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Redefining Motherhood: Female Track Athletes and the Road to Tokyo 2021

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics forced all track athletes to adjust training plans, but for some it entailed more than merely relocating to altitude camps or swapping sprints for fartlek runs — it meant reevaluating life plans and fighting stereotypes.


For many female athletes nearing the end stages of their track and field careers, postponement raised questions of retirement, disrupting years’ worth of meticulous planning and bringing to the forefront, once again, the life stage often unwelcome in the realm of female sport: motherhood. Motherhood raises an overabundance of questions regarding adjustments to scheduling and workout plans in a world that only recently has begun to normalize the running mother.


When Allyson Felix, the most decorated track and field athlete in history, announced that she was pregnant in 2018, her sponsor Nike claimed that it would not protect her from performance-related salary reductions following the birth of her child. In short, Nike wanted to pay her 70 percent less after becoming a mother. While this figure may seem staggering to some, it was no surprise to many women around the world who had heard different versions of this same story before.


Felix terminated her contract with Nike and has since joined Athleta, but not without courageously persuading Nike to reverse their discriminatory policy to protect future Nike-sponsored mothers. Felix’s story is now one of many in the fight for women’s equity in sport.


“I wanted to set a new standard,” Felix explained. “Our voices have power.”


World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price joined Felix in the list of mothers breaking records when she claimed victory in the 100 meters at the 2019 World Championships in Doha. Fraser-Pryce now goes by “Mommy Rocket,” inspiring women to push past barriers and stereotypes to women in sport, challenging others to view her dual-identity as an asset rather than a hindrance. Neither Felix nor Fraser-Pryce has any intention of stopping; both will go for gold at Tokyo, and they will do so with their beaming young children cheering for them at the finish line.


In a society still fighting for gender equality, female track athletes who may have expected Tokyo 2020 to be their last Olympics have had to reorient mentally in an unprecedented manner. For those who had no concrete vision for an end to their careers, but whose age raises questions in the media, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce emerges as a fearless and trailblazing role model who, like Felix, proves that women can be world champions as well as mothers.


When referring to Felix’s and her own success story Fraser-Pryce wrote, “I hope our story of triumph and of defying the status quo while remaining contenders will be a baton for the next generation of female athletes and for persons to never set limits on what they can do.”

As the 2021 Olympic Games approach, women like Felix and Fraser-Pryce will continue to inspire female athletes and Olympic hopefuls to change the rhetoric, build confidence, and view themselves positively as athletes and mothers rather than athletes but mothers.


Student, runner, and lover of all things sports!
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