Allyson Felix is living life on her own terms.
Going into the 2021 Tokyo Games, Felix already had nine Olympic medals (six golds and three silvers) to her name. She was tied with Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey as the most decorated female Olympian track athlete going into the Games and had her sights set on bringing home one more. The doubters found no shortage of things to say—she was too old to be a serious contender. She was a new mother and one that was recovering from an emergency cesarean section. She didn’t have a chance.
The audacity of it all.
But Felix is used to proving the skeptics wrong. By the end of the Tokyo Olympic games (her fifth appearance at the international pantheon of athletic greats), she cemented herself into history as the most decorated American athlete in track and field (surpassing Carl Lewis) after winning her tenth and 11th medals (bronze and gold) in the 400-meter and 4×400-meter relay, respectively.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise for someone who has spent an entire career defining herself by her own personal bests, both on the track and off of it. And while that is in no way meant to diminish the hard work and sacrifice it has taken Felix to achieve what she has achieved, it is rather a testament to her dedication and character as a high-performance human being. One that has always stood up for herself and made her own opportunities instead of waiting for them to come by—and she’s making sure her impact will be felt for generations to come.
Earlier in 2021, Felix entered a different kind of arena. In a New York Times op-ed, she outlined a David versus Goliath spar against industry titan Nike to advocate for pregnant athletes. She was told that she would be paid 70 percent less than her pre-pregnancy contract and denied maternity protections around her performance in the months following childbirth. The ensuing public outcry and a separate congressional inquiry on racial disparities in maternal mortality led to a new maternal policy from the athletic giant guaranteeing pay and bonuses for the 18 months around pregnancy, paving the way for industry transformation.
And as further evidence of her ability to carve out her own destiny, Felix later debuted her own athletic footwear brand, Saysh, after raising a seed round of $3 million to get it off the ground. Defined by the very values that she found to be lacking in the industry, the brand’s first shoe, the Saysh One, was designed and engineered by former Nike employees.
“Like so many of us, I was told to know my place,” Felix stated in an Instagram post. “But here I am, ready to run for a brand that I founded, designed for, and designed by women. All of my experience of becoming a mom, of raising a daughter, helped show me my true competitor: inequality.”
She continued, “Here I am, using my voice to create change for us as women, and for us as mothers and for all the women who want to be mothers. So here I am. I know my place.”
Felix is change. She is the personification of progress in a world where athletes (women athletes, in particular) are raising their voices beyond the arena on matters that intersect with the very values that define us as human beings.
Read below for our September 2021 digital cover story with Felix and her thoughts on motherhood, activism, and victory.
GLORY: You’ve used your voice to really start a dialogue around motherhood and working moms. How would you like to redefine motherhood or just add to how we understand and define it today?
Allyson Felix: I really hope that the perception of what a mother can do changes. I think so many women across different industries have experienced feeling like once they decide to start a family, their best performances are behind them. Obviously for me, I experienced that in a very real way on the track physically. But I’ve heard the stories from so many different women who have experienced that in all different jobs. I just want that to change, and I want women to really know that they are capable of their best even after they are mothers. I’ll just keep pushing and advocating for women.
GLORY: What do you think is the most critical area in need of radical change when it comes to supporting mothers in the workplace, whether that’s in a boardroom or on the track?
Allyson Felix: I think support around maternity is huge. Obviously, what I went through trying to get actual maternal support, language in contracts, and being able to have time to come back is key. Being able to support women holistically is really big. I feel like when you are able to do that you are supporting that woman to be better and to be able to come back stronger. I think looking into doing more in that area is always helpful.
GLORY: In one of your recent Instagram posts you said, “We want women to feel seen and known.” In your experience, what is the most powerful way that women can advocate for themselves and their values, so that they are seen and their voices are heard?
Allyson Felix: It’s about speaking up. I think a lot of times we feel like we have to have this big platform to affect change but I think it’s about starting with our own village, our own community, our own group of people, our own workplaces. When something is wrong and when we aren’t feeling valued, to be able to really take action in those moments is huge. I think starting small is fine. We all have an area or community that we can affect. To me, that’s really big.
GLORY: What do you hope to teach your daughter through your advocacy?
Allyson Felix: I really hope to teach her to know her worth more than anything and to know that she is absolutely enough, that she is valuable, and to always stand up for herself, to be confident and strong. I hope, when I’m able to tell her about the things that I’ve been through and through my story, that it will really resonate with her that mom’s a fighter and really stood up for herself.
GLORY: What is the greatest lesson that your daughter has taught you?
Allyson Felix: Oh my gosh, she just means so much. I go back to when she was born and seeing her in the NICU fighting. I would say she has taught me to fight and not give up. A lot of times, things can feel overwhelming but you think of a small child just entering this world and being able to witness that. She’s really taught me that and just kept me on my toes, and made me feel like I have to be ready for anything.
GLORY: Are there any parallels you’ve noticed between your experience as a mother and training for Tokyo or being an Olympian in general? Has there been any intersection between those two experiences?
Allyson Felix: I feel like as a parent, there’s so much unknown. There’s so much that sometimes you can’t prepare for. There are just twists and turns. I feel like as an athlete as well, you always have to be ready for something out of the ordinary to happen. Whether that is figuring out how to overcome an injury, or even going through a pandemic and having to adjust and pivot through all of that. That’s the one thing that I will say has helped a little bit, being able to adapt to whatever is thrown at you.
GLORY: As an athlete, it seems like the goalposts are always very defined—be the best in the world, get on the podium, break records. How do these change as you evolve in your sport and as an athlete?
Allyson Felix: In my experience, when I was younger, it was so much about those things. I defined success as this many medals or [breaking] that record. As I’ve gotten older and as I have evolved, I think I look at success as the impact of how I can change things or use this platform that I have for good. What can I do with it? It’s really shifted to become something bigger than sport and being a representation for things that, to me, really matter. I love my sport. I love that I get to do what I absolutely love. But I do feel like there’s an added responsibility that comes along with it that I don’t want to let slide by.
GLORY: What role do you think athletes have when it comes to social dialogue? There are people who believe that athletes should just perform and that sports shouldn’t be political, and others who believe the opposite. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Allyson Felix: I think it’s important to speak your truth no matter who you are, and that includes athletes. You’re still a person in this world experiencing things, a part of a community. I think it’s key, especially when you have a platform and can actually do something about some of these things. I’m all for that. I think it’s a really special time in sports right now where we are, like you said, seeing so many athletes speaking up on all different issues. I think it’s really great that there’s this shift happening.
GLORY: How would you say your identity as an athlete has changed over the course of your career? What have you learned about yourself that has helped mould your identity?
Allyson Felix: I think I’ve just found my voice. There are some people who believe that athletes should just perform and I feel like as a younger athlete, I definitely felt that very strongly. I felt like nobody really cared what I had to say, that I just needed to be in my bubble, perform, and train. Those were the only things that mattered.
As I got older and understood more about myself—and that what I had to say also mattered— was when I found the courage to find my voice and ability to speak out on some of the things that have affected my own life and experiences. It’s definitely been a journey to get to this place where I do feel comfortable speaking on some of those things.
GLORY: Historically, you’ve had some less than favourable experiences working with brands. What do you think makes a great partnership between a brand and its ambassadors?
Allyson Felix: I really have to take a step back and align myself with the brands. It has to be organic for me. It has to be really authentic. I want to stand for something, and I want to partner with people who do as well. I definitely have a different approach now than I did before. I think I’m just more thoughtful about the things that I do.
GLORY: You recently kicked off a partnership with Peloton. What does that entail?
Allyson Felix: It’s a really authentic partnership. I was a member before the partnership even began. I think the coolest part of it for me has been actually developing the content and working with some of my favorite instructors to do so.
I’ve just been really excited to hear from people who are taking part in it. It’s a really holistic approach. You don’t need any equipment to do mine. It is a little bit of walking, running, strength, yoga, meditation, and all of that. I’m just excited.
The Peloton community is so amazing. I think so many of them are always pushing further. I think this is just another kind of bonus of being a part of that community. I’ve been jumping in live classes, taking part in panels, and all that kind of fun stuff as well.
GLORY: As you’ve progressed throughout your career, where do you find your courage and resilience in moments that have been challenging for you?
Allyson Felix: For me, it really comes from my family and my village of people who have supported and encouraged me. I feel like I found my voice because of my daughter. I thought about the world that she’s going to grow up in, and if I don’t take on this fight, I don’t want her to have to. That was a huge motivation. I think as I go through different things, being encouraged or pushed by family and friends around me to really just speak my truth and remember my own value and worth—that what I say also matters—has really helped.
GLORY: Do you have any insight that you can share in terms of surrounding yourself with good people that will not only challenge you, but also keep you grounded, calm, and focused?
Allyson Felix: I think that the people that you surround yourself with are everything. I feel very blessed to have a really great core group of friends and a very diverse group. I think it’s great when they encourage you but also, as you said, challenge you on certain things or have healthy conversations about different issues and what’s happening in the world, and offer different perspectives that maybe I didn’t think of before. I constantly lean on them for support and a different view sometimes.
GLORY: What does it mean to be glorious? What does that word mean to you?
Allyson Felix: I think I would define it much differently now. Before, I would’ve said something about a record or a time but now I think being victorious to me looks like showing up and having women identify with me and my story, and encouraging them to either stand up for themselves or speak their own truth. I’ve overcome a lot of adversity and I’ve been able to move forward, and I think that that’s something that all women sometimes have to tackle. I hope by seeing myself and my situation, they can find that strength as well
GLORY: What would you say is your mission at the end of the day? What is the bigger picture and what gives you purpose?
Allyson Felix: I would say it goes back to making women feel seen, knowing their value, and really advocating on their behalf. That is what I’m passionate about, and to me that’s what really matters. I love to run and obviously the Olympics have been my life for so long. But I really feel like it’s using that platform for those other issues that actually matter in people’s lives. That’s really important.