Allyson Felix on pregnancy and motherhood: 'Only so much of this you can predict, much less control'
Allyson Felix is the most decorated woman track and field star in U.S. Olympic history, sprinting to three medals (two golds, one silver) at the 2016 Games in Rio to bring her total Olympic medal count to nine. She also holds a record 16 IAAF World Championships medals (11 golds, 3 silvers, 2 bronzes) and in March was named to ESPN The Magazine's list of the most dominant 20 athletes of the past two decades.
I knew what they were thinking. Is this is it? Is she hurt again? She looks tired.
Yes, this was supposed to be a light season for me. The 2020 Olympics are when I want to be at my absolute best, which means that in Season 15, at age 32, I needed to give my body a bit of a break from going full throttle all the time. But a light season doesn't necessarily mean running slow. So when I ran a 51-second 400 at a race in Poland on June 8 and then 52 seconds at a race in France the next week, I knew what everyone was thinking.
The difference between running in the Olympics and winning the Olympics is just a hundredth of a second or two. Or, for anyone who watched me lose by the length of Shaunae Miller's forehead at the 2016 Olympics, just a dive. (I guess I can laugh about that now.) So when I ran back-to-back slow times this June, people started to wonder why.
My coach, Bobby Kersee, talked to me about shutting it down for the season. My brother and agent, Wes Felix, wanted to make sure I wasn't hurt.
It was time to tell them what was really going on.
I was pregnant.
Wes was like, "I'm so glad you're not just slow!"
It was early still. I was eight weeks pregnant at the race in Poland and nine weeks at the race in France. I thought I could keep the news to myself and my husband, Kenneth, for a little longer, that I'd still be winning races as long as I trained hard. I mean, Serena Williams won the Australian Open early in her pregnancy. If I had enough willpower, I should be able to do the same. Then I could shut it down midway through the season -- which is what I'd planned to do in the off year when there's no Olympics or outdoor world championships regardless -- and be back by early 2019 without anyone noticing I was gone.
But one of the lessons I've learned on this journey is that there's really only so much of this you can predict, much less control. By its very nature, pregnancy is about opening yourself and embracing whatever God and this child has in store for you.
And, hold up: Why was I trying to do all this without anyone noticing I was gone?
I was so excited to be pregnant. I've always wanted to be a mother. I feel so incredibly blessed. This shouldn't be a secret. I want to share this journey with everyone who has ever known me or cheered for me. So why has it taken me eight months to share this news?
I think it's the same reason it took me until now to feel ready to start a family and have a child.
Somewhere along the line, that pristine nice girl image I was trying to live up to became more important than who I really was. I was putting other people's needs and expectations of me ahead of my own. I was doing things because I felt like I was supposed to, rather than what I wanted to. It felt like ticking off boxes on a checklist rather than living my life.
Having a child felt like I'd be risking my career and disappointing everyone who expected me to always put running first.
It's hard to say why I finally felt ready to start a family. I just know that I was. This is a risk. It could affect how I run in 2019 and 2020. I know it's going to be tough in a way that I haven't experienced before. But I'm up for it.
What I'm hoping is that it feels even better once I share this news and people decide to come along on the journey. I've never really opened up about my personal life in this way before. I've always been a private person. Sharing too much, letting people inside the protective bubble we all create on social media, was never comfortable for me. It made me feel vulnerable.
But it's time to change. To be the real me instead of who I think people want me to be, or what I have previously chosen to show them on social media.
I had a girlfriend say to me, after I told her I was pregnant, "Wow, I can't believe it. I would've never known from your Instagram. I'm gonna have to go back and look."
She was right. I was only showing people what I was ready to share at that point. But I think if you go look back and read a lot of what I wrote now, knowing what was really behind those posts, you'll see and hear the real me.
On Nov. 20 I posted a quote from Erica Jong that said, "If you don't risk anything, you risk even more."
On November 18, my birthday, I wrote on Instagram: "entering my 33rd year braver, stronger and empowered. learning it's okay to allow myself to be vulnerable. creating space to be me, loving the journey i am on and the woman i am becoming. passionate about my craft. unapologetic about the big goals i still have left to accomplish -- regardless of who believes in me. understanding where my worth & value comes from -- even if this world forces me to need a reminder. experiencing God's love like never before. embracing this next chapter & truly believing it will be my best yet"
I'd had it all planned out. When I would announce I was pregnant. The story I planned to write. What clothes I'd be wearing in the photoshoot.
I hoped my experiences could help other women who were worried -- like I'd been for so many years -- of what starting a family would mean to their careers. To let them know that I too have those anxious feelings about sharing the news with my employer, and the repercussions I could possibly face.
And so I started documenting everything: making videos of when my husband and I found out we were pregnant back in May, how I felt after my last race in July when I was four months pregnant, the ways I kept training so my body would bounce back quickly after the amazing natural birth I planned to have in January.
Everything about the plan felt right.
And then everything changed.
Every day that I'm [in the NICU] it's scary. The monitors are always beeping. All the parents are on edge. Sometimes babies that young just stop breathing and have to figure out how to start again.Allyson Felix
At first I just thought I had some swelling in my ankles. That's normal for the third trimester, nothing to worry about.
Then the doctors told me my daughter was measuring a little small on her latest ultrasound. Still nothing to worry about.
I went to my 32-week checkup right after Thanksgiving and they hooked me up to a fetal monitor to check the baby's heart rate.
Every other doctor's appointment I'd had until this point had been pretty straightforward and quick. So I knew something was up when the doctor left me on the monitor for like an hour. Still, I felt fine. Even better than I expected to feel at this stage of pregnancy.
"I want you to go to the hospital to get checked out," the doctor said. They didn't like what was happening with the baby's heart rate. She was so calm, I didn't realize how serious it was.
"Can I go after the photo shoot this afternoon?" I asked. This appointment had taken so much longer than I expected, I was really cutting it close if I was going to make the shoot in time. "No, you need to go now," she said. "Right now." I immediately called my husband to let him know this was serious, and he should leave work and rush to the hospital.
I called my brother Wes and told him we needed to cancel the shoot. He asked why and I didn't know what to say. I couldn't believe this was happening.
I'm an athlete. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to eat right and get enough rest. And I'd been doing everything right throughout the whole pregnancy.
When I got to the hospital, I knew pretty quickly that something was very wrong.
My blood pressure was way too high. The baby's heart rate was decelerating. This was dangerous for both of us and if it didn't improve soon, I was going to have to deliver her by emergency C-section within 48 hours.
It's amazing how quickly your priorities change in moments like this. At that point, the only thing I cared about was that my daughter, Camryn, was OK. I didn't care if I ever ran track again. I was just praying that she would be OK.
The thing I remember most about the November 28 surgery is that I barely got to see her face or hear her cry. They whisked her to the NICU as soon as she came out. She was 3 pounds, 7 ounces and 16 inches long.
That whole first night, I didn't get to see her for more than about 10 minutes. I was having issues with my blood pressure so they wouldn't let me walk. I couldn't sleep because I was so worried about her. And I still couldn't believe any of this was happening. Honestly, I still can't. It's probably going to take me years to process everything that happened and what it all means.
But right now I'm just happy my daughter is OK. She's going to be in the NICU for a while, but she's OK and I'm so, so grateful.
Every day that I'm there, it's scary. The monitors are always beeping. All the parents are on edge. Sometimes babies that young just stop breathing and have to figure out how to start again. These little babies are fighting for their lives every second of the day. But they're finding a way to keep going and it's so inspiring.
It's like this whole other world that you never knew existed of people being fighters and dealing with incredible circumstances and somehow managing.
You learn to be grateful for good days, or even good hours. There's a woman whose baby is next to my daughter in the NICU, who I've become friends with. We didn't know each other a month ago, but now we're supporting each other through one of the toughest experiences of our lives. Her baby is really sick, so sometimes I feel bad if Camryn has a good day and her baby doesn't.
It really makes me check myself when I start feeling disappointed that I didn't get to do all of the things the way that I wanted to, to have the baby shower or take the classes I'd signed up for. It could've been so, so much worse.
There's a part of me that's still wondering why this happened to me. But honestly, I know God has a purpose even when I can't see or understand it in the moment. I'm just so grateful my daughter seems to be OK, I don't want to waste time being negative.
One of the lessons I've learned on this journey is that you can't control any of this. You can only control how you react to it. I choose to be grateful for what I have and do my best every day to hold on to it.
I know what I'm living for and what matters to me. I'm not just running to win the most medals anymore. I'm not pushing myself because that's what everyone expects of me.
I'm trying to be open to what God has in store for me and my family. I still feel nervous and vulnerable. But I also feel brave and excited. Every day I sit with my daughter in the NICU and watch her fight. Every day she gets stronger and more beautiful.
If I come back and I'm just not the same, if I can't make a fifth Olympic team, I'm gonna know that I fought, that I was determined, and that I gave it my absolute all. And if it doesn't end up the way I imagined in my head, it'll be OK. I just have to go for it, because that's just simply who we are now.