When Allyson Felix steps out onto the track at Tokyo 2020, her fifth Olympics, she could make history. The nine-time Olympic medal winner needs one top-three finish to become the most decorated Olympian in women’s track and field history. That’s no small title. However, Felix has been hitting the headlines even before her games have begun. Here’s how Allyson Felix has championed women’s and maternal health on and off the track.
Tokyo 2020 is significant for Felix in many ways. She could leave the games having made history. However, among other things, this is the first games that Felix will compete in as a mother. Time explains that in 2018 she gave birth to her daughter, Camryn.
During her pregnancy, Felix developed pre-eclampsia. The NHS explains that pre-eclampsia is a condition that can affect people after 20 weeks of pregnancy or just after birth. Symptoms include high blood pressure, protein in your urine, severe headaches and vision problems. If it’s left untreated, pre-eclampsia can cause serious complications for both parent and baby. These complications can include blood clotting disorders, organ problems and fits.
The Guardian writes that Felix was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at her 32-week scan. Her doctors told her that they’d need to act quickly to protect her and her daughter. She had an emergency C-section the next day and Camryn was delivered at 3lbs 7oz. She then spent a period in a neonatal intensive care unit as her daughter got stronger and she healed.
During this period Felix learned more about pre-eclampsia. Maternal healthcare charity, March of Dimes reported that in the United States pre-eclampsia is the cause of 15% or around three in 20 premature births. She also found out more about the racial disparities in maternal mortality. In the U.S. Black women are nearly four times more likely to die from birth compared to white women.
In May 2019 she spoke in front of the United States House Committee on Ways and Means to share her own experience and petition the government to do more to tackle the systemic biases leading to disparities in maternal mortality and complications. “Yesterday I testified before Congress and shared my story of the two most terrifying days of my life. I thought my story was unique, but I quickly learned it wasn’t,” she wrote on Instagram, “In the U.S. Black women are nearly four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women and twice as likely to experience complications. We have to do better by our mothers.”
During the hearing, Time writes that she said, “We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies. 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.”
Felix went on to work alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the Hear Her Concerns campaign. She’s shared her story with other expecting parents, raised awareness for the signs of pregnancy complications and highlighted that complications can happen to anyone at any time but there are places that you can access support and information.
She’s also been involved with Better Starts For All, an initiative launched by March of Dimes and RB’s Enfa portfolio. Their mission is to increase access to high-quality healthcare for all expecting parents, to spread information about pregnancy complications and improve the lives of pregnant people and their babies. It’s reported that 150,000 babies are born to parents living in “maternity care deserts-counties with no hospital offering obstetric services and no OB providers.” The campaign is aiming to ensure that every parent feels supported and cared for every step of the way.
While Felix dedicated her time to raising the profile of pregnancy complications, she was also raising her newborn baby and preparing for a historic Olympic games. She’s been open in the past about what she called “the enduring status quo around maternity.” She said that following the birth of her child she felt that she had to choose between a sport that she loves and her family.
This led to another monumental change within sport for athletes who are also mothers. In a New York Times op-ed published in 2019, the Olympic athlete said that her contract with Nike had come to an end and they wanted to pay her 70% less than before. She spoke out against this and shortly afterwards Nike changed their policy and guaranteed that pregnant athletes wouldn’t have their pay cut for 18 months around pregnancy.
“I never would have thought that using my voice would have led to Nike changing their maternity policy for athletes and I definitely never would have thought it would lead to creating @bysaysh,” she wrote on Instagram, “Please be clear. I used my voice and built this company for you. So that you never have to train at 4:30 a.m. while you’re five months pregnant to hide your pregnancy from your sponsor. So that you won’t have to fight someone so much bigger than you for a right that should be basic. I took that on for you, and I didn’t do it alone, but it was for you.”
She’s continued her work to break down barriers. In July 2021 she announced that she’d be working with her sponsor Athletica and the Women’s Sports Foundation to create the Power of She Fund. This is a $200,000 grant distributed between athletes who are also mums to ensure that they can pay for the resources and support they need to ensure that their families are taken care of and they can focus on their events without the mental stress of juggling home pressures.
As she enters her fifth Olympic games, Felix walks out onto the track as one of the most successful athletes in history. However, she’s also a leading voice and campaigner for maternal health and an athlete who is paving the way for a brighter future for other female athletes.