For fans of Allyson Felix, the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, was an affirmation of her legacy as one of the world’s best runners: In her first world championship since giving birth to her daughter, Camryn, the year before, Felix won her 13th gold medal, a record, in the marquee competition.
But to Felix, the competition stands out for another reason: It was a reminder to her of how athletics “isn’t designed for mom athletes to succeed.”
Despite needing to care for a 10-month-old, Felix was assigned a roommate for the competition.
The arrangement just wouldn’t work, Felix said. She was breastfeeding and was conscious about needing to care for her child while not encroaching on her roommate’s need to prepare for the competition.
“On top of juggling the mental and physical exhaustion of competition and motherhood, I had to navigate finding my own accommodations with my infant,” Felix said in an email. “That was a situation I shouldn’t have been in.”
“So many of the challenging parts of motherhood become even harder when you’re on the road training and competing.”
On July 6, Felix, in partnership with her sponsor, Athleta, and the Women’s Sports Foundation, announced a grant opportunity to help relieve the stress put on athletes who are parents: a $200,000 child-care fund.
The fund will be available to women who are eligible to compete for a U.S. national team, said Kyle Andrew, chief brand officer of Athleta.
The Women’s Sports Foundation is responsible for administering the funds, with each recipient getting $10,000. Nine athletes have been announced as grant recipients, including several athletes bound for Tokyo, such as hammer thrower Gwen Berry and Paralympic volleyballer Lora Webster.
Applications for the child-care grants are open until Aug. 31, with the full list of grant recipients to be selected in October.
“This is just the start,” said Andrew, adding that the sports clothing company is hoping to inspire “industry-wide” change.
“Athleta is already thinking about new ways we can support moms, athletes, and those who are both, for years to come,” she said.
The company’s move shows a growing recognition of the need to better accommodate athletes who return to competition after having children — a phenomenon that is relatively recent at elite levels.
Felix noted that athletics and motherhood have been seen as binary choices: If a woman wanted one, she had to forgo the other.
“There has been a lot of fear and silence when it comes to motherhood in sports,” Felix said. “I remember feeling like I couldn’t do both — like I had to make a choice between the sport that I love and becoming a mom.”
The WNBA is one notable exception. The league made waves last year when players ensured their new collective bargaining agreement included substantial child-care and maternity benefits: egg freezing, guaranteed two-bedroom apartments for mothers in the league, and child care during practices and games.
But the tension between balancing motherhood and elite competition still exists for many athletes. In June, several athletes, including Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, pleaded with the International Olympic Committee to amend its ban on families accompanying athletes to the competition. Gaucher has an infant daughter.
The IOC reversed its decision, allowing athletes to bring children who are nursing, but the coronavirus-related restrictions pose a challenge to athletes: The Olympic Village will only be open to athletes and team officials, meaning children will need to stay in approved hotels outside the Olympic hub.
A spokesperson for the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee said a caregiver for nursing children would be able to accompany the athletes.
The outcry around the Olympic rule highlights increasing visibility around athletes who are moms, as international stars such as Felix and tennis player Serena Williams have not only returned to their sports after having children, but also have been vocal about balancing their roles as mothers and athletes.
In 2019, Felix wrote a New York Times op-ed criticizing her then-sponsor, Nike, for its practice of slashing athletes’ pay during and after childbirth.
Felix wrote at the time that pregnancy was known to be the “kiss of death” in sports — a scary prospect for the six-time Olympic gold medalist, who was about to negotiate a contract renewal with the company.
“Despite all my victories, Nike wanted to pay me 70 percent less than before,” she wrote. When she asked Nike to contractually guarantee that she would not be punished if she didn’t perform “at my best” following childbirth, negotiations stalled.
Following Felix’s op-ed, Nike announced that it would change its policies. Felix signed with Athleta several months later. Her contract with the company includes a provision for her daughter to join her whenever she competes.
But while Felix’s dispute with Nike sent ripples out across the sporting world, many athletes cannot rely on endorsement deals to supplement their incomes or provide child-care support.
Felix said she sees the grants as her way of “paying it forward” to make sure athletes are able to access the same resources and support she has had.
Webster, a recipient of the Athleta grant, said the money is a “huge sigh of relief” for her family.
Her volleyball training requires her to miss birthdays, sporting events, holidays and school activities for her three children, ages 10, 8 and 6. Because they don’t have family near where they live in New York, all of the child-care responsibilities typically fall to her partner, who must balance them with his own full-time job.
With the grant, Webster said, they can now afford extended summer camp for the children and to fly her sister in to help out while Webster competes in the Paralympic Games.
“That gives me so much peace of mind,” she said.