Allyson Felix

Allyson Felix Takes on the World

It's hard to talk about Allyson Felix without bringing up the fact that she is one of the greatest female athletes of all time. What she represents to the world is a once-in-a-generation talent, but what she represents to female athletes goes far beyond sport.

This is exactly what has made me a longtime fan of Allyson's. Growing up in the Caribbean as a young athlete, I remember seeing her stride across my television screen, always ending each race with her signature smile. As I made my own bounds in fencing, I looked to Allyson for inspiration, as a golden example of drive and determination. Her impeccable work ethic, humble personality, and fierce competitive nature put her at the top of my list of athletes I wanted to meet at my first Olympic Games. If only I could ask her for her secrets to success.

Now here I sit many years later a grown woman, and I still find that Allyson excites the little girl in me who first believed she would be a champion one day—though the person who inspires me now is not the Olympic gold medalist. It is the mother, who battled through a difficult pregnancy with preeclampsia and now brings awareness to the inequitable rates of Black maternal mortality. It is the leader who stood against the goliath Nike after they penalized her and other female athletes during pregnancy leaves. It's the woman who, after all these difficulties, made history in Tokyo by becoming both the most-decorated female and the most-decorated American track and field athlete of all time while running in her own shoe brand Saysh, designed by women for women. Allyson has truly been a guiding light in my journey to understanding what it means to be not only a female athlete, but also a woman. She inspired me to create Essentielle, a platform for female athletes, and after hearing her speak up about her contract issues, I checked my own and realized I was vulnerable, giving me the chance to renegotiate.

I am grateful I got the opportunity to finally speak with her. It is no surprise she was even more graceful and delightful than I expected. As Allyson begins her journey to creating a female-driven sports empire, the only word left to describe her is limitless.

Ysaora Thibus It's such an honor for me to be here talking to you, so thank you so much!

Allyson Felix Of course!

YT One of the first questions I wanted to ask you is, as an athlete, how do you deal with failure? As athletes we always talk about victories and how we want to succeed, and not so much about anything that's happened before that. You're one of the most decorated athletes of all time! So how do you deal with failure?

AF It's interesting. I don't know how it is for you, but for me, it's really evolved as I've grown older and matured in my career. I think when I was younger, failure used to really devastate me and it used to have a really big effect on me. I became stuck in those emotions and in those feelings and it was hard to pull myself out of that and move forward. I think as I've gotten older, I've really seen failure as an opportunity to get better. I feel like I've learned so much more from races that I've lost and from disappointments. Looking back and reflecting, I'm able to see that they've been areas of my life that have prepared me for success. When you're going through it in the moment, it's overwhelming, you're not able to see the bigger picture. But I can definitely say, at least for me, some of my biggest losses and biggest disappointments have been really defining moments in my career and I think those moments have propelled me to have success later on.

YT Before you won [your first Olympic] gold in 2012, you went to the Olympic Games in 2008, and at the moment you were the favorite to win—you had won so many races prior to that. Then what happened in 2008? Do you remember how you felt?

AF Yeah! That's actually the story I was thinking of in my mind when I was answering your last question. In 2008, it was my second Olympic Games and I was the favorite. My first Olympic Games, I got a silver medal as a teenager and so I felt like this was my moment, like, I am going to do all of the extra work, dedicate myself, and I did all of that over the course of four years. Going into those Olympic Games in Beijing, it was a lot different because prior, being a teenager, there weren't any expectations. No one expected me to be there. But this time, people expected me to win. Sponsors expected me to win. There was a responsibility, there was just a lot. I ended up getting another silver medal, to the exact same person as in 2004, and I was just really down. I was bummed, I was devastated. It was really hard. I had to evaluate everything and say, "Am I going to do this another four years? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? How can I get better?" I tried to look at everything—my training, my weight conditioning, my nutrition, even just the way that I was sprinting—and reevaluate everything and say, "How can we revamp this to get better?" Thankfully it worked out and over the course of four years I was able to improve and then in 2012 have everything come together, but I credit a lot of it to going through that hardship and dealing with that disappointment. Sometimes you have to learn how to go through some tough moments before you can really shine.

YT That’s amazing, that is so powerful. I heard that after that you changed your team and you were working with your brother. How is our environment important for that balance in life? You talk a lot about, of course, winning in the sport, but of course nothing is guaranteed and I feel like it's important to be happy and do what you want to do.

AF It's so important to really see yourself as a whole. There are so many different aspects of us, and I think as athletes, a lot of times we only focus on the competition in our field of play, but there's so much more to life than that. After 2008, I made a change and I started working with my brother, and I think that was really big because it allowed me to just train. He took care of everything else and I knew I could trust him. I knew that he would put together the best team for me and for my needs, so it was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders and allowed me to just train easily.

Jumpsuit by Aliétte. Turtleneck by Hermès.

Jumpsuit by Aliétte. Turtleneck by Hermès.

YT I also wanted to talk about victory and your relationship with that. I don't know if you heard Naomi Osaka when she was talking about mental health and saying that it became a relief for her to win. I connected a lot with that and I wanted to know how you feel about that?

AF I completely understand that! It's really interesting. I think a lot of high-level athletes can relate to that. It's almost like when you go through a defeat or some type of loss, it's so big and it seems so heavy, and when you are already on that level and you win, everyone expects you to win. The emotion is not necessarily what someone would expect it to be, because I think sometimes people take those performances for granted. But when you lose, it's shocking and it's something to talk about, so it's a very interesting dynamic. I remember winning in 2012 and crossing the line, and it was a joy but it was also a big relief as well to finally have that moment happen. I think because it was something I was going after for so long and I had built it up to be this amazing feeling, it didn't quite live up to the years of chasing it. Then I reflected and thought, "Well, why is that? Why is this not what I had dreamt it to be?" I think it's because the magic is in the journey. It's in the process, that's when you're growing and when you're stretching, and you don't want to miss that because it's so valuable.

YT But why are we not feeling like that when we're living it? [Laughs] It's hard to go to practice, it's hard to go through that process. But after that, then we can see growth and building of character. I love when you talk about your values because I think everything that you have done in your career was because of your integrity. Even the way that you dealt with Nike, it was so important for you to do the right thing. What would you say are your values in life?

AF I think character and integrity have really driven me, they're really the way that I was raised. I have two amazing parents who really believe in hard work so for me, that was just natural. In every aspect of my life, I try to apply those values, so it was no different for me to bring that to sport. It can be hard because obviously in sport, there's so much that you deal with, and in track and field, there's doping and all of these other things as well. It's always grounded me to know that it might mean that I'm not always going to have success, but I'm always going to do things the right way. In the business of the sport as well, when I saw things that were wrong, it took time to get to that place, but eventually, through my experiences, I felt it necessary to hold those companies accountable as well.

YT How do you decide as a female athlete that it's the right time to have a child? It's a question for me that I really want to know. [Laughs]

AF It is very interesting because I feel like it's such a hard thing as a female athlete. It's such a hard topic and no one ever sat me down and said, "Okay, you need to accomplish all of this before you can explore having a family." But at the same time, I felt like I learned through what I saw, and I never really saw an athlete celebrated as a mother. Not to say it wasn't happening, because there are so many female athletes who are mothers, but I feel like we didn't celebrate what they were doing and we didn't tell their stories. Because of that, I feel like I felt like I had to wait. I had to wait until I was in a comfortable place to be able to move forward with something like that. Then also specifically in track and field, there was just a culture of silence. I had multiple colleagues and teammates who hid their pregnancies, who either had to secure new contracts or who didn't have time to get to the elite level. I saw contracts paused. I saw all of that and it was just so much for me. When I finally felt like it was time for me to start my family, I knew that I was probably going to face some of those hardships that teammates of mine had faced as well, and that was the case.

YT Were you scared when you decided to start a family? Did you tell your sponsor right away? How did you do it?

AF I was terrified because I was actually in the middle of contract negotiations, so that was probably the worst thing that could have happened. So I did pretty much hide my pregnancy for a long time, and then I ended up telling my sponsor and I wasn't really supported through that decision. Then it led me to speak out about what I was going through, what other colleagues of mine had gone through, and share that story. There was an overwhelming response and I think I was more shocked by the amount of women who have endured something similar to my experience, not just in sport but across industries. There were so many stories of women going through the same thing. It was hard, but I felt like it was absolutely the right thing to do and to be able to share, and then try to figure out, how can we fix this? And how can we get better at this?

YT That's such a journey. Were you afraid to speak up, to just go out there and use your voice? I think we expect athletes to stay in their box and to not talk about other things than their sport. Were you afraid to do that?

AF Absolutely, yes! You said it perfectly. As an athlete, I feel like people are just watching our performances and that's what we are, so I felt like no one really cared about anything else I had to say. I think becoming a mom, and especially having a daughter, I started to think about the world that she's going to grow up in. I think that's what helped me get to a place to be able to speak. Previously that wouldn't have been in my nature, but it did come about and I do feel like she helped me find my voice and she gave me the courage that I needed.

Dress by Marc Jacobs. Hood by Miu Miu.

Dress by Marc Jacobs. Hood by Miu Miu.

YT You also had complications during your pregnancy and you talked about Black maternal mortality, something that we don't talk about enough. Even for me, coming from an island in the French Caribbean, it's a little bit taboo, but it's something that's so important and it's actually a critical issue globally as well. What are your thoughts about that?

AF It is such an issue, and like you said, there's not enough awareness about it. Even myself, I felt like I knew statistics and I knew other women who had gone through something similar, but I think as an athlete, sometimes we feel invincible. We are healthy and we train our whole lives, and I thought, "I'm in good health so I think that everything should go smoothly," and it was absolutely the furthest thing from what happened in my situation. Things went completely haywire but it really opened my eyes to this issue of maternal mortality and this crisis that so many women are facing. After going through that and being in the NICU with my daughter, I feel so blessed that we walked out healthy, but so many other people don't have that situation. Bringing awareness and partnering with organizations who are already doing amazing work in this space has really become a calling of mine.

YT Wow, so what actions do you think that sport and you yourself with your platform can do to help mothers and professional athletes who are mothers?

AF I think one of the biggest things is awareness. Away from athletics, I was able to go to Congress and share my story there and we were able to identify some things that can be done, such as more research. One of the most alarming things about this problem is a lot of these complications and deaths are preventable. If they're preventable, that means that we have to be doing something about it, identifying those things and gaining more data to be able to go through what the actual issues are because we know that it’s not just poor medical care. This is an issue that doesn't discriminate. We all are facing it and are at risk, so really doing more to understand it and then being able to take action.

YT That's amazing. You also created a grant for mothers who are athletes, right?

AF I partnered with Athleta, who is my sponsor, and the Women's Sports Foundation, and basically it's a grant for mom athletes who are competing. This is just trying to shift our industry and offer more support for women! This is a grant of ten thousand dollars for each athlete and it basically is for childcare, because one of the things that I have learned is how hard childcare is when you're trying to be on the road to compete. It's something that you don't really even think about, or not everyone would really think about. I remember at my first World Championships back, my daughter was ten months old and I had a roommate. [Laughs] Thankfully I was fortunate enough to have the resources to be able to bring my daughter and to have a separate room, but that's not something that everyone can do. Being able to support women in that way is really important. We need to be able to do better as organizations in putting our athletes that we celebrate out there.

YT Definitely! I had a conversation with Charline Picon, she's a French Olympic champion, and she experienced the same thing. She had her daughter, but she was like, "I want my daughter with me," so she was bringing her to every competition. She was like, "She's not seeing her dad, because she is with me all the time! She knows my roommate better than her dad!" It's this question that we don't think about: How can we practice every day, have good competitions all around the world, and have a baby?

AF It's so hard! Like you said, it's things not everyone is thinking about, so I think that there's such room for improvement and we can do better.

YT Awesome. Then you ran with your own brand at the Olympic Games! How cool is that?

AF It's definitely one of my proudest moments, to be able to be at the Olympics and to compete in spikes that my brand made! It has just been incredible. The way that my brand came about was really out of necessity. I got to the point in my career where I didn't have a footwear sponsor, and I thought, as a runner, how crazy is that? I knew speaking out with what happened with Nike, there would be consequences. I didn't know the ins and outs of it, but I didn't have a sponsor, so I was talking with my brother, and he was like, "Well what if we did this ourselves? Instead of constantly asking for change, we have the opportunity to create change." So we did! We came together and created a lifestyle brand for women called Saysh and our first product is a lifestyle sneaker for women. It is completely designed by women for women. It's something that we haven't really seen before: a product solely dedicated and crafted for her foot. It's also about community, really bringing women together. Initially I told you that I shared my story and had this outpouring of support and also shared experiences. I wanted to bring that group together and so that's what Saysh is about.

YT That's so insane! That's so cool because when you go to a store for sneakers, it's always for men, and then after, women wear them—but it's designed for them and we don't even think about it because it's so normal.

AF Exactly! We’ve been doing it all of our lives. We've always worn men's shoes, and even in some of the research, shoes that are marketed towards women, once we look back at how the shoe is actually made and everything, even some of the codes said, "Men's Running," on them but it's a shoe for women! I was like, "How has this not been done before?" We're really catering to the differences in our feet and all that, and we have such exciting things on the horizon and more. We just want to continue to really give women what they've been missing.

Bodysuit by Miu Miu. Stole, worn as skirt, by Pleats Please Issey Miyake.

Bodysuit by Miu Miu. Stole, worn as skirt, by Pleats Please Issey Miyake.

YT Totally! It's also on the message that you’ve given with the brand because your first campaign was I Know My Place. What does that mean for you?

AF I know for me personally, I was told to know my place and to stay in that place, and I think so many women have been told that in one way or another. I felt like it was so powerful because I do know my place. I do know where I belong, and it's creating change. It's affecting change and bringing equality and doing all of those things. I think we can't let anybody else put limits on us or tell us our story. For me, I felt like once I started a family I was told that I was done and that my story was over, but I knew that I had more to give and I knew that I wasn't done, so that's what I Know My Place is about.

YT That's awesome! Who would you love to see wear your shoes? Is there a person you would love to see?

AF I would love to see Michelle Obama in my shoes! [Laughs] I will say the highlight has been seeing women who have a story to tell. There are so many messages that women have sent me about their own experiences. Recently someone reached out to me and she had a very similar story to mine. She had preeclampsia and gave birth at thirty-two weeks, exactly like me, and she was in the middle of her hospital stay. She just shared with me that my story gave her strength and was giving her strength as her child was in the NICU. To me, that's what it’s all about. That is the most powerful message and it reminds me I am absolutely where I need to be. Yes, I went through a lot of hardships but clearly there was a purpose, and I'm just grateful to be in this space now.

YT So you won't miss practice, it's okay. You are done with sports, you won't be missing practice? [Laughs]

AF I'm not sure if I'm going to compete next year. We have our first World Championships in the US. I know I'm done with the Olympics, but I'm still deciding about this year. I know that sport will be a part of my life. I will definitely bump down my training and it won't be the crazy intensity, but I think I'll always train.

YT That's so cool! Do you think that sport helps with creating a business and being a businesswoman?

AF Absolutely, it has been the best preparation because we deal with injuries, we deal with hiccups. Having to pivot and adapt to new circumstances is what we have always done, and business is very much the same. Obviously being a start-up, for us there are a lot of hurdles that we have to get over and hardships and all of that, so I do feel like it's very helpful to have had my experience in sport.

YT Awesome. What’s the next step for Allyson Felix?

AF I'm excited to continue to grow Saysh and continue to bring something to women that is specifically tailored for them. I'm excited for next year, whether I decide to compete or not, looking forward to that! Then having more time to do more work around the passions of my heart, the maternal mortality crisis and also just advocating for women in general.

YT That's awesome. I just wanted to tell you that you inspire me so much. As a woman I saw what you were doing with your contract, I checked my contract, and I was like, "Oh my god," there was nothing. There was no protection for if I decide to have a child or whatever, so I promised myself that on my next contract I will negotiate it and include it in it. Thank you for everything you're doing for women in sport, it's amazing!

AF Thank you so much! That means so much to me and I love what you're doing as well. I think it's amazing, so well done.

YT Thanks, thanks, I'm trying. I think it's little steps but if it contributes I'm happy to do that. I think also, as you say, you feel that you want to do something and you feel a part of something and a part of the change.

AF Definitely, I agree so much with you.

YT Thank you for your time!

AF Of course, it was so nice talking with you!

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All clothing by Balenciaga

All clothing by Balenciaga

Hair by Vernon François at The Visionaries. Makeup by Mai Quynh at The Wall Group. Photographer’s assistant: Dylan Catherina. Backdrops by Society 6. Postproduction by SAM Retouch. Shot at Studio-ism, Los Angeles. Special thanks to Dureen Truong.

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