Allyson Felix's Bronze Caps Emergence as Track Mom Who Shook Up the Sports World

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IAugust 6, 2021

Allyson Felix's medal in the 400 meters Friday made her the most decorated woman in the history of Olympic track and field.
Allyson Felix's medal in the 400 meters Friday made her the most decorated woman in the history of Olympic track and field.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The night before the women's 400-meter final, Allyson Felix was afraid.

"I'm afraid of letting people down. Of letting myself down," she wrote in an Instagram post. "... But right now I've decided to leave that fear behind."

Friday in Tokyo, Felix won a bronze medal in the event, becoming the most decorated female Olympian in track and field history. It was a milestone victory for a woman who has defied the odds to stay at the top of the sport.

But Felix's radical actions in advance of her fifth and final Olympics meant she had already won before she even got to the starting block.

The 35-year-old's star power is nearly unmatched in international sports. She's participated in every Olympics since Athens in 2004 and entered this final with nine Olympic medals. She's one of the most visible athletes of these Games, and she's sponsored by big names like Pantene, Athleta and Peloton. She has graced the cover of Time, Variety and Harper's Bazaar. If she wins a medal in the 4x400-meter relay Saturday, she'll have 11 Olympic medals, surpassing Carl Lewis at the top of the all-time U.S. track and field list. 

Still, heading into Friday's 400, Felix's medal potential was a question mark. She qualified with the seventh-best time, 49.89 seconds. It was her best mark since returning from giving birth in 2018. Could she keep up in the final? 

She could, and she did. Rio gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas was dominant, separating from the field in the last 100 meters and finishing in 48.36 seconds. She became the second woman to repeat a gold-medal performance in this event and put to rest any doubt over her 2016 victory, when she beat Felix by a dive. Marileidy Paulino of the Dominican Republic and Felix were neck-and-neck with the other contenders before inching ahead in their final strides for second and third, respectively.

With her podium finish, any questions about Felix's competitiveness were dashed. Not only did she win a bronze, but she beat the time that got her a silver medal in Rio, running her fastest 400 meters since 2015 at 49.46.

But her true victory had come long before the start of the race. Felix's life off the track, including her relationship with her previous sponsor, Nike, has been even more widely publicized than her racing.

Felix holds her daughter, Camryn, at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.
Felix holds her daughter, Camryn, at the U.S. Olympic trials in June.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Felix had a complicated delivery of her daughter, Camryn, at 32 weeks, by emergency caesarean section, she wrote in a 2019 opinion piece in the New York Times. She also had severe preeclampsia. Still, she wrote, Nike pressured her to get back in shape soon after, and her new contract cut her pay by 70 percent.

In an Instagram post where she revealed her C-section scar, she said she had to wake up to train at 4:30 a.m. to hide her pregnancy from Nike. Her speaking up, something she told Today that she was "completely terrified" to do, led to public outcry and a revision of Nike's maternity policies.

It also turned her into a representative for women who are forced to make difficult choices between motherhood and their career. Felix has aimed to respond by "creat[ing] the change we want to see in the world," as she put it in a recent Instagram post.

She launched her own women's sneaker brand, Saysh, this summer, and wore her own shoes on the Tokyo track. She left Nike and joined the female-centered apparel brand Athleta and has appeared in its ads with Camryn. 

In turn, she's mastered the art of self-promotion, using Instagram and Twitter to highlight her brand partnerships alongside her message of female empowerment. Just two hours after her podium finish Friday, she promoted her shoe brand, with the caption "I KNOW MY PLACE. (and it's in my own shoes)."

Felix, it seems, knows the power of her face and her message, and isn't afraid to use it.

Still, the fear and the expectation to perform always have a way of creeping in. Felix's pre-race post adds to an ever-growing conversation about pressure and mental health at the Games, after gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from most of her finals. The day after the team qualification round, Biles wrote on Instagram about the intense weight she felt on her shoulders. (Incidentally, Biles also left Nike for Athleta earlier this year.)

Coming into these Olympics, Biles was expected to bring home golds for her country and to represent it well as one of the U.S.'s highest-profile athletes. Felix can certainly relate.

"I've been afraid that my worth is tied to whether or not I win or lose," she wrote in that pre-race post. Her advice to others, she wrote, is to "take off the weight of everyone else's expectations of you. Know that there is freedom on the other side of your fear."

Friday, Felix took her own advice and ran for herself, and it paid off. The medal is just a bonus.


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