Becoming the most successful athlete in World Championships history – as she did in Doha – would once have been all-consuming for Allyson Felix. The past 12 months have changed her beyond measure.
Having a baby has also given birth to the activist hidden inside her. Felix is no longer a willing participant in the “culture of silence” around maternity rights in elite athletics. She has found her voice.
With the World Athletics Championships in town, these plush surroundings are perfect for a six-time Olympic sprint champion, but not for 10-month old daughter Camryn it seems. Her body clock has yet to adjust to the Middle East and as a result Felix, 33, has been up all night.
Camryn was born on 28 November 2018, weighing just 3lbs 7oz. Felix had gone into hospital for a routine check-up at 32 weeks only to be told that both she and her baby were in mortal danger.
Felix was suffering from pre-eclampsia- a potentially life-threatening condition for both mother and baby. Her blood pressure was rising while Camryn’s heart-rate was decelerating.
And so, 10 hours after arriving at hospital, Felix gave birth by emergency Caesarean to Camryn.
Ten months and one day later, Felix secured a record-breaking 12th World Championships gold medal in the 4x400m mixed relay in Doha, surpassing Usain Bolt. On Sunday’s closing day she added gold number 13 as USA won the women’s 4x400m relay.
“Last Christmas when I was in the hospital I could not have believed at all that I would be here in Doha winning medals,” she says. “This moment that was supposed to be so happy was happy, but it was also really scary and uncertain.”
Out of that uncertainty Felix found purpose. Primarily through a commitment to her daughter in the here and now that saw her spend every waking moment in the intensive care unit. But in addition, she began a two-pronged campaign of activism.
May saw the normally shy Felix address a House Ways and Means Committee in the US Congress, highlighting the issue of maternal mortality among black women. In the USA, black women are nearly four times as likely to die during childbirth and twice as likely to suffer complications.
Introducing herself as “Camryn’s Mom”, Felix began her speech with the words: “I would like to share the story of the two most terrifying days of my life.” Looking back now it is no less raw.
She says: “When I was in the hospital, it was such a scary situation. I feel like I am someone who is privileged and I was in that situation and was kind of aware but not fully educated. And if I am not fully educated then there are a lot of women who aren’t fully educated as well. Speaking to Congress had to happen in order to save lives. It is way bigger than sport.”
Then Felix took on sportswear superpower Nike over maternity rights for athletes. She was involved in contract negotiations with them while dealing with her life as new mum. Nike wanted to pay Felix “70% less than before”, which she said at the time she was willing to accept.
“What I’m not willing to accept is the enduring status quo around maternity,” she wrote in a powerful New York Times article published in May. “I asked Nike to contractually guarantee that I wouldn’t be punished if I didn’t perform at my best in the months surrounding childbirth. I wanted to set a new standard. If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections, who could? Nike declined.”
Felix received messages of support from women across the spectrum of the working world for speaking out. And while fellow athletes also shared their stories of discrimination, her greatest inspiration was closer to home.
“I continually thought of Camryn,” she says.
“Ever since I was a teenager growing up in the sport, silence is what I saw. Whether it was teammates or other women, it would just be [kept] under wraps. It was only once they had secured a contract they would make their pregnancy public.”
“I had seen it time and time again so it got to the point where I didn’t even question it, I just thought: ‘Oh, that is how things are done.’ Until I found myself in that situation. And then I thought: ‘This is not the way things should be done and this is not right.”
“Thinking about Camryn growing up, I was just constantly thinking I wanted it to be different for her.”
It will be. In May, Nike announced changes to its maternity contracts which ensure that female athletes “will no longer be financially penalized for having a child”.
“Our voices have power,” was Felix’s simple response. That and a move away from Nike to become the face of Gap’s new sportswear brand Athleta, announced in July.
BBC Sports News