Allyson Felix: Building An Empire and making Nike Execs Eat their Words
"I was told to know my place. That runners should just run, that it's just business."
Someone at Nike looked at Allyson Felix, the most decorated woman in the storied history of American track and field, and told her to know her place.
Felix had appeared in many promotions for Nike during her time with the company, had worn its familiar swoosh logo on her racing tops, shorts, her compression shin sleeves and her spikes as she racked up an unprecedented number of medals at global meets.
But when Felix spoke up, when she pushed back to get a structure in place to guarantee that other female Nike athletes wouldn't essentially be penalized for pregnancy, the company told her to know her place.
It's familiar to so many women who have tried to forge a new path, who have challenged the status quo, who have fought the misogyny and misogynoir (the term for the discrimination that Black women endure) so many of us face.
Felix hasn't forgotten the blithe dismissal. She's leaning into it, and on Wednesday she made it clear that her "place" is wherever she wants it to be.
Including in the incredibly competitive footwear market.
This week, Felix launched Saysh, a brand of athletic footwear for women, by women: the women who designed and engineered the company's first shoe, the Saysh One, are both former Nike employees. Felix, her brother and business partner Wes, and a third founder, Darren Breedveld, raised $3 million in seed money to get things started, and don't just want to make shoes built for a woman's foot, but also a community. Those who buy the Saysh One for $150 also get lifetime membership in the Saysh Collective, the digital subscription service that will include workout videos, conversations with Felix and others, and other perks.
On Sunday, as she drew on all of her experience and closed brilliantly over the final 50 meters to finish second in the women's 400-meter and earn her fifth Olympic berth, Felix was wearing Saysh spikes, and will wear them on the grandest stage, in Tokyo. (Her apparel was Athleta, the woman-centered athletics brand by Gap that she signed with after her split with Nike.)
In an Instagram post announcing the brand and in a video that followed, Felix took aim at the treatment she and other female athletes have received from Nike.
In a letter to the world "and the women in it," Felix wrote in part:
"I've been running my whole life. I'm good at it, and I've got a lot of medals to show for it.
"I was scared to stop running. I wasn't sure I would fully know who I was without it. Like many women, I was afraid that starting a family would be a 'death sentence' for my career. I did it anyway. During my pregnancy, I faced a gender injustice that I couldn't run away from. My employer did not support my maternity and my colleague’s maternity in a way that I could be proud of. I was told to know my place. That runners should just run that it's just business.
"Instead, I spoke up. I used my voice to fight for maternal protection for female athletes. No woman should have to choose between being a professional and being a Mother. Now, because of that fight, sponsorship contracts look different for a lot of athletes."
The black-and-white ad is powerful, both in what Felix says and its imagery.
"Like so many of us, I was told to know my place," she begins. "But here I am, ready to run for a brand that I founded, designed for, and designed by women. All of my experience of becoming a mom, of raising a daughter, helped show me my true competitor: inequality.
"Here I am, using my voice to create change for us as women, and for us as mothers, and for all the women who want to be mothers. So here I am. I know my place."
After a shot of Felix's many medals draped from her neck, there is a pan down to the wide, uneven scar she carries from her cesarean section, the one she had to have at 32 weeks pregnant when both her life and that of daughter Camryn were in jeopardy.
For female track athletes in particular, the idea that they have to give up their career to gain a family is thankfully falling by the wayside. The woman Felix finished second to on Sunday night, Quanera Hayes, has a son around the same age as Felix's daughter, and the women had the toddlers meet as they reveled post-race Sunday; American hurdler Nia Ali won a world championship in 2019 just 16 months after the birth of her daughter; Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrated her historic fourth 100-meter world championship in 2019 by carrying her son Zyon around the track with her.
Felix is using her substantial weight both within the sport and as one of the most recognizable faces in women's sports to fight for them, and those who aren't nearly so famous. If you've followed her career for the nearly 20 years since she burst onto the national scene as a California high school superstar and won a World Championships silver medal at just 18 years old, you know the last couple of years have marked a stark change for Felix, who was never much of a show-woman, but was a quiet champion.
Her experience with Nike, and her experience with her pregnancy, delivery and motherhood have changed her, and she isn't the only one who will benefit. She knows her place, and it's any-dang-where she pleases.