Alumni Story

Allyson Felix is not done

The Olympic great and USC Rossier grad is retired but staying busy with a new shoe company, elevating athletes’ voices and empowering women.

By Kianoosh Hashemzadeh Published on

Last Summer Allyson Felix BS ’08 officially retired from her prolific athletic career as the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history with a total of 11 medals: seven gold, three silver and one bronze. Her athletic achievements have been extraordinary, and so has her activism off the track. For the Los Angeles native and 2008 graduate of the USC Rossier School of Education (she also received an honorary degree from USC in 2022), giving back to her community and advocating for women and youth have always been a focus. After seeing her Nike sponsorship agreement gutted after she became pregnant with her daughter, Felix publicly called out the company, effectively paving the way for better contracts for women athletes. And now that she has put grueling workouts and race preparations behind her, she’s able to fully focus on other projects, like her woman-focused shoe and apparel brand, Saysh, and advocacy efforts, including working with Right to Play, the Power of She Fund, Voice in Sport and the International Olympic Committee’s athletes’ commission. In January, USC announced that the field at its track stadium would be named for her. In this interview, Felix discusses growing up in L.A. with two educator parents, how her time at USC Rossier shaped her, and the causes that are so important to her.

Kianoosh Hashemzadeh: You were born and raised in Los Angeles. What does the city mean to you?

Allyson Felix: I grew up in the heart of L.A., not too far from USC. My grandma would take us on walks through the Rose Garden and the 32nd Street Market. Growing up,  the city exposed me to a lot of greatness. I always saw people doing amazing things, and that made me feel like things weren’t out of reach. It also allowed me to dream, because that’s what I saw everywhere. I don’t think I realized what that was until I started to travel and [saw that] everywhere is not like this, and that there is a special environment and diversity that I got to grow up with.

What neighborhood did you grow up in?

Lafayette Square. It’s a historically Black neighborhood, right on Crenshaw and Washington.

Both of your parents are educators. How did being the daughter of two educators mold you into the person you are now?

My mom was a third-grade teacher. She taught for over 30 years in LAUSD. My dad taught Greek, doctrine and things like that [as] a seminary professor. Education was very important in our house. Even when I decided to go pro, my dad sat me down and said, “OK, so if you do this, you’re still going to college, and you’re still going to graduate.” They instilled that in me, and that education is really a privilege. Not everyone has that access.

I also saw [my parents] serv[ing] their community. Education is not a career that is super rewarding in a monetary way, but I saw the rewards that they reaped. People would always come up [to them]—my mom’s former students or people my dad had taught—and they would have all these incredible things to say like, “You changed my life.” I saw they helped people, and that really shaped me.

You were offered a scholarship to run track at USC. You chose to forgo your college eligibility, yet you still decided to get your college degree. Why was getting a degree so important to you?

Even [though it was a condition for] my parents, I always wanted a college experience. That was really appealing to me, and I didn’t want to lose out on that. In sports, anything [can] happen, and there is life after sports. [College] was always a part of my plan.

With the way that name, image and likeness (NIL) has changed college sports, do you think if NIL were in place when you were in college that it would have changed your decision in any way?

I love that [NIL] has happened, and I’m for the athletes. I don’t think it would have necessarily changed my decision, because mine was more of a timing decision. I feel really blessed that our family wasn’t in need, so it wasn’t a decision based on that. My brother also went to USC years ahead of me, [and] I saw the demand on him from the NCAA system.

For me, because the Olympics was the next year, it was a decision to focus on trying to make the team and not having a big workload. What it came down to [was], what’s going to give me the best opportunity to make the Olympic team [and] reach that goal? [In College, there are] different races that you [are] required to compete in [and] score as many points as you can. I felt like it would have been unfair for me to come and then not do all I could because I had this other goal.

“Growing up, the city exposed me to a lot of greatness. I always saw people doing amazing things, and that made me feel like things weren’t out of reach.” —Allyson Felix

When you arrived at USC, you decided to study education. Did your studies at USC Rossier change the way that you saw the world?

I always wanted to be a teacher. Being at Rossier showed me up close what it was like to be in the classroom, what it was like to have that impact, and be under a teacher and to work alongside [them] and see them in action.

Do any memories of USC Rossier stand out?

What I loved most was when we got [to go into] different schools. I was at 32nd Street School once a week. It was just the best time, to get in the classroom and see what [it] would be like to be a teacher [and] get to work with kids. I was in my mom’s classroom growing up, but to have a task and be responsible for these kids, it gave me such a real-life experience that I enjoyed.

If you had continued with education, where do you think you’d be now?

I always saw myself as a fifth-grade teacher. Rossier showed me other aspects of education, the complexities of districts and the administrative side of things. I would have been interested, after a while, to explore some of the other opportunities as well, like administrative management or [being a] principal.

In 2018, you became pregnant with your daughter, Camryn. You competed early in your pregnancy and continued to train throughout. How did you manage that?

I had a great pregnancy all the way up until days before I delivered. I felt strong. I was running and in the pool. Towards the end, I might be active for three days a week, just listening [to my body] and trying to figure out what was best on that day.

Women come back regularly from pregnancy now, which is amazing and inspiring. Before, people made you feel like, OK, you’re entering this other chapter of life. It goes beyond sports—for so many working women, they feel they can’t let people know what’s going on, [for fear] of getting taken off this or that, or [being] ask[ed] not to travel. It’s not fair. It’s not the way that it should be. [But] we have a lot of momentum now and a lot of great examples.

You’ve written beautifully and movingly about the birth of your daughter via emergency C-section. How did that experience change you?

It was a traumatic experience for me, and one that was unexpected. As an athlete, I’ve been healthy my whole life. I know how to take care of my body, and so when I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, it was this weird feeling of being really scared and not knowing what was going on, not being fully educated with [what preeclampsia is] and what it meant for me and my baby. The interesting thing about preeclampsia is that, oftentimes, there’s nothing that you can see. I felt so grateful to come out [on] the other side.

[It] was also an eye-opening experience of the state of maternal health in the United States. So, it changed me in that I [realized] I was much stronger than I thought.

Illustration of Allyson Felix breaking through a chain.
Allyson Felix competes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games wearing custom-made spikes by the shoe and lifestyle brand that she founded, Saysh. (Illustration/Edmon de Haro, Photo/Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty)

You’ve spoken about how Jackie Joyner-Kersee has been an important mentor in your life. What role did she play as you were deciding to publish the op-ed in The New York Times about Nike and their lack of support for pregnant athletes?

She’s been a constant in my life. She’s my coach’s wife, and I met her when I was a teenager. Jackie is amazing—not only is she the greatest female athlete that we’ve seen, but she cares about me as a person. When I was going through that hardship, I leaned on her for support. She always told me to go with what I felt. She was not trying to give me an answer but [encouraged me] to trust myself and to do what I felt I needed to do. She was there for me throughout, and it gave me that encouragement to move forward.

After you left Nike, you created your own footwear and apparel company, Saysh, which has a mission to empower and serve women. On the first episode of your podcast, Mountaintop Conversations, you said that one of the things you wanted to do when you set up Saysh was to ensure that the inner workings of the company were reflective of its mission and public image. How are you doing that?

I feel grateful because there have been a lot of incredible people who have left amazing jobs because they want to come and build this type of company. I talk with everybody before they join, and I ask them, “Why do you want to be here?” And to me, that’s the culture we’re creating. You have to be able to align with that mission. We’re going to be uncompromising with that. That is who we are, and we can’t put that [out] into the world unless we are that every single day. As a company, we’re able to be thoughtful [and give] incredible women a seat at the table. Our maternity returns policy [which provides expectant mothers with a free pair of sneakers in their new, postpartum size] was something that our first product engineer came up with. She said it was always something she wanted to do but was never able to at large companies. I love that we’re mission-based and serve a bigger purpose than just making shoes. That’s something I will never waver on.

Now that you have more time to focus on Saysh, what are your goals for the company?

I was traveling not too long ago, and I got on a plane and a woman was wearing a pair of our shoes. It was the first time I saw them in the wild. I probably scared her half to death, because I was so excited and wanted to chat with her. She started talking about this very impactful birth experience that she had. And what blew me away is that she loved the shoes, she loved that they were made for her foot as a woman—but she loved our mission. She wanted to stand with me, with other women. In five years or 10 years, I would love to see a sea of those shoes, and not just so our company will be successful, but because it will have that impact in the world.

“I feel grateful because there have been a lot of incredible people who have left amazing jobs because they want to come and build this type of company. … we’re able to be thoughtful [and give] incredible women a seat at the table.” —Allyson Felix on Saysh, Felix’s footwear and apparel company

Postretirement, you’ve been very busy. You were recently elected to the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission, which aims to incorporate the voices of athletes into their decision making processes. What’s your experience been like so far on the committee?

It’s a big role, and I wanted to join because I want to be that voice of athletes. A lot of what we’re dealing with right now are athletes’ concerns about Russia and Ukraine, how [the war] affects them and what [supports] are in place. Of course, I have my own agenda. I would love to be supportive of women all over the world in what they’re facing, [such as] support[ing] or thinking about women [athletes] in the Middle East and how to support [them with] the issues that they’re going through.

Drawing from your experience on being a mother at the Olympics, are there any ways that the Games could better serve women and create a better environment for mothers who are competing?

Absolutely. I have a long list of things. I have so much respect for women who [have] navigated that space and found a way to make it work, because what I found is that the systems are not in place to help mothers. Women probably didn’t have a seat at the table when a lot of these things were thought of. I’m excited to bring my own experience—of traveling with an 8-month-old all around the world, going to an Olympics and not being able to bring my child—and the experience of mothers who are currently going through that.

You’re a board member and an athlete ambassador for Right to Play. Why does their mission resonate with you?

I joined Right to Play over a decade ago. I wanted to do important work but be hands-on. [Right to Play] is [an] incredible organization. Their mission resonated with me after I saw their programs in action. They use play to help children in refugee camps and [other] stricken areas [to] help them through their circumstances—whether that is using games to teach [children] about malaria and how to protect themselves or programs that are helping girls stay in school and continue their education. I got in the field, and I started to understand how these programs worked. Play is [a] universal language. I was able to see that right away, and see these kids light up. Then I met with families and saw not only how these programs impact their children, but the impact [on] the family life. It was incredible, and I was really moved. I continued my work and joined the board. I always say when I go in the field, I think that I’m going to help, and I always feel like I come back as the one who’s been changed by the experience.

You’ve also been working with your sponsor Athleta’s Power of She Fund and the Women’s Sports Foundation to provide child care grants to women athletes. How did you go about setting this program up, and why is this cause so important to you?

We started with the Power of She Fund to [support] women [with children] who are still pursuing sport and break down that barrier of child care for them, especially [when] traveling. When I went through it, it was expensive. I felt grateful that I had the resources to bring a partner [or] bring a parent to help me. I thought about women who don’t have those resources, so [through these grants] are a way to [provide those resources].

This past year with the Women’s Sports Foundation and &Mother, we were able to offer child care at the U.S. Track and Field championships for free, for everybody—all the athletes, but also for officials and agents; anyone associated with the event. We want to keep doing more and find ways to support women so they don’t have to choose between the sport they love [and motherhood]. It’s such a practical thing, but so important.

You are also a board member and an owner of a mentorship program, Voice in Sport. How does the program work?

Mentorship is so important, especially for young women who are athletes. Voice in Sport is a platform for young girls focused on mentorship. Girls can sign up for a session with a professional athlete, a nutritionist [or] a college athlete and talk about different things. I did a session yesterday on self-belonging and self-worth. [The girls] have these real-life examples of people who have been there, and they can ask [us] anything. We also talk about our own journeys and experiences. I think it will help girls stay in sport [and] help [their] mental health, having these experts on hand at this very crucial age.

What are some of the pressing challenges that young female athletes today are facing?

It’s a lot around mental health and nutrition. One of the girls yesterday asked me about [anxiety], which I felt was amazing at [her] age. She was probably [about] 13. She has horrible anxiety and fear of competing, and she doesn’t know how to handle it. [With] my generation, that’s not even something we would feel comfortable saying, and so she, at this age, is able to say that and talk to people who can help her through that.

After retirement, a lot of athletes, deservedly so, want to focus on enjoying life without the demands of training and competing. What has made you decide to chart a different path, one that is driven by advocating for causes that are so important to you?

I think it was going through the experiences the last two to three years that really changed my life. Whether it was leaving Nike, the fight for maternal protections, [my] birth experience—I feel like there’s so much to do on those fronts. I want to be involved and try to make a difference. [Leaving] Nike showed me that it was possible. Before, sometimes change felt out of reach; seeing it happen made me feel, “No, we can do this.” It’s a special time. There’s a lot of momentum, and I don’t want to lose that.

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