Olympian Allyson Felix on Overcoming Adversity and Teaching Her Daughter to 'Just Keep Pushing'
She’s the most decorated track-and-field star in the world, an advocate for maternal health, and a leader on protections for pregnant athletes. Now Allyson Felix is looking ahead to her next Olympic Games—and to the day her daughter understands what she’s working to achieve.
Nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix expected to be traveling to Tokyo this summer, but instead, the runner is chasing down her energetic and wriggly 1 1/2 -year-old daughter in her backyard. "Things can change so fast," says the 34-year-old sprinter who, in 2019, surpassed Usain Bolt's record for most gold medals ever at the track-and-field World Championships, a mere ten months after she gave birth.
That remark about life's head-spinning pace is in reference to her daughter, Camryn, and the milestones she's racking up. But it's hard not to interpret it more universally. This past spring, Felix and her teammates were on the last rep of their sprint workout at a Los Angeles track when authorities enforcing social-distancing rules asked them to leave. A few days later, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were officially postponed because of COVID-19. "It's difficult when everything has been geared toward a date on a calendar and all of a sudden, everything shifts," Felix says, voicing a sentiment felt around the world. "It is really hard to shift your mind and find the positives."
Unfortunately, the trials of this year have not stopped. But as protests spread across the globe after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, Felix continues to search for positives, hard as it may be.
"I am hopeful, but we have a long way to go," says Felix. "Unfortunately, a week or two of protest is not going to turn our country's racial disparities off, but this time of reflection is so important and can create change. My continued hope for my country, my people, and my daughter is that each of us will have hard and honest looks at ourselves and see what changes and perspective shifts we need to make. I believe there is a fear problem throughout our society. The truth is that many white people are afraid of Black people. Really pause there. Ask yourself if you walked into a room that was predominately—60 percent—Black how would you feel? Would you be a little nervous? Would you feel safe? Is that a space you would want to go back to tomorrow? I believe the honest answers to those questions are so important to bridging the racial disparities in our country. We have to look at truth. Most white people that I know plainly and clearly state that they do not hate Black people, but I'm asking you, are you afraid of us?"
But the ability to rebound in the face of setbacks, or somehow wrest good from one adverse event after another, is becoming one of Felix's trademarks. Since the birth of her daughter, she's emerged as a conscientious and centered voice in the sports world, addressing long-standing issues around sponsorship penalties for pregnant athletes and crises in maternal health more broadly.
When Felix showed up for a routine prenatal appointment in November 2018, she was planning to go from there to a photo shoot. Instead, her doctor rushed her into an emergency cesarean at just 32 weeks. Felix, a picture-of-health Olympic athlete who had no complaints beyond some swelling in her feet, was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a pregnancy condition marked by high blood pressure. It disproportionately impacts African-American women and can be life-threatening for both mother and baby. Camryn Grace was born at just 3 pounds and spent a month in the NICU.
Six months later, Felix traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress about the birth challenges unique to Black women in America. That same month, in May 2019, The New York Times published her whistleblowing op-ed on the lack of protections in place for pregnant athletes paid by sponsors. After Nike had worked with her for more than a decade, Felix wrote, the sportswear company had wanted to cut her pay by 70 percent. She was also in danger of being penalized if her performance lagged before and after her child's birth. The essay helped push Nike to amend its policies.
Meanwhile, Felix, who has since signed with apparel brand Athleta, pushed ahead with her career. A year after their daughter's birth, Felix and her husband, Kenneth Ferguson, packed up and, with family support, relocated from Michigan to California so she could work with elite trainer Bob Kersee and prep for Tokyo.
Then the finish line shifted. When Felix reflects on what she's accomplished and hopes to still do, she says her efforts are not just for herself or other women, they're for her daughter as well. "Making the Olympics a fifth time wasn't just this dream that I had, it was a dream we had together," says Felix of her husband. "To be able to tell Cammy the whole story—everything from her very difficult birth, to me speaking to Congress and returning to the track, to how we did it as a family."
Now in Los Angeles, Felix is, characteristically, finding the upside. "Life isn't about this one specific moment that we're trying to get to," she says. "It's about the special moments on the way there."
For Felix, who usually spends half the year traveling for competitions, there's been an extra thrill in being present for the milestones Camryn hits. "I love having this quality time and being able to watch her grow," she says. "I was scared that I was missing little pieces of her progress." Felix has now experienced the joys of hearing her daughter say hi "a million times" to our Parents photographers (who followed social-distancing guidelines and wore masks and stayed 6 feet away) as well as the frustration of Camryn unleashing a sassy "No, no, no!" when introduced to string beans.
After Camryn was born, instead of sticking with crack-of-dawn workouts, Felix adjusted her schedule so that she could spend mornings at home. "I give her breakfast, and we'll do flash cards or play ring games or sing songs, like 'Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,' before I head off to practice for a few hours," she says. Her coach has scouted out a number of nearby locations (like a baseball field and a forest trail) where the two of them can practice in isolation from others. While her daughter is used to watching Mom from a roaring crowd at a stadium, she now watches Felix pump iron in the basement from the other side of a baby gate. "I want Cam to have those visuals of what a strong woman looks like—what it actually looks like to overcome adversity and to just keep pushing," Felix says. "In the future, we'll be able to tell her about this year, and last year, and about how hard it was. I can't wait until she can understand fully what this is about and that she's been on this journey as well."
In the evening, there's time in the backyard, where Felix chases her speedy daughter between playing in the pool and going down a slide. Come bedtime, stories often involve empowering books that are Mom's favorites, like Lupita Nyong'o's Sulwe or She Persisted, by Chelsea Clinton. Yes, there's a theme here.
Everything You Need to Know About Allyson Felix
How Camryn Is A Mini-Me: "She thinks she can do everything by herself. She's always carrying her own diaper bag or trying to pick up one of my medicine balls."
Just Laugh When... "You tell a toddler to stop doing something, and you realize they're mimicking something you do all the time."
Favorite Jogging Stroller: BOB Gear Alterrain Pro.
Advice For C-Section Moms: "Be patient and kind to yourself. It might take a little longer to feel like you again. Let your circle help, and focus on loving your little one."
Mantra: "Be here now."
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's July 2020 issue as "The Champion Lifting All Moms Higher." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here