Six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix has spent most of her career focused on track. But since becoming a mother in November 2018, she’s also emerged as a feminist activist—an identity that’s front and center in her newly announced sponsorship deal with Athleta.
As the first professional athlete to be sponsored by the Gap-owned athletic-wear brand, Felix was chosen not just for her achievements in sports, but explicitly for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of new moms. And Felix, who broke ties with Nike over what she has described as unfair treatment of pregnant athletes, says she hopes her new deal will offer a model for other companies to follow. “I hope this partnership is the start to redefining what sponsorship looks like for female athletes, embracing them as a whole and celebrating the idea of motherhood,” she tells Quartz.
Felix first took strides toward redefining sponsorships for women this May, when she penned a New York Times op-ed that condemned Nike for policies that, she argued, effectively punished female athletes on its sponsorship roster if they chose to have kids. Her contract renewal negotiations with Nike, her sponsor since 2000, had broken down when the company refused to include protections that would safeguard her from pay cuts if her performance in the months after giving birth wasn’t up to her usual speed and standards. (It’s typical for companies that sponsor athletes to tie compensation to performance; what was noteworthy was the expectation that a professional athlete who had just given birth deserved to have her pay reduced if she didn’t instantly return to form.) “If I, one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes, couldn’t secure these protections,” Felix wrote in the Times, “who could?”
Felix’s op-ed was part of a wave of pushback against the ways in which athletic apparel companies financially penalize new moms, after an op-ed piece published a week earlier in the Times by Olympic runner Alysia Montaño. Nike announced that it would change the language in its contracts, and companies including Burton, Altra, Nuun, and Brooks pledged to provide contractual protections to women, too.
Meanwhile, Felix was advocating for new moms not just in the workplace, but in the healthcare system as well. That same May, she testified before Congress in a hearing on maternal mortality, detailing her own harrowing experience with severe preeclampsia that endangered the lives of both herself and her baby and led to an emergency C-section when she was 32 weeks pregnant. Felix was there to help call attention to the ways that such health problems are particularly likely to affect black women, who are three times more likely to die or face serious illness from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women in the US. Felix testified that she was struck by the stories of countless women who were “black like me, healthy like me, doing their best, just like me. And they faced death just like me, too.”
Felix’s daughter, Camryn, is now healthy, as is Felix herself. Just last week, she competed in her first race in more than a year, coming in sixth in the 400-meter event at the US National Championships, and she’s in the process of training for tryouts for the US team to go to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. She plans to use her platform with Athleta to put a spotlight on issues that are of particular importance to women and mothers both within sports and in the workplace at large, including equal pay as well as generous maternity leave policies.
“This is in all industries, I know women are affected,” Felix says. Her own willingness to speak out against inequality has increased as she’s gotten older and gained confidence—and her experience with Nike shows that coming forward publicly can have a real impact on industry attitudes and policies.
“When I was younger, it was definitely very scary to have a strong opinion or share an experience,” she says. But she’s come to realize that she can use her voice to create space for other women to be heard, too. “Being vulnerable, opening up about what you’re going through,” she says, “always when you do, you’re surprised at who else has been there, and who else finds strength in sharing your story.”