Allyson Felix’s Retirement Plan Has Already Started

Sports

Allyson Felix isn’t done yet.

When she stepped off the track at the Tokyo Games in 2021, she had just won her 11th career medal, surpassing Carl Lewis to become the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history.

Felix, 36, had proved absolutely everything there ever was to prove. That her words could lead to widespread protections for pregnant athletes. That she could return to the Olympic podium after giving birth to her daughter, Camryn, in an emergency cesarean section at 32 weeks. That she could win those medals wearing shoes from her own brand.

After Tokyo, it would surely have made sense to hang up her spikes, to spend the next decades soaking in her accomplishments.

But, this is Allyson Felix.

There was something left, more to celebrate, a few more 400-meter victory laps to run. She announced her intentions in April on social media. “I want to say goodbye and thank you to the sport and people who have helped shape me the only way I know how — with one last run,” she wrote.

This weekend, she will begin that celebration in earnest with the U.S.A. outdoor national championships, followed, if all goes as planned, by the World Championships, which will be held in July in Oregon, marking the first time the competition will be held in the U.S. A fitting final season, her coach, Bob Kersee, said.

On Wednesday morning, Felix announced her biggest commitment off the track yet. She is now an owner and board member of Voice in Sport, an advocacy and mentorship company founded by Stef Strack that connects young female athletes with mentors who play professional sports and experts in mental health, nutrition and sport science.

Christopher Malcolm, Voice in Sport

“We both have tried to make change happen within current systems, some with success and some with failure,” Strack, a former Nike executive, said. “And we connected around this idea that it’s time to create the future that we want to see for our daughters.”

In an interview with The New York Times before her final national and world championship races, Felix discussed how she decided to step away from competition, how she discovered the power of her platform and what kind of legacy she hopes to leave.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you decide to do one more season after winning two more Olympic medals at the Tokyo Games? What was the decision process like?

It was actually more difficult than I thought. I knew it was my final Olympics, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do another season. A lot of people were like, “Oh, it’ll be amazing to end at home, on home soil in Oregon.” And that sounded really cool, but I was exhausted from the prior year and I didn’t know if I had it in me. I had never had that feeling before. I wasn’t sure if I just had the fight in me.

But I was talking with my coach, and he was like, “I really think that you should do just like a final tour and just kind of enjoy yourself.”

Can you have fun with it? Are you able to turn down the competitive drive when you stare down the line?

I’ve never really slowed down before. I’ve always been so laser focused on the goal, whatever the goal is for that year. And I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the moments to just appreciate and to enjoy — to enjoy the traveling and enjoy the competition for what it is and not having the enjoyment being tied up in whether I win, or I lose. So that part is just a very different experience for me. It’s been very tricky. I’m trying to just keep reminding myself to not lose focus of enjoying this moment because this is it.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Off the track, you’ve become a fierce advocate for female athletes and gender equality. But you’ve said it was a journey to get there, to feel comfortable using your voice and your platform. How did you start speaking out?

Advertisement

I never got to a place where I felt good about it. I was really, really scared. I had this moment while I was sitting in my daughter’s nursery, we had just got home from the N.I.C.U., and I was going back and forth about speaking out and doing the op-ed.

I think having a daughter, having just come through the crazy birth experience, sitting there looking at her, it was kind of this thing where it was just like, I feel like I have to do this. Whatever the consequences are going to be, I’m just going to move forward because I deeply believe it’s the right thing to do.

Your New York Times Opinion piece, which detailed the lack of maternity protections for new parents, was published in May 2019. Nike changed its policies that August, and countless athletic companies have created new maternity policies. Did you expect this kind of widespread change and praise from fellow athletes?

I was doing what I should and needed to do. I’ve had several moments since, where I’ll be in a race and afterward a person that I’m competing against comes up to me and says thank you and details a story or something. And that just blows my mind because I’m like, wow, I never thought that things would change quickly. I just never thought I would have those moments, even though I was hoping that it would be for the women coming up, I didn’t think that they would be saying anything to me about it.

Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the years since, you’ve signed partnerships and deals with a handful of companies, and started your own, Saysh. How do you decide whom you work with now?

After everything with Nike, I just felt like I was only going to do things that were really meaningful. I wanted to be really thoughtful about everything. At this point, if it doesn’t feel authentic, it’s just not something that I’m interested in doing. It definitely took me a long time and a lot of learning to get to this place, but that’s where I’m at right now.

I understand the power of my platform and the power of my voice, and I want to use that and take advantage of it and be really responsible with the things that I say.

One of your biggest new partnerships — and time commitments — was announced this morning, with your ownership of Voice in Sport. How did you decide to sign onto the organization in such a big way?

I want our young girls to be healthier and have the resources to be able to focus on their mental health and on their nutrition in a healthy way. I think about myself growing up, like if I had access to something like this, I would have been so excited. I think my mom would have been so excited because I think a lot of parents want to put their child on the right path and it can just be really confusing and hard. And I think this is really going to change things.

Now more than ever, we’re seeing that young people do want to have an impact and they do want to use their voice and they want to have action. And now I imagine myself having so much more time to be involved as a mentor and as a board member.

Vincent Laforet/The New York Times
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Tell us a bit about the mentorship that helped you throughout your career.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee has been my mentor throughout the majority of my career, and it has really significantly impacted my life. She is my coach’s wife, and I think she started mentoring me when I was about 19 years old. Obviously I looked up to her from an athletics standpoint, but to get to build a relationship with her and to see that she cared about me — and not just how I was doing on the track but as a person — that just resonated and stayed with me.

She’s seen me evolve, coming from a really shy girl to seeing me in front of Congress. At every step of the way, I can count on Jackie. I can pick up the phone, and I can call her. I remember when I was going through just all the pregnancy and Nike and all that, I was calling her multiple times and just being like, “I don’t know what’s going on,” and she just always, always was there for me.

She taught me how to do that for someone else.

The word “legacy” is tossed around a lot when someone like you steps off the track. What do you want your legacy to be?

I always thought that I would be like, “Oh, these records or this Olympics or that,” and the last couple years have just completely changed that. I hope that it’s one of having tried to change things, having left things better than when I came, and just really having a heart for people.

I think that’s what it boils down to, trying to speak for those whose voice isn’t as loud. That’s what I’m most proud of, that’s what’s most meaningful, and at the end of the day that’s the one thing that matters the most.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.