The sprinter Allyson Felix has competed in four Olympics, winning more medals in track and field — nine — than any other American woman. Should she make the team for next month’s Tokyo Games, which would almost surely be her last, and earn one more medal, it would make her the most decorated Olympian female track athlete from any country. As she has grown older, Felix, who is 35, has also earned increased attention for her work outside the arena. The difficult birth of her daughter, Camryn, in 2018 caused her to speak out for racial equality in maternal health care. And a 2019 column she wrote for The Times criticizing the maternity policies of Nike, her sponsor at the time — which the company subsequently improved — established her as an advocate for women’s equality in sports. So no matter what happens in Tokyo (or if the Games themselves even happen; they were postponed from last summer), her future will be full, which isn’t to say easy. On the prospect of her life after sports, she says: ‘‘Finding other ways to get the same fulfillment that I get from competition is something that I think about. I’m not sure what the answer is. I just know that getting to a new normal is going to be a process.’’
Japan is not exactly in the best place with Covid, and yet it sure looks as if the Olympics are going to happen — probably because there’s too much money involved to risk postponing them again. Does that make you feel any moral ambivalence about participating? I would do anything to compete. That’s what the Olympics mean to me. That’s who I am. At the same time I understand that a pandemic is going on. We have had so much loss of life, and I don’t want to contribute to any more. So I feel as if I have to be at the mercy of the experts in charge. It’s in their hands. But I can be very honest: I would be devastated if the Olympics didn’t take place.
Over your career, has your understanding of what the Olympics are about beyond competition — that is, the business side — changed? Definitely. When I entered this sport as a teenager, I was very naïve. Then I kind of understood that this is not what I thought it to be as a child. This is a business. I worked on the bid to bring the games to Los Angeles and saw, like, OK, these are the actual decision makers. This is the group that decides where the Olympics goes. Seeing more of how the International Olympic Committee operates, it’s not what I thought it was. My perspective was that the Games were so much about the competition. Being involved in the bid process, you see that the competition, and the athletes are a very minimal part. The athletes do not have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made. Now I get where we fall in the grand scheme of this ginormous thing that makes a ton of money — the athletes don’t see that money. It’s a big machine.
Along similar lines, did your conflict with Nike over its maternity policy affect your perspective on the reality of the relationship between athletes and brand sponsors? The veil has been lifted. As a younger athlete, I just wasn’t aware. There’s so much thrown at you, and it’s easy to buy in. When I was with Nike, it was family this, family that, this is the Nike family. You feel that that’s real, and then you see the other side of things, and it’s completely different. To me there’s so much more value than financial. Even my partnership with Athleta — I don’t do things anymore just because I need to. Now it’s about: Will I have a seat at the table? Does it matter to you what I do beyond running fast? Going to Athleta, I was at a place in my career where supporting women and girls mattered to me, and they are actually doing things that are important in that space, like not Photoshopping their images. They’re showing what a healthy woman looks like. That’s important to me, and so is being supported beyond being just an athlete, and also feeling that when I bring something it’s going to be listened to. I’ve had experiences with Nike in which I brought an idea to the table, and it seemed to be listened to, but then it didn’t go anywhere. I want to feel that I’m taken seriously.
You wrote your column about Nike while you were still under contract. At the time, did you assume you would still re-up with them? I wrote it when we were going through negotiations. I always thought I was going to be with them until the end of my career. Then I got a request to be a part of their campaign for the 2019 Women’s World Cup at the same time that I was having this battle internally with them, asking for protection around maternity. I remember sitting in my daughter’s room: She was freshly home from the NICU, and this request to be in this campaign was the thing where I was like, I can’t in good faith sit here and not say anything when I’m being asked to be a part of this campaign that tells little girls they can do anything and here I am not being supported in having my own little girl. Then roughly a month and a half after the column came out they changed their policy. But at that point we had already decided to leave.
Did anyone at Nike ever come back to you and say that they screwed up or that you’d made them realize their maternity policies needed changing? No, nothing happened. I learned that they were changing their policy through the media.
Can you talk about how hard it was, postpregnancy, to get your body back to the level you wanted it to be at? The first workout that my coach gave me when I came back was a simple power walk. Thirty minutes on the treadmill. I remember coming to the end and having tears roll down my face because I was like, I cannot even walk. It was such a humbling experience. That was like starting at the very bottom and then working myself back from nothing. Later on that year, when I competed at the world championships, it gave me a glimpse that yes, you can get back. I wasn’t back to the standards of where I was before; I’m just starting to get there. In this world we’re unwilling to give someone time, and after having a child that’s what you need.
On the subject of time, does having to be away from your daughter to train ever make you question why you’re still competing at an age when most track athletes have retired? Yeah. My daughter was born two months prematurely. So we started out in the NICU, and during that time I was like: Does competing still mean that much? My daughter is literally fighting for her life; do I really need to find a way to go do this next workout? And the answer I arrived at was: This is now bigger than sport. It’s not just about me running fast. It is about doing very specific things — advocating for women — or seeing how this career makes sense beyond ‘‘I need more medals.’’ Because I don’t.
You’ve also said in the past that your faith is the reason you run. What does it mean to say that? It’s about bringing glory to God, and I do that through my running. My dad is a pastor, and I was raised in the church, and so it has always been that my faith has played this huge part in my career. Especially in putting things into perspective. My faith brings me peace and centers me to be able to come back to this gift that I have. It’s easy for me to become consumed with the competitive side of things.
But when you say your faith helps you to put things perspective — can you explain how that manifests itself in your life as an athlete? I can try.
Please. I’ll go back to Beijing. That was a defining moment in my career, because it meant so much to me, and it didn’t go the way I wanted. The way my faith played a role was through my understanding that sometimes God puts you through something in order for you to accomplish something else bigger in your life. I wasn’t ready for a certain moment in Beijing. My faith brought that lesson around to me. Without my faith, would I have continued on another four years to London? I don’t know. But I realized there was this bigger picture: Maybe somebody saw me in that moment, and they could relate to the disappointment. Losing wasn’t in vain. A lot of times, with faith, you don’t see it in the moment. Then you get out of that moment and you’re like, Now I see why that happened.
This may be another of those things that’s hard to articulate, but can you tell me what it feels like to win a gold medal? You know, it’s interesting. It was my third Olympics. I had two silver medals at the first two Olympics, and I think I had built winning an individual gold up to be on such a pedestal that when I did it, it almost didn’t match the feeling of what I had dreamed it to be. I mean, I thought life was going to be different: gold medalist, nothing is ever the same. And then it’s like everything is kind of the same — it’s on to another goal that you set for yourself. Because you come home, and not too much changes.
This is something I was always curious about with athletes in a sport like yours: Is it weird to have a job where the public pretty much pays close attention only once every four years? For sure. Your Olympic year is your most important year; it’s also the most demanding year, the year that you’re going to do the most outside work with media and all of that. And then the idea of working for four years for 21 seconds and if you mess up having to wait another four years: That is very heavy. In 2008, when I was expected to win a gold medal and didn’t, there was no part of me that could be OK with that. I feel much more at peace with things now. I’m going to be OK whether I get that gold medal or not. I now know that’s true.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.