Allyson Felix: The precarious crossroad between motherhood and sports Getting pregnant as a track and field athlete was called the "kiss of death." After becoming pregnant, Olympian Allyson Felix fought to change that by reforming her former sponsor's maternity policy.

Allyson Felix: The precarious crossroad between motherhood and sports

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On this episode, we have been talking about reconciling our conflicting emotions and the various ways that we present ourselves to the world. But what happens when our identities are at odds with our ambitions, maybe even jeopardize our livelihoods? This summer, track and field Olympian Allyson Felix raced for the last time, winning her 19th medal. A few months earlier, she gave this TED talk about how hard the sporting world made it for her to become a mother while also competing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALLYSON FELIX: One of the scariest moments of my career started on a dark October morning in 2018. I'm a professional athlete, and my training schedule can be a lot - six days a week, five hours a day. Still, I never train that early. But on this day, a special type of fear brought me out at 4 a.m. before the sun, a fear that someone might discover a secret I'd been keeping. I was six months pregnant, and I was scared enough to train in the dark so that no one would see the life that was growing inside of me. I fear that if a fan or someone posted a photo, that my sponsor would immediately change their mind about wanting to work with me. I fear that I would be forced to choose between motherhood and being a competitive athlete.

Getting pregnant in track and field has been called the kiss of death. I have been watching women that I respect and teammates of mine hide pregnancies since I was 19 years old. I've seen women have to make gut-wrenching decisions, like deciding whether to recover their health or return to the sport. I know what some of you might be thinking. We all choose to get pregnant, right? If a sponsor doesn't want to pay an athlete who's not out on the track winning, that's just part of the deal, right? Well, I think the deal's rigged. And I think it's time we change.

Sports companies love to tell women that they can have it all. I remember meeting with Nike leadership in 2010, and they said they believed in women and girls, and if I joined Nike, I could empower them. And I believe that. But guess what? Girls come from somewhere.

(LAUGHTER)

FELIX: And women having babies during childbearing years is something that should be celebrated, not punished. It should be a part of a normal, thriving, professional athletic career. And women in all fields should never feel the need to hide a pregnancy at 4 a.m., in the dark, so that they won't be photographed doing that thing that they love. When I was on the track that day, my mind was racing with the consequences of my decision to start a family. I had already been going through a difficult renegotiation period with Nike. And they were already offering me 70% less than what I had previously been making. And that was even before they knew about the baby.

So when I told them about my pregnancy, I asked for a clause in the contract that specified they wouldn't reduce my pay within 12 months of giving birth. They said yes. But it was only a yes for me. They weren't ready to offer that same protection for all female athletes. They weren't ready to set the precedent. A couple days later, my agent called me, Nike wanted to use me in a commercial for the Women's World Cup. I couldn't believe it. Nike wanted to use me to tell women and girls that they could do anything, even though the contract before me said the exact opposite. I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to leave. I knew I was afraid. But I did it anyways. I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling out Nike's maternity policy. And I wasn't the only one.

(APPLAUSE)

FELIX: My teammates and I - we helped turn the tide. Now Nike offers 18 months maternity protection. And other sponsors...

(APPLAUSE)

FELIX: ...And other sponsors came forward, and they announced their new guarantees for female athletes who start families while being sponsored. Too late for me, but amazing for the women coming up now. I didn't re-sign with Nike, and I'm here to tell the tale. But more than that, I'm here to tell you that you can do it, too. It's when you take a stand that you start to understand how to overcome that fear and how to make a change for yourself and sometimes for others. I made it back to the Olympics two years after giving birth. I won a gold and a bronze. And I...

(CHEERING)

FELIX: ...And I became the most-decorated American track-and-field athlete of all time - all while my daughter was watching.

(APPLAUSE)

FELIX: I was running for so much more than for medals or for a time on the track. I was running as a representation for women and for mothers and for anybody who had been told that their story was over. We have got to stop forcing people to choose between parenting and doing the work that they love. And we've got to stop pretending that we're not making those decisions - because the results affect us all. You don't have to be an Olympian to create change for yourself or for others. It will typically happen in moments of fear when you don't see the path forward. You have to acknowledge those feelings, and you have to fight to move forward. It won't be easy. But what I can absolutely promise you is that it will be worth it. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That was Olympian and mother Allyson Felix. You can find her talk and hundreds more at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about our multitudes. This episode was produced by James Delahoussaye, Katie Monteleone and Katherine Sypher. It was edited by Katie Simon and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Rachel Faulkner, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier, Julia Carney and Beth Donovan. Our audio engineer is Stu Rushfield. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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