Allyson Felix, who at Tokyo Olympics in 2021 became the most decorated woman in track and field history with 11 medals—seven of them gold—is returning for one last season of racing, for one reason: to start a new childcare initiative in track and field that could help future generations run for as long as she has.
On Tuesday, Felix and her primary sponsor, Athleta, announced that they are partnering with a non-profit organization, &Mother, to provide free childcare for athletes, coaches, and other participants at the 2022 U.S. National Championships in Eugene, Ore., which run from June 23-26. At a hotel ballroom Vivvi, a national childcare provider, will be offering programming for infants, toddlers, and school-age kids: activities could include ice-cube painting with food coloring, playdough-making for toddlers, and card and board games for older children. Felix, along with the Women’s Sports Foundation and Athleta’s Power of She Fund, will also open up their next round of $10,000 childcare grants to qualified athletes: Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation have already awarded $200,000 in grants to elite athletes since last year: among the recipients is Elana Myers Taylor, the Olympic bobsledder who gave birth to her son Nico in 2020. Myers Taylor won two more medals at the 2022 Beijing Olympics to become the most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympics history.
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Felix, who gave birth to her daughter Camryn in 2018, hopes this free childcare model becomes the norm in track and field. “That’s the one reason why I felt like I wanted to come back and run this season,” says Felix, 36. “It’s that important to me.”
This announcement marks the next phase of Felix’s evolution as an athlete advocate. In 2019, Felix testified on Capitol Hill about the racial disparities in maternal mortality: she suffered from severe preeclampsia and survived life-threatening complications during pregnancy and childbirth. “We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies,” Felix told the House Ways and Means Committee. “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.” That same year Felix left Nike, her longtime sponsor, after a public dispute over payments to pregnant athletes. Nike eventually changed its policies and added payment protections for pregnant women and new mothers. A year ago, Felix took full agency over her legacy and career by launching her own footwear and apparel brand, Saysh. Felix won gold and bronze medals at the Tokyo Games while wearing Saysh spikes. The company just closed an $8 million Series A investment round, whose participants included Athleta, a Gap Inc brand: Gap now has a 2% equity stake in Saysh.
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After the Tokyo Olympics, Felix was on the fence about coming back to run. Last fall, however, she spoke to Billie Jean King, who encouraged her to pursue a new childcare initiative for her sport: if it’s successful, it could spread to other sports and industries. Felix thought back to a track meet from a decade ago, in Arkansas, when her training partner struggled to find proper care for her daughter. “During the race, she would pass off her daughter to athletes and different people on the staff, and I remember when we watched the race back on TV, you could hear her daughter crying,” says Felix. She recalled her own experiences with Camryn, bringing her from meet to meet during that first season after her birth. Felix had to wash bottles and order an extra hotel room for her mom: Felix knew she was fortunate that she could afford the help. But what about other track and field athletes who couldn’t? “If there was something in place where we could just drop her off, that would be less stressful,” she says.
She recalls a conversation with a former Olympian, who told Felix that she might have pursued another run at the Games if she had more childcare support. It became clear that though a daycare center at a track meet seems like a relatively small change, it could have enormous consequences for careers. Mothers could continue to compete and maximize their athletic earnings and potential if they had more help. “How many athletes can come and get a hotel room, separate from what’s provided?” says Felix. “Who can bring a family member? To me, that’s like a huge barrier and burden and reason why women drop out and just say like, This is not going to happen. It’s one less thing to have on your plate. One less thing to think about.”