Track and field star Allyson Felix had no reason to believe that her pregnancy wouldn’t proceed smoothly. Not only was she healthy, but, as one of the fastest people on the planet, her body was in incredible physical shape.
So it came as a shock when, at 32 weeks pregnant, she was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure in pregnancy that is a leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide. In the U.S., Black pregnant people arefive times more likely to die from preeclampsia than white pregnant people.
“Being a professional athlete, honestly, I took my health for granted,” Felix told HuffPost in an interview promoting her new partnership with Clorox. “In my mind, I wanted to have this beautiful natural birth.”
To save her life and her daughter’s, Felix had to abandon her birth plan and deliver prematurely at 32 weeks via emergency C-section.
The experience taught her how vital it can be to have an advocate in your corner. For Felix, that person was her husband, Kenneth Ferguson.
“Things were going downhill. The doctor came in, and we had to start making some decisions about what we were going to do,” she said. “[Kenneth] was really the one who had to advocate. I wasn’t having a capacity to do those things.”
I would say it’s probably a year and a half until I saw glimpses of who I was before [giving birth]. And then understanding that I don’t have to be that exact same person ... strong looks a lot of different ways.Track star Allyson Felix
Felix and Ferguson’s daughter, Camryn, spent the first weeks of her life in the NICU.
“When we were in the NICU, and even when we had just come home, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back [to track and field]” Felix said.
“Things that once were really simple, really easy for me were really challenging. I would say it’s probably a year and a half until I saw glimpses of who I was before. And then understanding that I don’t have to be that exact same person like I am. And strong looks a lot of different ways,” she added.
Felix found that she still had the same competitiveness, but, as a mother, her motivation had shifted.
“I felt like people were telling me that I couldn’t have both of these things. But it was that drive to show [Camryn] that no one can put limits on your life, and you can absolutely do everything that you want to do,” she said.
Felix returned to competition eight months postpartum and went on to win gold medals at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, in 2019, surpassing Jamaican track legend Usain Bolt’s record number of world championship golds. She has also won 11 Olympic medals in five Olympic games.
Allyson Felix is the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete of all time. (Photo: Katharine Lotze via Getty Images)
Not only did Felix return from Doha a champion, but she also took on a public role as an advocate for mothers and athletes.
Shaken by her own brush with death during pregnancy, she testified before Congress about the Black maternal mortality rate, which is almost three times as high as the white maternal mortality rate.
She also took a very public stance against Nike, her sponsor, publishing a New York Times op-ed in which she revealed that the company wanted to reduce her pay by 70% in the contract she was trying to negotiate after becoming a mother. In the article, she advocated for maternity protections for athletes, such as maintaining their pay even if their performance changes in the months surrounding childbirth.
Felix eventually signed with Athleta and has even started her own footwear company, Saysh, winning two medals in the Tokyo Olympics wearing her own shoe brand.
The track star announced in April that she would retire after the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in July 2022. She says she made the decision to step away feeling “fulfilled from competing.”
I think we’re seeing so many incredible examples of women who are having the best performances of their life after becoming mothers.Felix
Leaving competition after 20 years will be a challenge, Felix admits, but she is enthusiastic about new endeavors like her business and her advocacy work.
Serena Williams’ recent Vogue essay, in which she announced her retirement from tennis to focus on expanding her family, resonated with Felix.
“I loved how she spoke about evolving away from tennis, because as athletes, you know, it’s called retirement, but you are transitioning to other things, and you don’t stop your work, you don’t stop your passions,” she said.
Felix also appreciated how Williams spoke candidly about men not having to choose between family and career in this way.
When asked about what kind of support athlete moms need as they navigate parenthood and competition, Felix immediately suggested child care. She’s proud of having been part of the effort to bring free child care to athletes, coaches and officials at the World Athletics Championships this year.
“I think about when I started traveling with my daughter back to competition, and flying across the world with an 8-month-old and going from hotel to hotel, just how challenging that was, and how expensive it was, to have the support system to make that happen,” Felix said.
It was the ability to have that support, she explained, that allowed her to return to competition in peak form.
“I think we’re seeing so many incredible examples of women who are having the best performances of their life after becoming mothers,” said Felix, adding that such stories should be “the norm.”
“But that requires a level of support,” she added, including things she has fought for, like maternity protections in contracts and child care.
Allyson Felix and her daughter Camryn, 3, with husband Kenneth Ferguson. (Photo: Hannah Peters via Getty Images)
Of work-life balance, Felix said, “there’s no balance. I try to integrate.”
“For me, it’s about making the decision to be present at home,” she said, explaining that she blocks off time to do things like drop her daughter off at gymnastics.
When her daughter looks back at the choices — and the sacrifices — that her parents made, Felix hopes Camryn is inspired “to be a fighter.”
“We’re all gonna have adversity, and she definitely will. But it’s how you weather that storm,” Felix said. “I really want her to be able to stand up for what she feels is right, and to be confident, to use her voice.”
For the next generation of athletes, Felix hopes that they feel able to have children “when the time is right for them based on their own families and their own priorities.”
“I felt like I had to win all the medals, I had to be so accomplished before I could even think about starting a family,” Felix said. “You know, it’s a lot of work, it’s really hard. But if that’s a desire of your heart, you can do both.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.