Six-time Olympic runner Allyson Felix knows how to stay in her lane both on and off the track.
During times of social unrest in years past, she mostly has chosen to focus on what she can control: her athletic performance. But when she recently faced what she and most of the world saw to be unfair treatment by her longtime sponsor, Nike, she had to stand up for what was right.
When Felix became pregnant, she experienced what she described as unfair contractual stipulations by the brand. This was especially tough due to not only what comes with being an unsponsored Olympic hopeful, but the circumstances surrounding Felix’s pregnancy.
While with child, Felix developed preeclampsia, a very dangerous condition marked by high blood pressure and adverse childbirth outcomes that plague Black women more than any other group. This caused a great challenge to the respected athlete. It also contributed to her daughter’s troublingly early birth. Although the child is healthy and happy now, America’s deep racial divide in maternal care could well have brought a very different outcome for both mother and daughter. The CDC published findings in a 2019 study that found Black women with at least a college degree were 5.2 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than their white counterparts.
Because of that, Felix felt moved to speak to the issue before Congress that same year. “We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies,” Felix told the House Ways and Means Committee. “Research shows that racial bias in our maternal health care system includes things like providers spending less time with Black mothers, underestimating the pain of their Black patients, ignoring symptoms and dismissing complaints.”
Now, one can only imagine the blow she felt when her partnership with Nike became shaky due to her pregnancy.
In a piece with the New York Times, she accused Nike, her longtime sponsor of penalizing her and other pregnant athletes in contract negotiations. Speaking out in this way meant she could lose a very lucrative deal and possible access to the Tokyo Olympics which is notoriously expensive for unsponsored athletes.
In an interview with Time, Felix even shared that she hid her pregnancy in a way.
As she started to show, she would purposely train in the wee hours of the morning so no one could see her growing body. She wore baggy clothes and limited her baby shower celebrations to about 15 people, with guests being restricted from using their phones.
“It was super isolating and very lonely,” she says in the interview. “I think about that a lot. All of those things that you look forward to, those experiences of embracing that time, I didn’t get to do any of that. I don’t feel like I ever really was pregnant.”
Now, she has since parted ways with Nike and working with Athleta who is in support of athletes who are mothers.
Felix is now an advocate for maternal mortality equity and hopes no working mother has to experience what she went through, especially as she ventures to the Olympics.
My main focus is on awareness,” says Felix. The U.S., she notes, “is a very dangerous place for a woman of color to give birth. And that shouldn’t be the case.”