The distance between Allyson Felix and history didn’t amount to much in the end. It was ultimately measured in meters—two batches of 400—at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. She, a sprinter of inexhaustible talent and speed, had been slicing it away in chunks of track every four years.
She started at the Olympics in Athens in 2004, picking up a silver in the 200-meter. In Beijing, in 2008, she earned another silver in the same event and her first gold, in the 4x400-meter relay. Felix added three more golds to her tally in London in 2012, then two more and another silver in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She was on her way toward becoming the most decorated American athlete in Olympic track and field history.
Then, in 2018, for the first time, she slowed down. Felix was pregnant, so she started racing less, granting herself a rare break in a long career that had not offered many. In November of that year, she gave birth via an emergency C-section to her daughter, Camryn.
The next year, she called out her longtime footwear sponsor, Nike, for how it handled her pregnancy. In a New York Times op-ed, she accused the brand of trying to cut her pay by 70 percent and said Nike was unwilling to give her contractual protections that wouldn’t punish her if her race times flagged in the months around her childbirth. She left the brand after the parties couldn’t agree to a new contract, but her exposure helped push Nike to change its maternity policy for athletes. Then, without a footwear sponsor, she started to work on her own woman-focused sneaker brand in the middle of the pandemic in 2020. Then she came back for more medals.
Felix sprinted toward history in Tokyo this summer, running there in spikes from Saysh, the brand she started after breaking with Nike. She, at age 35 and participating in her fifth Olympics, claimed bronze in the 400-meter and gold in the 4x400-meter relay to become the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history and the most decorated American athlete in Olympic track and field history. (All this is to say nothing of her collection of finishes from the World Athletics Championships, where her 18 medals—13 of them gold—have made her the most decorated athlete in that competition’s history.) Her performance was significant for track and field’s record books, yes, but also for the sneaker industry.
Elite runners like Felix usually wear product from billion-dollar brands. From a footwear perspective, track races at the Olympics are monopolized by a handful of companies. In Tokyo, Felix’s footsteps, a cycle of light blue blur, were her own. Here was a Black woman who’d created her own business and her own spikes, using them on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I do understand the significance of it,” she says, speaking from her home in California after returning from Tokyo. The remnants of jet lag in her system may be the first instance of time ever being ahead of Allyson Felix, a woman used to victory in any battle against a clock. “And also just understanding more of this industry through the amazing women that I’ve been able to work with, and kind of understanding the hardships that they face, as engineers, and as designers, and wanting to have more opportunity there.”
She’s focused now on growing that opportunity through Saysh, which will ship its first sneakers in September. The company has recruited top women from the sneaker world, like former Nike engineer Tiffany Beers, to help develop its shoes. Here, Felix talks about how she started her own brand, prepping for the Olympics in her own spikes, and what the wins in them mean to the sportswear industry. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.