For so much of her career, Allyson Felix let her performances do the talking. She was quiet, polite, respectful, an athlete whose magnificence on the track was matched by extreme modesty away from it.
When quizzed on controversial topics, she would smile and nod and do her best not to offend anyone, conscious of living up to what she was often seen as: the perfect role model. But over the past year the nine-time Olympic medallist felt the time had come to speak out about a topic close to her heart.
For that she can credit the arrival of her daughter, Camryn, who was born on 28 November 2018 weighing just 3lbs, 7oz (1.55kg). It was a terrifying day for Felix, who visited the hospital for a routine 32-week check-up only to be told she was suffering from pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition for both mother and baby. Ten hours later, she gave birth by emergency C-section.
In the months that followed, Felix felt emboldened to incite change. In May she addressed US Congress to highlight the rate of maternal mortality among black women and not long after, she turned her attention to maternity cover in athletics, writing in The New York Times that she was “not willing to accept the enduring status quo around maternity”.
She called for better protection in contracts for female athletes who take time out to give birth and in the months that followed, Felix’s former sponsor, Nike, announced it would make changes to its contracts to ensure female athletes are not financially penalised for having a child.
“I just thought it wasn't right,” says Felix. “In this sport it's been that way for so long. Sometimes you just say ‘that's the way it is and I just (have to) roll with it,’ but I don't think that has to be the case.”
Speaking out was not a decision she took lightly.
“It was really scary, but I think it was totally worth it,” she says. “When I think about my daughter and the world that she's going to grow up in, it just makes me know I did the right thing.”
And what is Felix’s wish for the sporting landscape by the time her daughter reaches adulthood?
“Equality,” she says. “That's what I hope she steps into. We've got a long way to get there but I do feel like we're going in the right direction.”
Felix knows activism is not for every athlete and she fully understands why most might choose to stay silent. “I was terrified, so I sympathise,” she says. “I think you have to see what's right for you and your family and what makes sense, especially when your livelihood depends on it.”
Her success has long ensured that time is a precious commodity for Felix, but ever since becoming a mother her life off the track has proceeded at breakneck speed.
The biggest difference these days? “The lack of sleep. I'm a person who loves sleep, I love naps, so it's not just training and recovering. Now it's, ‘I've got a whole little person to take care of’.”
There are also physical changes to contend with, and as she launched her comeback last year Felix was forced to tread carefully. “All of last year, I didn't do any sprinting,” she says. “I wasn't able to do pure ballistic speed work.”
And yet, her class still prevailed. Felix returned to racing at the US Championships in Des Moines last July, finishing fourth in her 400m heat in 52.20. With the rust sufficiently busted, she improved to 51.45 in the semi-final to finish third, and in the final she finished sixth in 51.94 to book her place on the US relay squads for the World Championships in Doha.
She went on to win her 12th World Championships gold medal in the mixed 4x400m, surpassing the tally achieved by Usain Bolt, and Felix added a 13th on the final day of the championships due to her role in helping the US women to the 4x400m title.
Her daughter was watching those races in the stands in the arms of her husband, Kenneth, and Camryn’s presence had a significant impact on Felix – then and now.
“My daughter is a huge motivation, it's kind of shifted my focus completely,” she says. “I want to show her that you can overcome adversity. I want to show her what hard work looks like, what strong women look like, and I want to tell her about the last couple of years.”
She also helps Felix to take disappointments in her stride. “Before I could get down about a situation and not be able to put it in context of what I'm trying to do, but with her it's like, ‘right, I'll be changing a diaper in a couple of minutes’.”
Training under long-time coach Bobby Kersee, Felix has adjusted well to life as a mother and she’s optimistic about her chances of making a fifth Olympics this summer. “It's going really well, I'm definitely feeling more like myself again, getting over the challenges of last year and looking towards all the exciting things of this year.”
She started with a trio of 60m races indoors, her best effort the 7.32 she ran to finish sixth at the Millrose Games in New York. “The 60 is not my event and never will be, but it's all a piece of the puzzle,” she says. “I’m in heavy training right now and it's all about just getting my legs turning over again, trying to get these really competitive situations and get back to sprinting a little bit.”
Hampered by injuries, Felix relied on over-distance work in training last year, but she believes her body is now better equipped to cope with high-intensity speed, even if she still approaches it with caution. “I have to be more patient and I have to train smarter, I've got to listen to my body,” she says. “My plate is very full and I've got a lot of things going on so I just try to prioritise.”
The 400m will be her primary focus outdoors but given it will come before the 200m at both the US Olympic Trials and the Games themselves, she doesn’t see any reason not to double. “As long as my body feels good,” she says.
It’s now 16 years since her first Olympic appearance, but at 34, Felix sees no reason to make any retirement plans. “I still love what I'm doing, I'm passionate about it,” she says. “I still feel like I have more left to do and this is this is what I do – I'm a competitor.”
After so many years inspiring on the track, perhaps what Felix will most be remembered for in 2019 was how she raised her voice away from it. Having gone through that experience, does she have any advice for young women?
“Speak your truth,” she says. “Create change. I think that's the biggest thing. Do what you're passionate about but use your platform for what you believe in.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics