The most decorated female track and field athlete in U.S. history has a message for black women.
I met Allyson Felix on a slightly drizzly day in June at a studio space in West Hollywood. She was there to shoot the photos accompanying this profile; I stopped by a few hours earlier than our allotted time ostensibly to find a spot for our interview, take a peek at the photos, and meet everyone. But really I was there to get a sense of how our conversation would go.
Felix, the most decorated female track and field athlete in U.S. history, the one with the confident gaze staring back at you from a giant image plastered on a wall in a Nike store, is a private person. If you’re a Felix fan, you probably know now that she has a daughter, especially after her explosive New York Times opinion piece about the lack of support faced by sponsored athletes who decide to become mothers. But you probably didn’t know she was pregnant until after it was all over. That was by design; during her pregnancy, Felix was selective in the photos she shared of herself on social media, uploading only old photos from before she was showing or ones in which she posed strategically in a sweatshirt or bump-covering overalls. I knew Felix keeps her personal life private, so I wanted to get a sense of how open she was going to be with me before we sat down for our interview, which, by design, would need to get pretty personal.
The reason I was in Los Angeles preparing to speak with Felix was because I wanted to talk with her about how her harrowing birth experience led her to want to raise awareness about our country’s black maternal mortality crisis, the fact that black mothers die in childbirth at an alarming rate in the United States. I wanted to know what life was like now that she’s a mom and wife (to husband Kenneth Ferguson). I figured we’d have enough in common to have a flowing conversation—after all, we both are black moms who had traumatic birth experiences, and in any case questions on how to raise a baby (Did you sleep-train? Has she started solids?) are a surefire way to bond. But I still wasn’t sure if she’d be willing to speak openly with me. Which is why I showed up at the shoot hours earlier than our time slot.
The airy, light-filled studio hummed with activity; almost everyone on set was a black woman, from the photographer to the producer to Allyson to me. It seemed like a good start. But when I introduced myself, Felix was polite and friendly but not overly effusive. She listened to me closely while I talked, responded with some pleasantries, and then went back to inspecting herself in the mirror as a stylist smoothed wrinkles and adjusted her outfit. It seemed like she was trying to focus. It looked like she had her game face on. When she was deemed ready, she stepped up to the seamless, looked directly into the camera, and played the part of the model expertly.
That Allyson Felix, 33, approaches everything with the intensity of a world-class athlete makes sense, considering it’s been her main job since she went pro in 2003. Born in Los Angeles, Felix has competed in track and field for much of her life—long enough to have competed in four Olympics and hopefully, if all goes well this year and next, five come 2020. She was a standout athlete in high school, winning individual titles in the California Interscholastic Federation Track & Field Championships five times; she was also named Gatorade’s National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year for the 2002–2003 season. By college she was so good that she declined her NCAA eligibility at the University of Southern California and became a sponsored Adidas athlete (Adidas also picked up her college tuition tab); she appeared in her first Olympics at age 18 in Athens in 2004, where she won a silver medal in the 200 meters.
In short, Felix has spent years aiming her laser focus on one thing—or more specifically two things: the 200- and 400-meter races—with never a misstep. Not even when she injured her ankle in an odd gym accident just months before the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials (she still ended up making the team), or when she was bumped by a Brazilian runner and dropped the baton in the qualifying heats of the women’s 4×100-meter relay at the same Olympics (Team USA was allowed a redo, which ultimately led to their winning the gold). Or when she seemed like a shoo-in to win the gold in the 400 that same Olympics but was thwarted by a wildly unconventional dive by the Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller-Uibo at the finish. Throughout all of it, she kept her composure, stayed pleasant, exceeded expectations: six Olympic gold medals, three silver, and 16 world championship medals. She never took a break. Until shortly after spring 2018, when she found out she was pregnant.
To anyone following Felix’s career closely, the first clue that something unusual was happening was in June 2018. That month she appeared in two smaller races in Europe, ones she might not normally compete in; 2018 was an off year though, two years before the Olympics and with no world championships, so you might not have thought anything of it. But then she ran a surprisingly slow time at the first race in Poland on June 8. The race was the 400 meters; her time, 51 seconds, was only about two seconds slower than her personal best and good enough for second place, but it still had people wondering what was going on. No one knew she was eight weeks pregnant.
Felix kept her entire pregnancy secret from the public, but early in her first trimester even her training team, including her coach and fellow teammates, didn’t know about it. As she trained for those races, Felix did the same kinds of workouts she would normally do. “That first trimester I was just exhausted, just completely exhausted,” Felix tells me. “But still having to do the same workload. And so I was just trying to manage that. I felt like I was just working out and sleeping.”
A second disappointing performance came a week after the Poland race, this time in France. Afterward Felix and her coach, who by now knew about her pregnancy, focused on “shutting me down,” as she puts it. Her workouts became less intense. It was something they had been planning to do even if she hadn’t been pregnant. “Because I’ve never really had any rest,” she explains.
There was some speculation on the message boards about why Felix had two disappointing races—She was never that good…She never really recovered from that ankle injury…32 is old—but by that time Felix, no longer exhausted, was enjoying herself, hopefully paying none of the gossip any mind. “I felt really great—I continued to train, I was on the track, I was in the gym,” Felix says. Even though she wasn’t training for a specific race for the first time in her entire career, she still worked hard on, as she calls it, maintaining fitness. “I knew that I was going to be returning,” she says. “So I wanted to be in a good place.”
It’s important to note that Felix’s pregnancy was, by her account, textbook. Sure, she was lucky to not have experienced any of the morning sickness that often plagues people in their first trimester (the term, as most people who have been pregnant before can attest, is a cruel misnomer, since morning sickness can and often does happen at any time of day), but the rest of her pregnancy was what you’d call typical. “I didn’t have any issues,” she says, which sounds a lot like an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come. Which it is. Not that you would’ve known, not until it was all over, maybe not until you caught the tightly edited video announcement of Camryn Grace’s November 28 birth, posted on Instagram almost a month later.
What Felix shared that same day as the birth announcement almost a month into her daughter’s NICU stay was this: During a routine checkup at 32 weeks, Felix mentioned to her doctor that she had noticed some swelling in her feet. Preoccupied with her to-do list as she writes in her ESPNW essay about the experience (she was scheduled to be at a photo shoot later that day), she didn’t think too much of it until her doctor ordered her to the hospital, and she was told she had to have her baby that day. It turned out that Allyson Felix, the healthy, physically fit Olympic athlete, who had the means to reserve a private birthing suite at one of the best hospitals in the country, was at risk of dying—as was her unborn baby—because of her pregnancy.
The culprit was preeclampsia, a pregnancy disorder that occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy and is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine, and may affect the organs like your kidneys or liver. Preeclampsia affects black women at rates 60 percent higher than white women, and if left untreated can lead to complications like stroke and kidney failure in the mom and premature birth or death for the baby. According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the most effective ways to manage preeclampsia is to deliver your baby, if it is safe to do so. If you’ve ever been pregnant to term, chances are you may have heard of preeclampsia as one of the reasons why you should keep an eye out for any unexplained body changes in the last trimester, since its symptoms include rapid-onset weight gain, severe headaches, pain in the upper-right abdomen, shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting. Or maybe you know it from that episode of Downton Abbey, set in the early 1900s, when one of the wealthy white daughters of the estate dies after childbirth from complications arising from preeclampsia, that appropriately old-timey-seeming syndrome. Or maybe you’ve heard about preeclampsia because several other high-profile mothers have shared stories of their experiences almost dying in childbirth. Like Beyoncé, who revealed in a September 2018 essay in Vogue that her life-threatening toxemia (a lesser-used term for preeclampsia) while she was pregnant with her twins had led to an emergency C-section.
Parts of Felix’s experience was scarily similar to Beyoncé’s and other present-day women who have almost died from a syndrome that’s portrayed in popular culture as one that afflicts pre-Edwardian women. It also echoes the life-threatening experience of Serena Williams, who told Vogue that she had to practically beg her hospital team for a CT scan after an emergency C-section, which revealed the blood clots that she suspected were there, since she’d previously had a pulmonary embolism in 2011.
Felix’s preeclampsia was severe, and after she was admitted and told she was going to have to deliver her baby two months early, she had her own emergency C-section. “I don’t think I really understood the seriousness of everything, because everything was happening so fast,” Felix says. “I was still trying to wrap my head around everything. I feel like the people around me did [recognize the danger]. But for me, I was just focused on whatever’s in the moment, or the next thing I’m trying to deal with.”
Luckily, all went relatively well; while Camryn wasn’t fully developed (a typical pregnancy is 40 weeks, and 37 weeks is the earliest that most doctors consider a pregnancy to be full term), Felix had survived and once in the NICU Camryn progressed appropriately. “I feel very blessed that my situation turned out the way that it did, because it very easily could’ve gone a different way,” Felix says.
I ask Felix if she had thought about the possibility of this outcome before it happened, especially considering that recently there have been several eye-opening investigative reports on why black mothers are more likely to die from pregnancy at a rate three to four times higher than white mothers in the United States. And what about, I ask, the fact that Beyoncé’s widely publicized Vogue essay came out just two months before Camryn’s birth?
“So I felt I had heard,” Felix says. “But I wouldn’t say I was fully educated with the details. You know, you hear something and you’re like, Okay. I felt I just took my health for granted. I’m a professional athlete, I’m healthy. I feel like I was doing everything I was supposed to. So it was almost like, even though I heard, I was like, That doesn’t apply to me.”
Even after hearing Serena’s story? A fellow Olympian also at the height of her physical fitness, also part of the Nike family of athletes, one who exists in Felix’s rarefied gold-medal-winning stratosphere?
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s really strange now looking back. I’m like, Why wasn’t I more aware or in tune? But I don’t know. [With] Serena, I was like, Well, she had serious health issues before. And I was very well aware of that. So I think I was just like, Oh. I think it was more related.”
It may sound as though I was haranguing Felix—How could you have possibly missed this!?—but as she squints her eyes and thinks back to that time before it all happened, when the only outcome was a win, I’m not the least bit incredulous. I just want to know more. I want to hear her speak about her past self, the one that had to make the slow realization that the things you thought shielded you from being a statistic have no bearing in a world where you’re automatically seen as an other. Knowing Felix’s story is like confirming my own. I too was a blissfully unaware pregnant woman, the one who can also say, “I didn’t have any issues” and breezed through 10-minute doctor appointments; the one who had an entire birth plan that focused more on vaginal birth, delayed cord clamping, and skin-to-skin contact than on what I wanted to do if something went wrong. The woman I am now, more than two years after an emergency C-section and my own life-threatening birthing experience and subsequent 10-day hospital stay, is a lot more skeptical about one’s ability to understand all the variables at play while you’re in the labor room, especially in a country with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world.
Camryn was in the NICU for a month. It was during this time that Felix, recovering from her surgery and a constant fixture in the hospital as she monitored her daughter’s progress, began to really process what had just happened to her. How she could go from putting final touches on the nursery and looking forward to her second baby shower, this one in Michigan (she and Ferguson live in Detroit part-time), to having her baby two months early so she and her daughter wouldn’t die? “I started to try to figure out what happened: Why did this happen? How could this happen?” she says. She started asking other people questions too. “My doctor would come in and make rounds. And [I was] just talking to different people at the hospital. And looking things up, coming across the statistics,” Felix says. “Just somewhere along the way searching for answers from my own situation, I realized it’s not just me. That’s when I realized, Oh, wow—black women are at risk no matter what.”
The reasons why black mothers are dying at an alarming rate in one of the richest and most developed nations in the world has thankfully been explored at length in groundbreaking investigative pieces by the likes of ProPublica, The New York Times, and NPR. There are the usual suspects, of course—black women are more likely to give birth in lower-quality hospitals, to deal with chronic conditions like hypertension, and to be uninsured. But read any of these pieces and you’ll understand that there’s something else at play: Black women in the United States are more likely to experience racism, either explicit or subtle, while in the hospital, which can have devastating consequences. Then there’s the fact that the health of black women, much like that of all people of color, is negatively affected—making us prone to chronic conditions that can shorten our lives—by the daily burden of fielding all types of racism and its effects, from microagressions at the workplace to watching the news, a consequence of living while black that the researcher Arline Geronimus calls “weathering.”
There’s also the fact that many of these consequences are not tied to socioeconomic factors, meaning that lack of resources, or level of education, or access to quality care, or whether or not you know that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderately intense exercise every week, cannot fully explain why black moms are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than others. That famous, wealthy, healthy women like Serena, Beyoncé, and Allyson aren’t necessarily unlucky anomalies but survivors of a culture that leaves black women at greater risk of complications and death, no matter who they are.
The problem is that plenty of us go in with no idea. Too many of us don’t know about weathering, the theory that an entire life of contending with racism might impact our health. Or that because we’re black we have an elevated risk for pregnancy and childbirth complications. Or that in the delivery room the type of racism that can kill us is unconscious bias, not the kind that could be characterized as a hate crime. When you don’t know these things, why would you think that something like this would happen to you? It’s hard to even wrap your head around.
I pointedly ask Felix about that last part, whether the fact that now that she knows what could’ve happened to her, after seeing the stats and asking the questions, it makes her second-guess any of her interactions or wonder if an undercurrent of bias affected her in any way. She says that she didn’t think so. But she also says that knowing what she knows now about the racial disparities in maternal health, she’s reexamined her experiences through that lens. “It’s definitely real for black women,” she says. “And in a lot of situations I’m sure that many, many women have experienced it.”
Even though black pregnant people and moms are fighting a plague of systemic unconscious bias that puts us at a disadvantage—no matter who we are and where we choose to give birth—the truth is that in many instances resources do matter. Like Felix’s, my own labor experience was unpredictable and thankfully also has a happy ending: My daughter was fine (big and healthy) and my recovery played out exactly as it should have. But knowing that countless women, many now gone, didn’t have access to the high-quality prenatal and postpartum health care that I or Felix could easily summon crystallizes how fine the line is between life and death in a country where health care is a privilege and not a right. My extended hospital stint that seemed so claustrophobic and unending was indeed a deeply privileged experience, one in which someone came every hour to check my blood pressure and my health-care team ran various tests and scans until they figured out that the culprit was a serious bacterial infection contracted after my C-section. I feel lucky, and I would argue that Felix feels similarly about her experience as terrifying as it was, especially considering that other black women have not been so fortunate.
In any case there’s often little use in speculating about how barely perceptible yet still insidious events can cascade into disastrous results and whether or not your circumstances will save you. The best we can do is tell each other about our experiences so we can all collectively learn from them, to spread the word that you can be happily and healthily pregnant one day and then fighting for your life the next. That’s one of the reasons Felix wants to make sure all black women are aware of the pregnancy risks that might be facing them. Now, just a few months after her harrowing experience, she’s become something of an activist. She worked with ESPNW on that essay, the formerly private woman describing the intimate experience of giving birth in detail for the world to consume. She’s working with the March of Dimes to help mothers and babies. And in May she testified in front of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives as part of a committee exploring the racial disparities within maternal health care as well as black maternal mortality, during which several lawmakers referred to it as a crisis. Her goal, she tells me, is to raise more awareness among the black community. “I would obviously love for us to learn more, understand more, and for this to change,” Felix says. “I would love to see a black woman who is fully educated: becomes pregnant, starts a family. Is fully educated about all of these risks and is fully equipped to go to the doctor. To be able to ask questions. Advocate for themselves if they need to. Have all the tools to be able to face whatever comes at them. And not to feel like they didn’t see it coming, or to be in a situation [in which] they feel uncomfortable and unsure and have to make rush decisions.”
That Felix is lending her voice to this important movement might be surprising to anyone who’s followed her through the years, who understands that there’s a public and a private Felix and respects that boundary. All of a sudden here’s Felix allowing us to peer in the door at her private life and actually know her personal opinions, offering to the public even more of herself when her professional life has been the subject of cover stories and newspaper articles since the time she placed seventh in her first statewide track meet as a high school freshman. It’s surprising to Felix herself.
“I’m [usually] not the one to ruffle feathers or speak out,” Felix says. “Even if that’s what I was feeling or going through, I’m like, Well, I’m not the one; somebody will take on that issue. And [now] it’s like, No, I am the one. If not me, then who is going to do this?”
Felix is referring both to her decision to raise awareness about black maternal mortality and also another issue that she’s recently spoken out about: the lack of financial security many mother-athletes face, especially in track and field. In May Felix—who had been negotiating with Nike since her previous contract ended in December 2017—wrote an essay and appeared in a video for The New York Times imploring Nike and the sports-apparel industry at large to pay its female athletes throughout their pregnancies and recovery for childbirth and to change athletes’ contracts so they aren’t expected to perform at their best while pregnant or in the months surrounding childbirth. She was one of several runners including sprinter Alysia Montaño and marathoner Kara Goucher who shared their stories of suffering financial consequences because they were pregnant. As a result of the athletes’ advocacy, Nike recently announced that its new contracts for female athletes will include language that will protect their pay during pregnancy.
“It’s definitely very scary,” Felix says about publicly challenging her sponsor since 2010, especially in the midst of negotiating a new contract with them. “But at the end I just kept saying, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ I’m being truthful. I’m sharing my very real experience. And also I knew so many women who had gone through the same thing. It just reconfirmed that, after I did see the number of people who shared their stories with me. And people who couldn’t share it. The female athletes who are still under contract and can’t say anything. And they’re like, ‘That was my experience.’ And so that just really made me feel okay. I knew I was doing the right thing.”
About a month after our conversation and following Felix’s appearance at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships as an unattached athlete, her brother and agent Wes Felix clarified the current status of Allyson’s negotiations with Nike. Felix, he said, had been in talks with Nike since her previous contract ended, but “at this point Allyson has decided that she wants to partner with a brand that she believes makes women the focus of their business,” Wes told SELF via email. “Allyson has decided to seek a new apparel sponsor.” (He further clarified his statement to say that Felix is looking to do “something relatively uncommon, especially in track and field, and split up her apparel and footwear sponsorship.”) SELF reached out to Nike for comment but had not heard back as of press time. On July 31, Athleta, a female-focused fitness apparel brand, announced that Felix was its first sponsored athlete. Of the partnership, Felix told SELF, “As a mother, as an activist, all these different parts of who I am, I’m more than an athlete. And it’s amazing to be supported in that way and to be able to partner and to create things together, to have values aligned and to do more than just perform.”
For all the talk about motherhood being so natural and how the maternal instinct just, you know, kicks in, in fact for many people it’s not like that at all. In the least. The truth is that no matter how much you prepare for it, how many books you read about bringing up baby, or how many months or years you have to contemplate what kind of mother you’ll be, you’re not actually ready. It’s a stunning feeling to go from guardian of yourself to guardian of another from one day to the next. Motherhood is figuring out how to deal with the fact that another living, breathing part of you exists separately from you (this is true no matter how you become a mom). It’s a shock to the body and to the mind, like when you think someone has just slammed the door really hard in the apartment downstairs but then it turns out you’re actually in the middle of a roiling, rumbling earthquake that takes your brain and body seconds to register.
In fact there’s a word for the process of becoming a mother: matrescence, coined in the 1970s by Dana Raphael, the medical anthropologist who also gave us the term doula. Matrescence is not a word I knew existed before I became a mom, but when I came across it I was a few months deep into the biggest tectonic shift in my life in which I slowly found myself uncovering ground to see who I had become, and I understood it innately. In retrospect I was lucky that I at least felt as prepared as I could—my daughter was a week late, and the upside to spending 10 miserable days in the hospital is that you have nurses around to help teach you how to hold and feed your baby. But what about becoming a mother when you’re not actually ready in the logistical sense? Felix had her baby just days before she and Ferguson were supposed to go to birthing class; she had just attended her first baby shower and was planning another; she still had so much to do before she became a mother. “We did have a name. We had picked that early. But that’s all we had,” she says.
So then what did the process of becoming a mother look like for Felix?
Let’s start with the aftermath of the physical shock, an important consideration for a woman who has spent most of her life engineering her body for the most minuscule of marginal gains, mere hundredths of a second that can be the difference between first and last place. Felix started back on the track about six weeks after her C-section, managing only a walk around a distance that usually takes her less than a minute to traverse.
If you’ve never experienced it, just know that running for the first time after giving birth feels incredibly weird, like your pelvis is operating off its normal course and your brain is fighting your body and you physically can’t run as fast as you want to. Felix agrees. “I couldn’t sprint. Not even ‘couldn’t do it well.’ But just like, I couldn’t do it. Something that was just so natural, and that I didn’t even think about. Now it’s like I didn’t feel like myself.” So she took a gradual approach, walking, then jogging, then finally starting drills at about two months postpartum.
Felix says she now trains on the track five to six days a week, for up to three hours at a time. She goes to the gym two to three days a week. Sometimes Camryn and Ferguson join her. Until recently she had been pumping eight times a day in between workouts in addition to breastfeeding, an impressive feat but one that Felix, always one to excel at protocol, shrugs off (“In the hospital [at the NICU] that’s what they start you on. After that it’s like you can’t not do it, you know?”). She and Ferguson recently sleep-trained their daughter, so now Felix is back to getting the blessed eight or more hours of sleep she so desperately needs as an athlete, which she says helps her feel like herself again. The details might be specific to her circumstances, but the logistics are normal working mom stuff. Process, complete.
The inner workings of matrescence, the emotional and mental transformation of becoming a mother, are less concrete, less easy to communicate even if you wanted to. Felix is probably figuring it out. But she’s starting to understand the ways in which she’s no longer who she used to be less than a year ago.
Take that piece for the Times. Before becoming a mom, she told me, she wouldn’t have written it. “Years ago, there’s no way,” she says. “I just felt it was too much outside my comfort zone.” Now Felix is ready to speak out, and she credits motherhood for that.
“It’s not about me,” she says. “Now there’s this whole other person that I want to show…be an example, and teach her these different things. And I think this is the way.”
I can also sense a shift in the new maternal Felix when I ask her if it was hard to keep her pregnancy a secret. She says no but expresses some regret about how things played out. “I’m a pretty private person anyway, so even if the situation was different, I’m just not one of those people who would be like, ‘Oh. I’m three weeks, four weeks.’ But I think just being able to fully embrace it myself—things like just being out and about. I felt like that was a moment missed for me,” she says.
That’s the thing about Felix’s journey, her process of grappling with what happened to her—it’s not just about becoming someone’s mom; it’s about becoming a different person in another way, choosing an identity that you didn’t even know you wanted in the first place. Like the fact that Felix will now forever be someone who understands what life is like as a NICU mom, what parents are actually going through as they watch their children fight for their lives. “Those are areas that I would’ve never thought of before,” Felix says. “And being completely thrust into [it, I’m] realizing like, Wow, I’m actually passionate about this.”
And now she says she’s less likely to put so much pressure on herself, to strive only for wins and medals (although of course with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, she still plans on making the team and medaling). She says she’s trying to treat herself with more kindness and trying to accept that finding the old Allyson Felix is a process in itself. “I know I’m not at my best; I’m not like how I usually am,” Felix says of how she feels now that she’s starting to race again, including at that appearance at the USATF Outdoor Championships this past weekend. It was her first competitive event after giving birth to Camryn less than eight months ago; Felix placed an impressive sixth in the final in the 400 meters with a time of 51.94. The top three finishers of any event automatically qualify for the world championships as long as they meet certain other requirements. While Felix didn’t make that cut, she did qualify for the 4 x 400 women’s relay team, which means she has a spot to compete at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, later this year. It will be her ninth world championship appearance if she goes. Felix has expressed some uncertainty about whether she’ll compete in the championships since her focus is on the Olympics, but Wes says that she is “leaning towards joining the team in Doha and attempting to help them win gold in the 4×4.”
In any case Felix is less likely to feel the need to project a tightly controlled image of the perfect athlete, the woman who has it all together. “I’m just trying to be my authentic self. No matter what the consequences are of that. Or how people take that,” she says. For her that means standing up for what she believes. And opening up to a stranger, even just for an hour, in order to share her story.