Sin the morning the car does not start, the baby cries, the girl does not eat his breakfast, the boy does not remember where he left the shoes, and you forgot to sign the form you promised to bring to school last week. Some mornings the shower runs cold, the baby has temperature, the girl runs out of clean shirts, the boy has a furious fit of rage because someone knocked over his Lego tower, and all you want to do is crawl back to bed because the day is just about over to have beaten you already. Some mornings I wonder if Allyson Felix has mornings like these.
You may have missed it in all the excitement, but late last Sunday, hours after Wales’ defeat to Italy in the Euro, Max Verstappen had won the French Grand Prix, Matteo Berretini had beaten Cameron Norrie in the final at the Queen’s, Jon Rahm had won US Open in Torrey Pines, and Ishant Sharma had fired Devon Conway in the final of the World Cup, an even better sports story unfolded in front of a small crowd at Hayward’s Field in Eugene, Oregon, where Felix settled in the starting blocks for the women’s 400m final at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Felix is 35, and has already won six Olympic gold medals as well as three silver, making her the most successful female athlete in history. Win one more in Tokyo and she’s the equivalent of Carl Lewis’ record for an all-time athlete. But that’s not why she’s driving. Like she told the New York Times in a recent Q&A: “It’s not just about me running fast. It’s about doing very specific things – advocating for women – or seeing how this career makes sense beyond ‘I need more medals.’ Because I do not. ”
In November 2018, Felix had his first child, Camryn. It was a traumatic birth. She was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia at her routine 32-week checkup. The doctors told her that if they did not act now, it could kill her and her child. The next day, Felix had an emergency C-section. Camryn was 3 pounds ounce and 16 inches head to toe. She spent the next month in the neonatal intensive care unit fighting for her life.
In sports, we observe the meticulousness of male bodies, worrying about strains and tweaks and twinges, knees, elbows and metatarsals. Two and a half years ago, Felix almost died to survive, doctors had to cut up her skin, abdomen and uterus and separate her abdominal muscles and pull the baby out. She struggled to walk normally for five weeks, but she was back in training in three months, and the following October she won her 12th and 13th World Championship gold medals in Doha. “Society tells us that you have a child and that your best moments are behind you, but that’s definitely not the case,” Felix says, “I’m a representation of that.”
And more. In the year after the birth, Felix took over his own sponsor, Nike, on the pages of the New York Times, where she called them out as they treat their female athletes. Nike, one of the most powerful organizations in sports, had been her sponsor since 2010. Now they denied her a contractual guarantee that they would not punish her financially if her performance dipped in the months on both sides of the birth. The article, along with testimonies from Nike teammates Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño, led to a congressional inquiry and eventually forced Nike to introduce a new maternity policy for all of its athletes. Felix found himself a new sponsor.
That was not enough. In the year after the birth, Felix trained on preeclampsia. She learned that the United States has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the developed world, and that black women are nearly four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women, regardless of income, education, and geographic location. She testified about these problems before the United States House Committee on Ways and Means hearing on racial differences in maternal health mortality. “I did not realize how many other women like me experienced the same fear and much worse,” she said. “My hope is that by sharing my experience with you, it will continue a conversation that needs a lot more attention and support.” She is currently leading a public health campaign on the issue of the US Center for Disease Control.
In Sunday’s final, Felix ran in eight lanes. To qualify for an individual spot in the Olympics, she needed to finish in the top three. She was the only woman in the field in her 30s. Most of them were just out of college. She started fast and led at the end of the first bend, then faded and was back in the sixth, coming out of the second. “I told myself before the race that when it comes down to it, I have to fight,” Felix said later. “It’s been one of my themes for the last couple of years.” And she did. During the last 50 m she moved from sixth to fifth to fourth to third to second. The last woman left in front of her was the only other mother in the race, Quanera Hayes.
Another big race in a career full of them, from the 2004 Athens Olympics through Beijing, London, Rio and now Tokyo. Whether she wins or loses in Japan, making a fifth game could be her biggest achievement. “You do things with character, integrity, and you do not give up, whether it wins or loses, regardless of the result,” she says. Some mornings, Allyson Felix feels like the greatest athlete on the planet.