Athletes like Allyson Felix are rare. Not only because she holds the most track and field World Championship medals, or is the only woman to win six track and field Olympic golds, or is about to dominate her fifth Olympic games later this month, but because she does all of that while being a mom.
The fact that Felix is both a mom and a professional athlete should not be noteworthy. Women with children are just as capable of being record-breaking athletes—even 10 months after a C-section. But the severe lack of support for moms doing pretty much anything, especially being professional athletes, means women like Allyson Felix are still the exception. It’s not about talent or drive; “if you don’t have the support, if you don’t have the resources,” Felix says, “you just can’t do it.”
So Felix is doing something about that. In partnership with Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation, she is launching a $200,000 grant program to help cover childcare costs for mom athletes in Tokyo this month. “When you’re restricted by your finances, you have to say, ‘These are my options.’ Having support, your options open up,” Felix says. “I think it’s going to translate to better performances. [With support] you’re a better athlete, a better person, a better mother.”
That has a big impact on moms headed to Tokyo. “Women do not need to choose between elite athletic dreams and motherhood, but we do need support,” says Lora Webster, gold-medal-winning sitting volleyball player, four-time Paralympian, grant recipient, and mom. “Motherhood is a beautifully grueling job that we never stop doing, even if we’re on the other side of the world.”
The Power of She Fund Child Care Grants will provide $10,000 to mom athletes competing in this summer’s Games in Tokyo and the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, including Webster, hammer thrower Gwen Berry, and runner Aliphine Tuliamuk, along with six other athletes. The grants will cover things like summer camps and sitters, flights for family members who can step in as caregivers—all things that will make a material difference for moms competing.
“I am a stay-at-home mom, so I am the keeper of my family’s schedules, routines, and daily everything,” says Webster. “When I am away, it is very hard to separate from what’s happening at home and focus solely on my training. One of my biggest stressors is making sure my children have consistent childcare. I always have part of my mind checking in to make sure that they’re where they need to be and have what they need to make up for my absence.”
Felix’s first two races after giving birth to her daughter were a stark awakening. “I was just on the tail end of breastfeeding, figuring out how to wash bottles in a hotel room and changing diapers,” she says. Things that should have been simple logistics on the road to her next meet suddenly became huge practical challenges in motherhood. At the World Championships in Doha, she was assigned a roommate. “You absolutely can’t bring a one-year-old into a room with another athlete who’s supposed to compete,” she says. “I really struggled being in a completely different time zone—I’m trying to get this child on a schedule and I’m still trying to compete. The exhaustion from all that physically and mentally takes you away from being able to do your job.”
Male athletes with children don’t face the same challenges. “I think about the practicality of breastfeeding, and I can’t tell you how many planes and back rooms at the track I’ve had to pump in. Those are things they’re not faced with,” Felix says.
Women are still expected to choose between being mothers and being professionals—a fact made shockingly clear by the more than a million women driven out of the workforce by the pandemic. For moms in sports, there’s the added challenge of the physicality of pregnancy and motherhood. “Women are told that they cannot do both,” says Berry. “That shouldn’t be the case.”
Seeing moms compete—and win—matters. “I know for myself, just watching Serena Williams still being so dominant, it’s inspired me,” says Felix. “I hope that we’re doing that same thing for other women.”
At that race at the World Championships in Doha, Felix, whose contract with Athleta includes provisions for daughter Camryn to travel with her to competitions, luckily had the resources to get another room for her family. With support, just 10 months after she gave birth, she hit the track. And then she broke a record previously held by Usain Bolt to become the most decorated track athlete, male or female, in history.