While Allyson Felix is experiencing many things for the first time as a new mother, she’ll soon be experiencing some for the last time as an athlete. That’s because, after participating in five straight Summer Olympics, the champion track and field sprinter says the upcoming 2020 Games in Tokyo will be her final.
“This is it,” Felix, 33, tells PEOPLE. “I feel good with it because I feel like I’m just really happy with the place I’m at right now in life. I don’t think I ever would’ve thought that I would have had a child, or been in the sport this long in general. I feel like I just want to go out really strong, at my best. It’s been really a challenging year, but an exciting future to look forward to.”
Felix — who is accustomed to tackling challenges — faced an obstacle unlike any other when she experienced a serious complication 32 weeks into her pregnancy last November.
At the time, Felix was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication marked by high blood pressure in someone who doesn’t normally experience it. It can lead to sudden swelling in the face and hands and can cause fatal complications, according to the Mayo Clinic. Her daughter, Camryn, would spend weeks in the NICU after she was born two months early via c-section.
“[The NICU] is just a really heavy place to be, it’s a place that you’re not prepared for. No one has dreams of giving birth and leaving the hospital without your baby and having Christmas in the NICU,” Felix recalls. “It definitely tested my strength and made me depend on family and all of that. I’m grateful that we made it through because you’re surrounded by so many people who don’t get to go home. They don’t get to ever bring their children home. I just felt so blessed that it worked out.”
The experience, Felix says, made her recognize that she had taken her health and well-being for granted.
“I’m just so appreciative of my health, for my daughter’s health. That we came out,” she explains. “But it also gave me a passion for the mothers and the families that are there. Also, for just women of color who face complications three to four times more than white women. And a lot of people don’t know that. A lot of black women don’t know that. So just wanting to raise awareness about that is something that I’m now more passionate about.”
Since bringing Camryn home, life has been full of smiles — even if it means Felix is losing sleep.
“It’s amazing, it’s wonderful, and it’s really hard. It’s a huge adjustment. Life has been a bit chaotic, you know, trying to deal with all the new mom things at the same time as trying to, you know, come back to compete,” she says, “Dealing with traveling with an infant, staying in the hotel with an infant, diapers and bottles and like all of those just practical things. And the lack of sleep. You know, as an athlete, I’m used to getting a lot of sleep, taking naps.”
Despite the chaos, Camryn has been a great traveling partner, Felix says.
“She’s such a happy baby. She smiles so much. She just has this genuine joy,” she adds. “So just seeing myself in her has been cool. Just watching her grow and have more of a personality, all those things have been really neat to see.”
Felix — who is now the face of and partner to athletic brand Athleta — recently won gold at the Track and Field World Championships in Doha, Qatar, while racing in a mixed-gender 4×400 meter relay.
The win gave Felix her 12th gold medal at the World Championships — which broke a tie she held with fellow Olympic medalist Usain Bolt, considered the fastest man in history, who earned 11 gold medal wins at the championships before his retirement.
Soon, Felix will be ramping up training with her sights set on the 2020 Summer Olympics. After a tense year, she is ready for the challenge.
“I think the theme of kind of my past year I think has just been like keep fighting. From being in the NICU, watching my daughter do it and being a fighter,” Felix explains, “We’ve been fighting for all these different things. I think there are so many moments where you feel defeated, that I did feel defeated, that I felt like I couldn’t see a way out of it.”
“I think all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, like you can’t see the end, but you just got to keep pushing on,” she continues. “And I think that’s what I learned, it’s like no matter what you just got to keep going. Sometimes you’re in a situation and you’re going to be stronger for it, and you’re going to grow from it. That’s how I looked at it.”