Some mornings the car won’t start, the baby’s crying, the girl won’t eat her breakfast, the boy can’t remember where he left his shoes, and you forgot to sign the form you promised to bring in to the school last week. Some mornings the shower’s running cold, the baby’s got a temperature, the girl’s run out of clean shirts, the boy’s having a raging tantrum because someone knocked over his Lego tower, and all you want to do is crawl back to bed because the day’s just about 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 Euros, Max Verstappen’s victory at the French Grand Prix, Matteo Berretini had beaten Cameron Norrie in the final at Queen’s, Jon Rahm had won the US Open at Torrey Pines, and Ishant Sharma had dismissed Devon Conway in the final of the World Test Championship, an even better sports story was unfolding in front of a small crowd at Hayward’s Field in Eugene, Oregon, where Felix was settling into the starting blocks for the final of the women’s 400m at the US Olympic trials.
Felix is 35, and has already won six Olympic gold medals, as well as three silver, which makes her the most successful female athlete in history. Win one more in Tokyo and she’ll equal Carl Lewis’s all-time record for an athlete from the US. But that’s not why she’s racing. Like she told the New York Times in a recent Q&A: “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.”
In November 2018, Felix had her first child, Camryn. It was a traumatic birth. She was diagnosed with severe pre-eclampsia at her routine 32-week check-up. The doctors told her that if they didn’t act now, it could kill her, and her child. The next day, Felix had an emergency C-section. Camryn was 3lbs 7oz, and 16 inches head to toe. She spent the next month in the neonatal intensive care unit, fighting for her life.
In sport we obsess over the minutiae of male bodies, fret over strains and tweaks and twinges, knees, elbows, and metatarsals. Two-and-a-half years ago Felix nearly died, to survive, the doctors had to cut open her skin, abdomen and uterus, and separate her stomach muscles and pull out her baby. She struggled to walk normally for five weeks, but she was back training in three months, and the next October, she won her 12th and 13th world championship gold medals in Doha. “Society tells us that you have a child, and your best moments are behind you but that’s absolutely not the case,” Felix says, “I’m a representation of that.”
And more. In the year after the birth, Felix took on her own sponsor, Nike, in the pages of the New York Times, where she called them out the way they treat their female athletes. Nike, one of the most powerful organisations in sport, had been her sponsor since 2010. Now they were refusing her a contractual guarantee that they wouldn’t punish her financially if her performances dipped in the months either side of the birth. The article, alongside testimony from Nike teammates Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño, led to a congressional inquiry and, ultimately, forced Nike to bring in a new maternity policy for all its athletes. Felix found herself a new sponsor.
It wasn’t enough. In the year after the birth, Felix educated herself about pre-eclampsia. She learned that the US has the highest rate of pregnancy-related deaths in the developed world, and that black women are almost four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, regardless of income, education and geographical location. She testified about these problems in front of the United States House Committee on Ways and Means hearing on racial disparities in maternal health mortality. “I did not realise just how many other women just like me were experiencing those same fears and much worse,” she said. “My hope is that by sharing my experience with you it will continue a conversation that needs much more attention and support.” She is currently fronting a public health campaign about the issue for the US Center for Disease Control.
In Sunday’s final, Felix was running in lane eight. 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 was leading by the end of the first bend, then faded, and was back in sixth coming off the second. “I told myself before the race that when it comes down to it I have to fight,” Felix said later. “That’s been a theme of mine for the last couple of years.” And she did. Over the last 50m she moved from sixth to fifth to fourth to third to second. The last woman left ahead of her was the only other mother in the race, Quanera Hayes.
One more great race in a career that has been 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 Games might just be her greatest achievement. “You do things with character, integrity, and you don’t give up, whether it’s winning or losing, no matter the outcome,” she says. Some mornings, Allyson Felix feels like the greatest athlete on the planet.