Getting pregnant has been described as “the kiss of death” by female athletes. What should be a cause for celebration can lead to sponsors cutting ties or renegotiating contracts.
Former sprinter Allyson Felix, the most decorated US track and field athlete, felt the consequences of this first hand after falling pregnant with her daughter Camryn in 2018.
“I had been with Nike for almost a decade but they weren’t willing to support me through starting a family in the way that I had hoped,” Felix told attendees at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference.
Despite Felix and other female athletes putting pressure on sports brands to include maternal protections as part of their sponsorship contracts, Nike declined to include any clauses that would protect the athlete during this period. In a New York Times op-ed, published in 2019, Felix revealed that Nike offered to pay her 70% less than her previous deal and was unwilling to contractually guarantee that she wouldn’t be financially punished if her on-track performances dipped in the months prior to and after childbirth.
As a result, Felix decided to part ways with the sports apparel company – a move she recalls as terrifying. “I felt so frustrated,” she said. “I’ve been to four Olympics, I’ve had the successes and my value is still not being seen.”
Going without a sponsor also had other consequences. “Even after becoming a mum, I still had that desire to run, I still knew I was capable,” Felix added. “But I was left without shoes to wear at the Tokyo Olympics, which is not ideal for a runner.”
Instead of approaching another brand for sponsorship, Felix opted to set up her own sportswear company alongside her brother Wes Felix. Together they founded Saysh, a footwear brand designed by and for women.
After starting the firm, she quickly realised that the challenges facing women in sport extended far beyond her sponsorship troubles. “At first we thought we were making shoes for me to wear at the Olympics and I thought that maybe other women would want to wear those shoes too,” she says. “But it soon became clear that the problem was way bigger than we first imagined.”
Felix explains that many women’s running shoes are often made using a shoe last, or mould, that is based on a man’s foot. This doesn’t take into account the differences in footshape between men and women.
“I was appalled by that, I thought it was crazy,” she said. “I saw it as an incredible opportunity to not only make something for myself, but make something for all women.”
Felix ran in a bespoke pair of her running shoes at the Tokyo Olympics and says that it was “amazing to be wearing a shoe that my company created”. Although she openly admits that Saysh was originally founded “out of necessity”, the business has expanded beyond running shoes into a fashion retailer and recently raised $8m in series A funding.
Growing the business in the midst of the pandemic came with its own challenges. At the peak of the crisis, the factory Saysh uses for manufacturing had to shut down and supply chain issues also had to be overcome.
Felix claims that the business “lost some momentum” as a result, however her Olympic training helped to navigate these testing times. “I’m definitely leaning on my skills as an Olympian,” she said. “Olympians only get the opportunity every four years and the race can be over in a matter of seconds. If you mess up, you have to wait another four years.”
The experience has taught her resilience and the benefits of hard work. “It’s really hard to train for the Olympics and it’s really hard to start a business. What I’m really relying on is the fact that I know how to overcome, I know how to show up every day,” she added.
One of the key differences between her work now and the time spent training as an athlete is the fact she now works with a team. “As an Olympian, you are part of an athletics team, but ultimately, you go out there by yourself,” Felix explained. “Now, working with a group of people with a common goal has really been special.”
Having founded the company in response to the inequality she faced as a female athlete, Felix now wants her company to provide a “healthy break from the past”. Since retiring from the track, Felix has offered free childcare to athletes, coaches and staff at select athletics events.
Saysh also offers a free maternity returns policy for people whose feet change size during pregnancy. Rather than continuing to wear uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes, customers are invited to contact Saysh for a free pair of trainers in their new size.
A number of brands have changed their policies towards pregnant athletes, since being challenged by the likes of Felix. This includes Nike, which has removed any performance-related contract reductions for pregnant athletes in the 18 months surrounding the pregnancy.
The experience has shown Felix that, no matter what the industry, change is possible. “Just because something wasn’t there before doesn’t mean that we can’t keep pushing and break down those barriers,” she added.
Felix will be hoping she can continue to break barriers with Saysh.