By Mark Bryant | Special To The OBSERVER

Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, left, talks to decorated Olympian Allyson Felix during the Oak Park Speaker Series at the Guild Theater.
Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, left, talks to decorated Olympian Allyson Felix during the Oak Park Speaker Series at the Guild Theater. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

Allyson Felix began running as a teen in South Central Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district, in a historically Black neighborhood known as Lafayette Square.

“I grew up in the church. It was a blessing in my life, and a foundation,” Felix told an audience at Oak Park’s Guild Theater on April 3. “I wanted to play basketball at first, but it wasn’t for me. I stumbled into track and field in ninth grade. I ran sprints, and the coach couldn’t believe I had that much speed. He kept having me run them over and over. Finally he said, ‘You are really fast.’

“From then on, it was a whirlwind. I decided to dedicate myself. And it took me places.”

It took Felix, now 37, around the world. Her speed, dedication and will to win made her the first female track and field athlete to win seven Olympic gold medals. She is the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history and the most decorated American track and field Olympian, having earned 11 medals across five consecutive Olympic Games (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020).

“Certain people have that ‘it’ thing,” said former mayor and NBA star Kevin Johnson, who hosted the one-hour “fireside chat” as part of the Oak Park Speaker Series. “This lady’s got that because her spirit is so authentic. It’s so real. To have her here is an honor, for me and the whole community.”

Felix graduated from Los Angeles Baptist High School in 2003. “I had a great coach who entered me into meets that were tough, but I kept doing well. I started thinking I could go to college, maybe even pro, on my ability. I started thinking that maybe I can really do this,” Felix said.

Felix committed to USC in the footsteps of her father, Paul, an alumnus, and her brother, Wes, a sprinter who won the Pac-10 championships in 2003 and 2004 for USC. He now is Felix’s agent.

She chose, however, to forgo her college eligibility, turn pro and sign a contract with Adidas. The sportswear and shoe manufacturer picked up her USC tuition. Felix went on to graduate with a degree in elementary education.

Felix gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in November 2018 and became involved in a dispute with Nike over the company refusing to guarantee salary protections for female athletes in the months following pregnancy.

“I really felt like I had a lot of accomplishments, but I wanted to be a mother,” Felix said. “Motherhood wasn’t celebrated in my profession. I saw my peers struggle through motherhood and get pushed out of the sport. I asked for time to recover from pregnancy. I felt it was a protection all women should have.”

Felix asked Nike for written financial security in the event her performance declined while recovering from childbirth; Nike turned down that proposal and offered only a 70% pay cut. Soon after, Felix left and signed with Athleta in July 2019, becoming its first sponsored athlete.

Felix’s fight for compensation for female athletes who have given birth became a national controversy, and in August 2019 Nike changed its policy to not apply performance-related salary reductions for 18 consecutive months.

Felix then had a conversation with her brother. “I was tired of begging brands to meet me where I was, as both an athlete and a mother, and I was tired of sacrificing comfort and style,” she said. “So I decided to make my own rules. I was tired of fighting to get people to see my worth and value. So we decided to start a company.”

That company became Saysh, a women’s footwear manufacturer that caters to women’s needs, including a no-strings exchange policy. Customers who have purchased a pair of Saysh shoes will receive a complimentary pair of new sneakers in their new size should the customer experience a change in foot size upon becoming an expectant mother. 

“I started to learn the business and how to operate,” Felix said. “It was refreshing, coming from competitive sports where there can be only one winner, to a place of collaboration.

“We want to be big. We want to grow. I like being an example of what you can do in your community and business, and inspiring that next generation.”

Felix credits her performance in the 2020 Summer Olympics (held in the summer of 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic) for some of her most memorable moments.

“It was much more than what was happening on the track. It was about making it back and being a representation for mothers,” she said. “They should let all of your people stand up there with you on the medal stand. So many people help you in your process. I felt, and still feel, gratitude, reflection and thankfulness when I think about standing up there. The experiences and the people I’ve met have been a wonderful foundation to move forward from.”