July 8, 2021 7:25 AM EDT

Allyson Felix can still hear the screams. In late 2018, the six-time Olympic gold medalist was sitting in the neonatal intensive-care unit of a hospital outside Detroit, watching her weeks-old daughter fight for her life. Camryn, born premature at 32 weeks, was hooked up to monitors; an alarm would go off when doctors needed to stimulate her breathing. But as frightening as those alarms were, it’s the screaming from a mother in another area of the NICU that still haunts Felix: piercing howls that wouldn’t stop. Nurses rushed to close Felix’s doors. She still doesn’t know what happened to that mother’s baby, but she couldn’t help but imagine the worst. And this, she thought to herself, could happen to Cammy.

Up to this point, Felix had planned to return to the track and add to her record-setting medal haul. But in that moment, the most decorated American female track-and-field Olympian of all time could not have felt farther from a finish line. “I just remember thinking, I don’t know if I’m going to get back,” says Felix. “I don’t know if I can.”

Felix shares this memory from the driver’s seat of her Tesla, while crawling up a congested I-405 in Los Angeles in late May. She’s en route to a training session for the Tokyo Olympics, which will be the 35-year-old’s fifth Games. Camryn, 2, is healthy and starting preschool. But she’s still 2, which meant that the night before, she had fought her usual 8 p.m. bedtime before finally going down at midnight. So a few weeks out from the Olympic trials, Felix is operating on barely four hours of sleep. “I think lately she knows that trials are close or something,” says Felix, with a smile. “She’s, like, not letting me live.”

It’s a feeling familiar to any working parent, though the physicality of Felix’s job adds a burden foreign to most. But Felix has deftly handled this juggling act to make it back to the Olympics—this time with a larger mission beyond the track.

For almost of all her career, Felix stayed in her lane: she saw it as her job to win medals, and rarely raised her voice on social issues. “You need to make sure you don’t say too much. It has to be this pretty, pretty package. That’s always been in the back of my head,” Felix says. “And that’s not real.”

Photograph by Djeneba Aduayom for TIME

Styled by Jason Bolden; hair by Alexander Armand; make-up by Autumn Moultrie

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Especially after what she went through to have Camryn. During pregnancy, Felix developed preeclampsia, a condition marked by high blood pressure and adverse childbirth outcomes that is more prevalent in African-American women, which contributed to Camryn’s dangerous early birth. Though everyone ended up fine, America’s vast racial disparities in maternal mortality could well have pointed to a different outcome: a CDC study published in 2019 found that a Black woman with at least a college degree was 5.2 times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than her white counterpart. That year, Felix felt compelled to testify before Congress on the topic. “We need to provide women of color with more support during their pregnancies,” Felix told the House Ways and Means Committee. “Research shows that racial bias in our maternal health care system includes things like providers spending less time with Black mothers, underestimating the pain of their Black patients, ignoring symptoms and dismissing complaints.”

Felix then took a bigger leap: in a New York Times op-ed, she accused Nike, her longtime sponsor and a kingmaker in her sport, of penalizing her and other pregnant athletes in contract negotiations. The move was fraught. Felix risked losing her primary source of income and could have been blacklisted from major meets.

Felix soon left Nike and signed with Athleta, becoming the women-focused apparel brand’s first athlete sponsor, paving the way for Simone Biles to make a similar move to Athleta in April. On June 23, Felix announced the founding of her own footwear and apparel brand, Saysh. Far from following corporate expectations, Felix is now taking full agency over her career—and legacy.

With one more medal in Tokyo, Felix—who has already won more world-championship gold medals than any other track-and-field athlete ever—will become the most decorated female track-and-field athlete in Olympic history. And now her influence resonates well beyond her records. Earlier this year, Bianca Williams, a Nike-sponsored sprinter from Britain who had a baby in March 2020, reached out to Felix. After Felix called out the sportswear giant, Nike expanded payment protections for pregnant women and new mothers. “Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am now,” says Williams. “I’m so grateful for her for speaking up, because she has changed a lot of women’s lives.”

For all of her records, individual Olympic glory has been elusive. She was a key part of gold-medal-winning relay teams, but individual events have caused heartbreak. At 18, a year out of high school, Felix ran in her first Olympics, the 2004 Athens Games. She finished second in the 200 m, and sobbed afterward. After another disappointing silver in Beijing in 2008, she finally earned her individual gold in 2012 in London. Rio was set up as a career capstone: Felix would attempt to win golds in both the 200 m and 400 m. But a freak accident before the Olympic trials—she injured her ankle after landing on a medicine ball—derailed those plans. She didn’t qualify in the 200, and in the 400 m in Rio, Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas eked a win over Felix by diving across the finish line. While Felix acknowledges Miller-Uibo didn’t violate the rules, she insists she’d never dive.

“I wouldn’t want to win that way,” Felix says. “In my opinion, it’s not respectable.”

Felix won relay Gold in Rio but is chasing individual Gold in Tokyo
Ian Walton—Getty Images

It was not the note on which Felix wanted to end her Olympic career, so she decided to push on to Tokyo. That’s when life got complicated. Wes Felix—Allyson’s older brother and agent—and Nike began contract renegotiations in September 2017. Nike, says Wes, proposed a 70% pay cut. In June 2018, Allyson told Wes she was pregnant. Fearing that Nike could rescind the offer if it found she was starting a family, Allyson and Wes decided to hide her pregnancy.

The fear was not unfounded. Olympic runner Kara Goucher left Nike in 2014, and has said the company stopped paying her when she got pregnant with her son in 2010. Another former Nike runner, Alysia Montaño, claimed the company also told her it would stop paying her when she was pregnant. Nike has said it fulfilled its contractual obligations, which until late 2019 included the right to cut athlete pay for any reason.

As she started to show, Felix would train before dawn so no one could see her working out. She wore baggy clothes. She limited her baby shower to about 15 people, and told guests not to bring phones. Felix sacrificed all the rituals of a first-time pregnancy out of fear for the financial security of the family she was about to have.

“It was super isolating and very lonely,” she says. “I think about that a lot. All of those things that you look forward to, those experiences of embracing that time, I didn’t get to do any of that. I don’t feel like I ever really was pregnant.”

About 10 days after the baby shower, at a routine checkup, Felix told her doctor that her feet had been swelling—unbeknownst to her, a sign of preeclampsia. Felix acknowledges her privileged position, with health insurance and access to excellent care. Still, she says no one told her about the increased risks Black women face during pregnancy. She’s determined to see this changed. “My main focus is on awareness,” says Felix. The U.S., she notes, “is a very dangerous place for a woman of color to give birth. And that shouldn’t be the case.”

The doctor sent Felix to the hospital; she’d have to deliver her baby immediately. On oxygen and being prepped for an emergency C-section, she called Wes in Los Angeles and suggested he fly out to Michigan, where she was living at the time with her husband Kenneth Ferguson. “Me getting on the plane was not, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be there for the birth of my niece,’” says Wes. “It was, ‘No, I think we might be going for the death of my sister.’” Wes and his mom rushed to LAX. They held hands the entire flight.

Camryn was born, seven weeks premature, on Nov. 28, 2018. She weighed 3 lb. 8 oz., and spent about a month in the NICU before Felix and Ferguson took her home.

Within six weeks, Felix got to work training to qualify for the 2019 world-championship team. She didn’t bounce back as quickly as she had hoped. Because of the C-section, even simple exercises like bringing her knees up to her chest caused pain. Meanwhile, the negotiations with Nike were growing more tense. The company agreed that it would not apply any performance reductions to her pay for a year after her childbirth, but declined her request to add contract language that these protections were tied to maternity. To Felix, the message was clear: Nike did not want to set a precedent of supporting future female athletes who wanted to start families.

“We’re always learning and growing in how to best support our female athletes,” Nike told TIME in a statement. “For example, in 2018 we standardized our approach across all sports to support our female athletes during pregnancy. While the specifics of each situation are unique, the policy waived performance reductions for 12 months.”

Felix felt sickened when, not long after, Wes relayed a Nike request for her to participate in an ad campaign celebrating female empowerment. “My stomach dropped,” says Felix. She couldn’t comprehend the inconsistency: the company wanted to send a public message that women could achieve their dreams in sports, while privately resisting language that could help future female athletes start families during their careers. “I was like, this is just beyond disrespectful and tone-deaf,” she says. That’s when she decided to speak out.

(“We regularly have conversations with our athletes regarding the many initiatives we run around the world,” Nike says now. “Nike has supported thousands of female athletes for decades. We have learned and grown in how to best support our female athletes.”)

For Felix, the thought of leaving the company that had sponsored her for nearly a decade was scary. Nike reported revenues of $44.5 billion in the most recent fiscal year, and the company looms large over track and field. The past four U.S. Olympic trials have been held at the University of Oregon, alma mater of Nike founder and track benefactor Phil Knight. The company also sponsors several major global track meets, so Felix would be risking her income from appearance fees.

“Nike sometimes, they feel like you don’t have another option. So they can get away with stuff like that because, where are you going to go?” Felix says now. “And I think that’s how I was always perceived: ‘She’s never going to say anything. She’s never going to speak out.’” Nike had preached that she was part of a family there. “I was fooled by it,” she says.

Felix with daughter Camryn at the U.S. track-and-field trials
Steph Chambers—Getty Images

Three months after Felix’s op-ed, Nike announced that the company would guarantee athlete pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy. But Felix had found another option: in July 2019, she signed with Athleta, the women-focused apparel brand, which offered full maternity benefits should she decide to have another child. Athleta had never signed an athlete, and the partnership felt like a statement. That September, at the track-and-field world championships in Doha, Qatar, Felix won her 12th and 13th career gold medals—her first as a mother—breaking Usain Bolt’s record for championship golds.

Despite her accomplishments, at times Felix still feels overlooked. At a May workout, a woman spotted Felix holding an Athleta water bottle and approached her. “Do you know who Simone Biles is?” she asked. Um, yeah. “It’s incredible how she left Nike to go to Athleta,” said the woman, having no idea she was talking to the person who had helped make it happen.

Saysh, Felix’s new brand, could help eliminate such confusion. The company, which has raised $3 million in seed money from investors, sees an opening in the women’s footwear market, which Felix says has been underserved by a “shrink it and pink it” mentality. Too often, Felix says, women’s sneakers are not designed for women’s feet. Saysh is also selling community: at the launch, $150 gets you a pair of Saysh sneakers and access to content like workout videos and conversations with athletes and advocates. Few Olympians have struck out on their own to this degree. Felix is now her own footwear sponsor: she will run in a Saysh track spike in Tokyo.

As the pandemic shut down athletic facilities, Felix resorted to running pretty much anywhere: grassy medians by the beach, the cement around UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, trails, neighborhood streets. “It was guerrilla-style training,” she says. Her coach, Bobby Kersee, set distances with his measuring wheel. When she could finally access a proper track, she’d quickly get kicked out. During one workout, someone patched up the fence around the track. So Felix—and a group of elderly locals going for their morning walk—was locked in. “That’s when I found out Bobby travels with wire cutters,” says Felix.

Balancing unconventional training with starting a company and raising a 2-year-old proved difficult. But Felix made it back to the Games through dark times, with a voice stronger than ever. In years past, for example, she would have been too wary of repercussions to criticize the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for its policy prohibiting acts of protest at the Games. In July, the IOC announced it would allow athletes to demonstrate before competitions, but still not on the medal stand; Felix is not ruling out her own form of protest—and IOC defiance—in Tokyo. “There are real-world issues going on, and it doesn’t feel in the Olympic spirit to be censored,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s off the table.”

Running can be a solitary pursuit. And Felix has arrived at this moment by standing alone in the biggest fights of her career. But what some see as loneliness can be liberation. “I sat back for too long,” says Felix, reclining on her couch after putting Camryn to bed. “I almost started to believe that maybe I don’t have anything else to offer. I never really showed too much of who I am because people could dissect you, and then they might find this out or that out and not like you. But when you speak your truth, on the other side of that fear is freedom.”

—With reporting by Mariah Espada/Washington

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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