Allyson Felix, the Inspire Greatness Award winner at the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit this month, is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history. After retiring last summer, the 11-time Olympic medalist and three-time consecutive world champion in the 200 meters is forging a new legacy through her advocacy work on Black maternal health care and pay equity. She has spoken in front of Congress about racial disparities in maternal health, and her shoe company, Saysh, offers a first of its kind maternity returns policy for women who experience a change in shoe size while pregnant. Felix talked to ESPN about adjusting to life after her illustrious track and field career and empowering the next generation of women athletes.
(Felix declined to speak about her former U.S. track and field teammate, Tori Bowie, who died last month due to complications during childbirth, but wrote an essay in Time last week about Bowie and maternal mortality.)
ON POST-RETIREMENT LIFE
It’s been a year of transition. I’ve been working really hard growing Saysh — my company and doing a lot of speaking. I’m on the IOC Athletes Commission. I’m doing things I haven’t been able to say yes to before. But there’s also the challenge of moving away from a sport I loved for so long and not competing. For most of my life, everything centered around one competition, whether that’s the Olympics or the World Championships. Not having that has been a little bit freeing but also unfamiliar. I’m working through that and showing up in different areas of my life.
I still do a lot of track workouts because that’s what I know. Sometimes I find myself going through grueling workouts and being like, ‘Oh wait, I actually don’t have to do this to myself.’ It’s a constant reminder that I can ease back into challenging my body in different ways. I’m taking tennis lessons, which have been very humbling. I’m doing Pilates. Skiing was huge because I was always the one in my family who had to wait at the bottom of the mountain. I had a blast taking lessons and getting out there. I have golf on the list of things I want to get to. Learning things as an adult is hard.
New things — that’s the season I’m in right now.
ON MOTHERHOOD AND DISPARTIES IN MATERNAL HEALTH
Going through my real life experiences, I started to deal with things and understand that I have a platform. Motherhood is the thing that has touched me the most, really normalizing mothers in sport and women not having to choose between that part of life and staying in their professions. Becoming a mother and looking at my daughter and the world she’ll grow up in helped me find my voice and speak on some things I would’ve shied away from before. After her stay in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), I spent so much time in the hospital. (Felix delivered Camryn in November 2018 during an emergency C-section at 32 weeks after developing preeclampsia.) I was going through the whole Nike ordeal then, trying to secure maternal protections. Those were the moments when I watched my daughter go through her battles. I knew I needed to be strong. There was no way I could stay silent with what I was up against. My experience in having her pushed me to speak about maternal health and the crisis that Black women are facing.
ON FINDING HER VOICE
For a long time, I tried to fit into this mold of a perfect athlete. [Speaking out] was absolutely scary and terrifying. It still feels uncomfortable. But you can’t let that get in your way. You can use your voice even if it shakes. That’s something that I hold onto. On the other side of that, fear is a lot of freedom. A lot of change can come. That’s been a help for me, is just understanding that something positive can come from being vulnerable and transparent. Hopefully, someone else can be helped and have an easier path forward when you open up and share.
ON STARTING HER OWN SHOE COMPANY, SAYSH
Being in a different space, there’s sometimes imposter syndrome that I have to deal with. Anytime you have a transition, I think it can be tough. A lot of the skills I learned from being an athlete still apply now, and I have to tap back into those a lot. When I was running, I would get to a big competition, and if I had nerves or doubts, I would look back at my training. I carried a log with me of every single workout I did. It would give me the confidence to know that I’m prepared. The same thing happens in the business world. I have to remind myself that I’m capable and that I belong. I have amazing mentors and people who are experts who I now get to work with on a daily basis. Reminding myself of all that gives me confidence.
When I hear stories about how women wear the shoes, they feel like they’re standing with women and signaling that they’re changemakers. That’s the deeper meaning behind it and at the core of what we’re trying to do.
ON EMPOWERING THE NEXT GENERATION OF WOMEN ATHLETES
I think the momentum of women’s sports right now is really powerful. We’re seeing more than ever athletes speaking on other things outside of their sport. If we continue to empower the younger generation, we’ll see things continue to change. When I spoke out, I was really encouraged by my fellow athletes in other areas who had done the same. It’s the power of the collective. When one person does it, you don’t feel as alone, and you feel you can do it too. We’re seeing athletes being more transparent with what they go through and opening that door. I love that we’re seeing that in the mainstream. I think the mental health conversations we’re having are extremely important. We often look at athletes and see them as invincible, but they have the same problems everyone else has.
How motherhood empowered Allyson Felix to speak out