July 25, 2019, Des Moines, Iowa. In many ways, it was a race day like any other for Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history. Here at the U.S. outdoor championships, Felix's movements before her first-round heat in the 400 meters were practiced: She waved and smiled, then dropped her eyes to focus on the lane in front of her. She shook out each of her legs in turn, shifted her weight from side to side, nodded her head, glanced up at the crowd. This time, though, the announcers had a surprise for her, an introduction that included a special new honorific: "Camryn's mom."
Eight months earlier, Felix went in for a routine pregnancy checkup and was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia; her daughter, Camryn, was delivered not long after, via emergency Caesarean section, eight weeks early. Felix thinks of this as the moment her life changed—watching her premature baby fight for her own, over 29 days in the NICU. Now, Felix was stepping onto the starting line for the first time in more than a year. Her plain black racing tank and shorts had no visible logos, no Nike swoosh. For the first time since 2003, she—Allyson Felix, six-time Olympic gold medalist, 11-time world champion, by all accounts an unimpeachable star in her sport—was racing unsponsored. She was in a stalemate in negotiations with Nike, her sponsor since '10; the company, she says, wanted to pay her 70% less after childbirth and refused to implement maternity protections in her contract.
"I had a lot of nerves on that starting line," she says. "I didn't know what to expect. I'd never done this before. I was putting myself out there at nationals and feeling really vulnerable. And when they introduced me—my mind was so consumed with everything else. But with the crowd welcoming me back that way, it was really special."
Then, the crack of the starting gun. Over the next 52 seconds, Felix ran a measured race, shaking off a bit of the rust that had accumulated over the previous year, and finished fourth. Much of the commentary around her performance was about whether she would qualify for worlds, or for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But she got a taste of what it was like to race again; she knew what she was capable of.
Two months later in Doha, Allyson Felix would make history, breaking Usain Bolt's record for the most world championship titles ever by earning her 12th gold, in the mixed 4x400 meter relay. And she would win another on top of that, for the women's 4x400-meter relay; she ran the fastest split in the prelims. With that, the tenor of the commentary turned. It became something else: a celebration of athlete mothers who are proving that they can still achieve, and achieve at the highest level, despite sponsors sending the message—loud and clear, through diminished paychecks and stalled contract negotiations—that they don't believe in athletes who have had babies.
The year 2019, Felix says, has been all about the fight—for her health, for her daughter, for women and mothers, and for what she and other working athlete mothers deserve.
It was the year of #DreamMaternity. Track and field stars including Felix, Nia Ali and Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce all stormed to victory with world championship gold after becoming mothers: Ali in the 100-meter hurdles, 16 months postpartum; Fraser-Pryce in the 100 meters, two years postpartum. Serena Williams, who confronted serious complications with childbirth two years ago, roared back to four Grand Slam tennis finals starting at 10 months postpartum; she is once again tantalizingly close to tying Margaret Court's record of 24 major titles.
In October, WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith tweeted that she was pregnant during the 2018 season, in which she finished in the league's top 15 for points, assists, steals and minutes per game, and then gave birth to her son in the off-season. "Didn't tell a soul," the Dallas Wings' guard wrote. But she said that she took two months away because of postpartum depression, "with limited resources to help me be successful mentally/physically." In November, six months after her son was born, she scored a team-high 19 points for the U.S. women's national team in its exhibition game win over Texas A&M. It was an emotional return.
This was the year that many of these athletes spoke out loud for women's rights and contract protections during and after pregnancy. To be specific: They did not want to be punished for starting a family, and they wanted better supports put in place for working moms—the hidden realities that actually make it possible for them to perform at the top of their game.
There has always been silence surrounding maternity in sport. The situation in a sport like track and field or tennis is especially fraught, given that athletes depend almost entirely on sponsorship and prize money for income, versus salaries in professional team sports like basketball or soccer. But even salaried players often lose a percentage of income during pregnancy, childbirth and the months that follow, with specific policies varying by sport. The WNBA, for example, pays players who are out on maternity leave at least 50% of their salary, as part of the league's collective bargaining agreement.
Fear—of losing income and professional careers that they have spent their whole lives building—has led many women to hide their pregnancies, to keep their experiences quiet, and to return to competition as quickly as possible. They pretended that they never left, never became mothers, never had to carry all the weight of responsibilities related to that role in their lives.
Felix had privately felt that fear. But in May, she joined Olympic runners Kara Goucher and Alysia Montaño in speaking out in two high-profile New York Times op-eds about the lack of maternity protection in athletes' contracts. All three runners had been sponsored by Nike at one point; all three were penalized financially during their pregnancies, despite the fact that Nike ran highly-praised ads claiming to support and elevate women at all stages of their careers—including motherhood.
Montaño is famous for being "the pregnant runner." In 2014 she ran the 800 meters at the U.S. track and field championships while eight months pregnant, her signature yellow flower tucked behind her ear, before a rapt, cheering crowd. She did the same thing in '17 while five months pregnant. She said it was galling that Nike told young girls to "Dream Crazy," and then paused athletes' contracts (and by extension their pay) when they decided to become mothers, and helped create a system that rushed them back to competition in a way that was hazardous to their health. In '15, Montaño—who also saw her pay reduced during pregnancy under Asics—won two national championship medals, at six and 10 months postpartum—but she had the torn abs to go along with them. "How about when you tell my daughter you can achieve anything," she told The New York Times, "you back it up?" And so #DreamMaternity was born.
Goucher, the three-time NCAA champion, Olympic distance runner, and newly minted ultramarathoner, has been a vocal advocate for what is necessary for women to succeed in running. While she was pregnant with her son, Colt, in 2010, Goucher worked to be an active, visible figure on Nike's behalf. "Photo shoots, magazine interviews, 20-some appearances when I was pregnant," Goucher says. "I ran every single day. To be honest, that's when my popularity boomed. That's when I was the most requested track and field athlete at Nike, they told me. I was relatable." Imagine her surprise, then, when Nike stopped paying her—and didn't tell her. She found out through her financial adviser, after a missed quarterly payment.
At the time, hers was a single-income family; she and her husband, Adam Goucher, also a prominent Olympic runner, could not afford the suspension of pay for 18 months. Nike's contracts are exclusive, which meant that she could not easily turn around and work for someone else. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I loved Nike. They said, 'We don't pay you to tell your story. We pay you to run, and you're not running. You have to get back into racing.'" After giving birth in September, she rushed back into training, to prepare for the Boston Marathon in April. During this time, Colt developed a lump in his neck.
"He had surgery on Wednesday; I had a race on Sunday. Looking back, it was crazy," Goucher says, her voice breaking still more than nine years later. "I had no choice. I left my son in the hospital and went to train. In this time, I'm everywhere. I'm supposed to run Boston, but I'm not getting paid. It was so stressful." She finally settled for six months without pay and an additional 12-month contract with a nondisclosure agreement. She developed hip pain that led to a stress fracture in her femur. She would go on to have hip pain for the rest of her career.
"I never want that to happen to someone else," she says. "I never want someone to feel they have to rush back to superhuman level and have this happen. Why not have an athlete fall into a second pattern, with more appearances, 12 months to heal? Come back when you're ready."
As a female athlete, Goucher also paid a price in a different way: In 2015, she was a whistleblower on doping practices by coach Alberto Salazar in Nike's now-dismantled Oregon Project, and was vilified for it. Five months after Colt was born, Salazar, unhappy with Goucher's weight, pushed her to use a synthetic thyroid hormone, but she declined. People often asked why she and others—like Mary Cain, who recently came forward about similarly abusive treatment under Salazar—didn't speak out earlier. Well, potential lawsuits because of NDAs; fear of retribution, of being blacklisted, of losing sponsorship. Goucher says she got death threats after going public. The list goes on. "Someone wrote, She's not even pretty anymore," Goucher says. "I had to laugh at that one."
(Salazar has apologized in general terms, for hurting athletes with "callous or insensitive" comments, but he denies encouraging his athletes to take any banned substance or to maintain an unhealthy weight. He is currently serving a four-year ban for doping violations.)
Felix said that Goucher and Montaño were heroic. Though she was afraid, Felix watched and supported them, speaking out in her own op-ed 10 days later. She realized that she had to use her influence and push for change. "If not me," she said, "then who?" Together, they amplified the message, bringing their sponsors to task. Several companies, including Burton Snowboards, Brooks Running and Nuun Hydration, quickly responded by writing pregnancy and postpartum recovery protections into athlete contracts. After a major public backlash, Nike announced an updated policy in August, removing performance-related contract reductions for pregnant athletes for a period of 18 consecutive months, starting eight months before a mother's due date. A company spokesperson says the policy "ensure[s] no female athlete is adversely impacted financially for pregnancy."
There's no doubt that the movement to secure better working rights for athlete mothers is growing. But are companies and sports' governing bodies doing enough?
On July 31, several days after her return to competition, Felix announced on The Today Show that she had become Athleta's first sponsored athlete, "redefining what sponsorship looks like." What exactly does that mean? "It means taking a holistic approach, instead of just one-dimensionally," she says. "It's supporting me as an athlete, but also as a mom and an activist. And it's partnering with a company whose mission really aligns with my core belief of empowering women and girls—not just in winning medals, but also in creating change. That's very unique. I would like to see more of that." Her own experience inspired her to advocate for black maternal health: Black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth and twice as likely to have complications.
In October, Montaño launched a new podcast called Keeping Track, in which she and two other Olympians, Molly Huddle and Roisin McGettigan, discuss women in sports and the issues confronting them. One of their earliest guests was Nia Ali, who talked about the nitty-gritty of being a working athlete mom: nursing and pumping on the road, negotiating sports contracts, parsing out USATF policies for accommodating families at meets.
The first time Ali became pregnant, she told Montaño, she was "scared s-------" about her contract. Nike found out; her contract was reduced, and she accepted it. In 2015, her son, Titus, was born; she came back the following year and won the world indoor title when he was 10 months and a silver medal at the Rio Olympics when he was a year old. The second time around, she was bolder in her negotiations with Nike. In the four years between her first and second child, Ali said that the contrast is "night and day."
"Now, people are just rooting for you," she says.
Goucher, 41, is now sponsored by Oiselle, a running apparel company founded by CEO Sally Bergesen, who herself has been outspoken when it comes to representing and supporting women in sports. The company is known for sponsoring women through pregnancy, most famously the distance runner Stephanie Bruce, now 35, who has only been getting faster since giving birth to her two children, ages four and five.
Goucher and Felix both agree that in an ideal world, the default sponsorship model would have maternity protections written in. Oiselle's contracts have no performance-related requirements or reductions, so pregnancy has no adverse impact on an athlete's income. "You have the fastest women in the world—if you rush them back to competition, you will shorten their careers because of injuries," Goucher says. "It's a chronic pattern. If we give them more time to recover, maybe then it's six or seven more years of having this athlete working with you."
Nike's announced contract changes around maternity, Felix says, are a great first step. "Could they do more? For sure. As a leader in this industry, they can do that. They can start to create change and make this a norm."
Her experiences at nationals and worlds with her daughter have convinced her that both sponsors and sports organizations have to do better. "Everybody loves when Cammy is around—they love her at the track, at the shoots," she said. "That's great. That's about a story, to connect with female consumers. But I don't think people think about how she gets there. Who is watching her when I'm training, or racing? As a nursing mother, if I have a roommate at worlds, how do I feed a child in the middle of the night? Out of pocket, I have to get another hotel room. Every small thing. Where do I wash my bottles? Where do I get hot water? There are so many more ways we can support our mothers who are also athletes."
The reality is that there are very few women in elite coaching, organizational or sports executive positions of power to understand firsthand what female athletes face on a daily basis. But the hope is as that changes, with increased institutional support and more women making decisions at the top echelons of sports, the continued success and longevity of female athletes will become the norm.
This past summer, the U.S. national women's soccer team electrified viewers with its fourth World Cup victory, inspiring the crowd in the Stade de Lyon to erupt in a thunderous chant of "Equal pay! Equal pay!" The trial date for the lawsuit that members of the women's team have brought against U.S. Soccer is set for May 2020. It seems fitting then that co-captain Alex Morgan is expecting a baby girl in the spring—and that she also has every intention to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"There are so many women that have been able to come back to their respective sport after pregnancy and continue to have a successful family while playing their sport that they love at the highest level," Morgan said last March, at the unveiling of a new soccer pitch in Gardena, Calif. U.S. women's soccer has an impressive history when it comes to players coming back after becoming moms—Joy Fawcett, for one, who, after having three children from 1994 to 2001, famously played every minute of the '95, '99 and '03 Women's World Cups. Morgan's plan is to follow in those footsteps, with her daughter in tow.
Felix is getting ready for 2020, too. But she's a different person than she was a year ago. On Nov. 26, just two days before her daughter's first birthday, Felix was in a reflective mood.
"As an athlete, I feel like I can face anything now," she says. "I'm more grateful when I come to the track. I used to take myself for granted, even the ability to run. That's not the case anymore. I have a new motivation. Before, everything was consumed by winning. Now it's still that, but the purpose and drive—I'm always thinking of my daughter. I want to be able to tell her what this is like, what being a strong woman is like, overcoming adversity, having strong character—that's so important to me now. It's monumental. This is the most confident I've ever felt. I've been thrown out of my comfort zone, and I've had to adapt. And I've grown because of that."
Goucher says she was defensive when she first became a mother, because she was afraid she wouldn't be taken as seriously as a runner. "I downplayed that I was a mom," she says. "Now we're embracing that motherhood doesn't weaken you—it adds to you being hardcore. Serena, Allyson, Alysia: We're building on each other, lifting everyone else's voices bigger and bigger, until you have to pay attention. It's a turning point."
Bonnie Tsui is a Bay Area-based journalist and the author of the new book, Why We Swim, which will be published by Algonquin Books in April 2020.