In sports, women just aren’t athletes. They’re mothers, which can be an extremely difficult role to manage due to unfair industry standards. However, U.S. Track and Field star Allyson Felix is working to make sure women are supported throughout their pregnancy and childcare while still competing at their highest levels.
When it comes to track and field, there isn’t much left for Allyson Felix to accomplish. An Olympic seven-time gold medalist and three-time silver medalist, Felix is perhaps the most decorated U.S. runner ever.
Now, the 36-year-old is setting her sights on another challenge: parenthood. Specifically, helping fellow women athletes receive the support they need while still competing.
Posting on Instagram, Atleta and Felix announced an initiative that provided free childcare to athletes, coaches, and staff at the U.S. Track and Field Championships from June 23 to 26. It will also do the same at select track and field events in the future.
“My final season is not about winning medals but giving back to the sport and future mom-athletes, and leaving it better for the next generation of women raising children to flourish in every aspect of their lives,” she said. Felix isn’t alone in her endeavors, however. In addition to Athleta, nonprofit &Mother is also helping with the intivative.
Not having an additional family member to help care for children at events can be a frustrating issue for participants, Felix acknowledged. “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,” she told TIME.
Additionally, Felix, Athleta, and The Woman’s Sports Foundation also opened another round of child care grants, which will provide athletes $10,000 dollars to help pay for care expenses. As NPR notes, Felix and Athleta have since paid out more than $200,000 in those grants.
“In track and field, the culture around pregnancy was silence. Athletes would either hide pregnancies to secure new contracts, or their contracts [that] were in place were put on hold almost like they had an injury.”
As a mother, Felix understands the struggle of trying to balance two lives at once. Her first child, Camryn, was born in 2018. Felix explained that time didn’t come easily, as her constant focus was her career and succeeding in every possible way.
“I felt like I had to win all the medals, do all the things, before I could even think about starting a family, and that’s something that I don’t want my daughter to feel,” Felix said while appearing on NPR’s Morning Edition.
During her 32nd week of pregnancy, Felix was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, a life-threatening disease that 50,000 woman experience in the U.S. each year,. It required Felix to have her birth by c-section while her newborn, weighing just three pounds, spent the first month of her life in intensive car.
Felix’s turbulent experience only became more difficult when she spoke out against her then-sponsor, Nike, due to them refusing to pay her while on maternity leave. “What I was asking for was when a woman has a baby to have time to recover to be able to get back to that top form,” she said.
“Essentially, they told me that I could have time but they weren’t ready to give all female athletes the time and they weren’t willing to tie anything to pregnancy in the contract. And so, for me, that was a real issue and a sticking point.”
For T&F, looking towards other woman athlete organizations could provide some answers on how to best accommodate hard-working pregnant mothers. Speaking to Women’s Health Magazine in 2020, WNBA point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith stated she hid her pregnancy for 14 weeks while playing in 2018. “I was exhausted and I was an all-star — it was such a long season,” she said.
However, she couldn’t let coaches or teammates know. “In the past, there’s been players that I’ve known who have only gotten half their salary. I didn’t know what would be the consequences of me speaking out.”
Thankfully, that time of hiding seems to be moving in the past. Two years after Diggins-Smith’s pregnancy, the WNBA and its players worked out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that saw athletes earn a mandated full salary during maternity leave, a designated area for nursing mothers in arenas, a $5,000 child care stipend, two-bedroom apartments for players with children, and family planning options like a $60,000 reimbursement for adoption, egg freezing, and fertility treatment.
“It’s just a way [to] say we can show up and support women, and they don’t have to choose between motherhood and anything else.”
Unfortunately, change for women athletes in regards to parenting won’t happen overnight. There are still plenty of additional pressing issues at hand, with the big one being equal pay, which can obviously impact a woman’s ability to care for a child or manage through pregnancy independently.
While the U.S. men and women’s soccer teams reached an agreement that — while playing under different CBAs — will see all players earn the same amount of money for game bonuses, prize money, and public appearance fees, other sports continue to see disparity.
The average NBA player earns $5.3 million a year, while the average WNBA player earns $130,000. Golf is particularly striking, with men averaging $1.25 million versus $48,993 for women, according to a 2021 Adelphi University study. Meanwhile, the average child care cost per year is now above $10,000.
That won’t stop Felix and her partners from continuing to advocate for birthing and child-caring athletes, however. Felix is also working with shoe company Sayesh, which has a return policy that will exchange pairs of sneakers for free if a customer’s shoe size goes up during pregnancy.
The passion for women support is also why Felix is returning for her final season. “That’s the one reason why I felt like I wanted to come back and run this season. It’s that important to me.”
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at email@example.com.