The lead-up to an Olympic Games produces some incredible stories - but most do not come close to what Allyson Felix has been through, or what she is doing to change women’s sport and society.
At the age of 35, the world’s greatest ever female track and field Olympian (nine medals, six of which are gold) booked her spot at Tokyo 2020 at the weekend - her fifth Games. But Japan is not about adding to her stunning medal tally; it is about proving that when your back is up against the wall, you can come back to do incredible things.
It has been a whirlwind five years since Felix helped Team USA win double relay gold and individual 400m silver in Rio - almost losing her life to a severe pregnancy condition and taking on one of the globe’s biggest sports brands, calling them out in the process for their handling of athletes who just want to start a family.
A fighter on and off the track - Felix is on the brink of history at her fifth Olympics
Sport, quite simply, is not the priority now for Felix - she is using her profile to speak up for women around the world. That is not to say that she does not take it seriously, but lacing up the spikes is now for enjoyment, getting to the heart of why she took it up in the first place. She truly is the athlete the whole world can get behind this summer.
Two and a half years ago, in November 2018, Felix welcomed daughter Camryn into the world, but it could have been so different. She was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia, a complication that can arise early in pregnancy, around the 20-week mark - just when things are really starting to get real, exciting and nerve-wracking for soon-to-be parents.
At the end of a routine 32-week check-up, doctors were so concerned about Felix that they decided to perform an emergency caesarean section. Her life was at risk, and so was her baby’s. Camryn was born premature weighing just 3 pounds, 7 ounces, and measuring only 16 inches in length. She spent a month in intensive care - but is now a healthy toddler.
At the same time, Felix was undergoing what became a public battle with Nike. Her contract had ended at the end of 2017 and she was negotiating a new deal - but the sportswear giant would only give her 70 per cent of what she was earning before. She was fine with that part - but then found out that Nike would not contractually agree that she would not be financially punished if she returned from maternity leave and could not perform at her previous best straight away.
Allyson Felix with daughter Camryn
Image credit: Getty Images
Nike did eventually change its policy but it was too late for Felix. In what has become a now infamous and powerfully written article for The New York Times, she said in May 2019: “Pregnancy is not messing up; for women it can and should be able to be part of a thriving professional athletic career, as my teammates have shown and I hope to show too. And I dream of a day when we don’t have to fight in order to try.
Protection during maternity isn’t just limited to Olympians; working women all over the U.S. deserve protection when they have children. We shouldn’t have to rely on companies to do the right thing. Our families depend on it.
Now she is part of a new wave of athletes, including gymnastics star Simone Biles, who are using Gap’s Athleta brand to speak up for women. This week, she even launched her own shoe brand, Saysh.
Felix is blazing a trail and the Olympics is the biggest stage of all for her voice to be heard. Fittingly for someone who has put her child at the heart of everything she does, she qualified for Tokyo on Father’s Day, finishing second in the 400m trial event in Eugene, Oregon.
Less than a year after almost losing her life, Felix stunned sport by winning two relay golds at the 2019 World Championships in Doha. But just getting to Tokyo means more to her than much of what she’s achieved on the track.
"It has been a fight to get here, and one thing I know how to do is fight, so I just wanted to do that all the way home," Felix told NBC.
Today I thought about all the things. I thought about us fighting in the NICU, fighting for my life, fighting to get on this track.
“My first year back was a struggle, and I just kept getting hit with thing after thing.
“There was the sponsorship battle, and I was just, ‘Man, I hope something comes together for me.’ I just kept fighting. I wanted to give it one more shot.
“When they watch and see me, I hope they see it’s possible - We’re going to keep fighting.”
Felix is an athletics legend and looked destined for greatness at Athens 2004, when she claimed 200m silver as an 18-year-old. She has since gone on to win a combined 19 Olympic and World gold medals. A freak of track endurance speed, the American has contributed to winning relay line-ups from the 100m up to the 400m.
She is a team player, a selfless athlete who fights for what she believes is right. Overseas spectators cannot go to Tokyo 2020, but Allyson Felix has gained even more followers these past three years - she will receive armchair cheers from around the world, however she gets on.
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