammad pulled away. So I'd say that you had a good minute and 39 seconds or so to think about the seventh Olympic gold medal coming your way - 11th overall - putting you ahead of Carl Lewis and, as far as I'm concerned, firmly in the GOAT conversation - the greatest-of-all-time conversation. What were you thinking about in those 99 seconds as they were going by and you were watching your teammates run?

FELIX: I was trying to soak up the moment, just sitting in that stadium. And that moment of being on an Olympic track is unforgettable.

MARTINEZ: When you finish your career and, say, you just want to work out, are you going to run?

FELIX: Absolutely. I'm not going to take myself to the point of throwing up every single day, but I am totally going to continue to train and to enjoy running. It brings me such pleasure and joy.

MARTINEZ: So what if, like, in, say, 10 years, your daughter would be - what? - what would she be, like, 12 years old?

FELIX: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: OK. What if she starts to say, you know, Mom, I think I'm faster than you?

FELIX: I think I'll still be in - I - yeah, in that amount of time, I think I should still be good. I might only have a few more years where she could - where I could beat her, but I got to stay ready.

MARTINEZ: All right. Allyson Felix, thank you very much.

FELIX: Thanks for having me.

MARTINEZ: Allyson Felix is staying ready for at least two more meets. At the end of this season, she plans to retire with her last pro races set to be the U.S. championships this week, followed by the world championships in July - both in Eugene, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.