Being a woman in professional sports can be intimidating. There is a higher risk of overuse injury due to biologically having less muscle mass, physical activity can have effects on menstruation and puberty, it affects when women choose to have children and of course the blatant assumption that sports are not a sphere for women.
It’s difficult to forge a path and name for oneself in a profession that favors males, from men getting more media coverage to the pay gap. In fact, I never saw women in sports growing up. We were a baseball family and that is a strictly male sport. The only time I ever saw women competing was during the Olympics, specifically in Track and Field, and maybe that is part of the reason why I fell in love with the sport—because the women competed next to the men and got the same amount of credit.
This summer a track and field icon retired—Allyson Felix. And she deserves the proper credit for all that she has given women in her time competing professionally. Her voice set a new precedent for how women should be treated.
Felix is the most decorated U.S. Track and Field athlete in history. That’s right, not the most decorated female athlete, the most decorated athlete in U.S. Track and Field. Let that sink in. She ran in five Olympics—starting at the age of 18—accumulating 13 gold medals, three silver medals and three bronze. For comparison, Usain Bolt has 11 gold medals. She also currently holds the title of being the most decorated athlete by the World Athletics Championship with 20 medals.
And yet how many casual sports fans know her name?
Not only is Felix a beast on the track but she has also done so much for women in the sport by being a trailblazer. Felix was a Nike athlete until 2017 when her contract expired. At the time of negotiations for her contract, she was pregnant with her daughter. Because of her pregnancy—and Nike lacking a maternity policy—the company wanted to cut her pay by 70 percent.
The company also would not guarantee that she would not receive punishment if she did not perform to the same standards she was at prior to giving birth.
I understand the sports management world revolves around an athlete’s performance. I also acknowledge that a woman’s body changes after giving birth to a child. But having a child is a life change for both men and women. Yet no man in the NFL has ever had his pay cut for having a child.
Felix pushed back against Nike and the company has since created a maternity policy for female athletes. In Nike’s maternity policy it now provides security for women that there will be no performance-related salary reductions for 18 consecutive months, starting eight months before the due date of the child. Also, during this time the company cannot terminate a contract with a pregnant athlete who chooses to not compete. Felix no longer competed for Nike after the split in 2017; instead, she signed with Athleta, a women-oriented company. Felix also went on to start her own shoe brand, which she would later compete in, called Saysah.
Felix had a difficult pregnancy but gave birth to her daughter in November 2018. She competed in her first professional race in July 2019 and she proved people wrong. She proved that a woman can still compete on a competitive level after giving birth. She proved that a woman’s worth is not diminished after having a child. She also proved that just because she has a child does not mean she cannot also remain in her job.
“It was the first time I got to the starting line, and I wasn’t thinking about the medal or the time on the clock. I was thinking about how I represent women and mothers, and anybody who has been told their story is over,” Felix wrote on Twitter, reflecting on her career.
After giving birth to her daughter, Felix went on to break records and barriers. No woman has run faster at her age. She is a testament to the power women can have in order to make a better world for their daughters so that they do not have to face the same hardships.
Felix put her head down and put in the work when people were speculating she wouldn’t be able to come back after her pregnancy. She has been dedicated to this sport for so many years. So dedicated, in fact, that just days after retiring she came out of retirement when called to be a leg in the women’s 4×400 meter relay.
She is an athlete and human we should all aspire to be. She gave hope to young girls to make their way in a male-dominated field. She voiced injustice to see institutional change in company policies. She trained to be the best version of herself and to compete at a high level.