Allyson Felix's track career is almost over. Her race to make things better for women everywhere is just beginning
Allyson Felix will get to take the ultimate victory lap this summer.
The 36-year-old announced on Wednesday that she will run one last track season, a season that will be focused on joy and celebration and connecting, not medals or times.
She's getting the opportunity not many professional athletes do: to go out on her own terms, to know that she's hearing the applause for the last time, that she's achieved everything in her sport she possibly could have.
"I have given everything I have to running and for the first time I’m not sure if I have anything left to give," she wrote in part on Instagram. "I want to say goodbye and thank you to the sport and people who have helped shape me the only way I know how—with one last run. This season isn’t about the time on the clock, it’s simply about joy. If you see me on the track this year I hope to share a moment, a memory and my appreciation with you.
"This season I’m running for women. I’m running for a better future for my daughter. I’m running for you."
For those who follow athletics, Felix has been a household name for nearly 20 years. Her first Olympics was Athens, way back in 2004, when she won a silver medal in the 200 meters at just 18. The next year she won that event at the World Championships, making her the youngest world champion ever.
Those early races were just a glimpse into what would follow. Quite simply, it has been one of the most successful sporting careers of any American athlete ever.
But for all of Felix's on-track success — and it's a very long list of accomplishments, totaling 11 Olympic medals, 18 World Championships medals, five USA Track & Field female athlete of the year awards and one world female athlete of the year award — her powerful purpose off it over the last several years will prove to be far more important, and elevated her from track and field icon to icon of women around the world.
Thought much of her career, Felix had been one to essentially let her racing do the talking. Not everyone is cut out to be vocal or an activist.
Then she and her husband Kenneth Ferguson decided to start a family, not wanting to wait until Felix's best sprinting days were behind her.
It changed everything for Felix.
Felix developed severe preeclampsia, a condition specific to pregnancy in which the blood pressure rises to dangerous and even fatal levels. It meant she had to have an emergency C-section at 32 weeks, and both she and daughter Camryn needed extra medical care after the baby was delivered. Camryn spent a month in neonatal intensive care.
Pregnancy had been considered a death knell for the careers of female athletes, particularly in track and field, where income is generally derived from sponsors and prize money. Knowing that, Felix kept hers a secret for as long as she could, training at 4 a.m. to avoid being seen by fans, worried a photo would scare the companies that were paying her.
Companies like her longtime sponsor, Nike, with whom she was negotiating a new deal at the time. Nike offered Felix 70% of what it had been paying her on her previous contract and would not guarantee that she would be further financially punished if she didn't return to form fast enough for the company's liking post-birth.
Felix was far from the first female athlete Nike had penalized for having a baby, but she was the most famous. So she spoke up.
And she keeps speaking up. Through television appearances, through her new sponsorships and partnerships, through her Instagram account — which is now over a million followers strong — and through her new lifestyle brand, Saysh, which makes athletic shoes for and by women.
She shares her own harrowing birth story and with this being Black Maternal Health Week, she's once again helping to shine a light on the issue. In the United States, disparities in health care, the antiquated and entirely untrue idea that Black people can withstand more pain, and a persistent, pernicious culture of health care providers not listening to or giving as much attention to Black patients have led to Black women being two to six times more likely to die due to pregnancy and childbirth than non-Black women.
She's given grants to other athletes who are moms to help offset the cost of child care. She's made sure Saysh employees who also become mothers get four months of full paid leave and other benefits like postpartum mental health support. Having been told by a Nike exec to "know her place," she is proving that her place anywhere she wants it to be, and she wants other women to know the same.
Felix will run her last meets this summer, and she will be warmly greeted and celebrated for the unprecedented things she's accomplished as a sprinter.
But her race to make things even a little better for all women, including the daughter that changed her life in so many ways, is just beginning.