USC Commencement Address
Delivered by Allyson Felix
May 16, 2022
Oh, thank you so much for this incredible honor.
Dr. Folt, trustees, I am so excited to be here with you today. And congratulations Class of 2022. You did it. Congratulations to the parents, to all of you sitting out there, supporters. It has been such a difficult time; you have endured, you’ve persevered, and now I am so excited to share in this beautiful day as we congratulate you.
I don’t remember the first time that I stepped foot on this campus. My dad went here, and I was raised a Trojan, like a lot of you guys. My brother, Wes, who was two years older than me, he also went here. And I do remember coming to visit him while I was still in high school, and being so excited to sleep over at his apartment. He lived in an apartment on Menlo with three other guys from the track team, and when I came to visit him, I was so excited. But it was the first time that I realized that four guys living together in college are filthy. His room was immaculate, but as soon as I stepped out of it, I went into the kitchen and I realized that there were no parents here telling you to wash dishes, to put things away — it was gross.
And, Mom and Dad, you’ll be proud to know that Wes didn’t take me to any parties on the Row, and he kept me away from a lot of the fun things. But I still fell in love with the school.
I’m pretty sure that the first time I stepped foot on this campus, I didn’t feel any magic. And that was because I was probably a toddler, running around ruining some of your parents’ tailgate parties, probably before a UCLA game or something like that.
But I do distinctly remember my first day of classes here. It’s something that I’ll never forget. I drove a 1989 BMW 3 series back then — and I probably am very old to all of you guys, but this car was old, even when I got it. It was a hand-me-down from Wes — and he got it as a hand-me-down from my aunt. And although it was the small two-door coupe, it was really loud — by the time I got it, it sounded like a truck — and everybody knew when I was coming.
And I was really nervous about my first day of school, but the luxury of having a brother who went here — I made him do a dry run with me. And we came before classes, and he showed me around and he took me everywhere I needed to go, and I felt really competent going into that first day.
But the one thing that he didn’t prepare me for was parking. And, of course, when I showed up feeling confident, I arrived in that little BMW and I started to circle the campus, and I couldn’t find parking anywhere, no meters, no lots, there was nothing. I got desperate.
Now before the beautiful USC Village existed, there was a parking lot there with a grocery store. And back then, we called it “the Dirty” because it, you know, it wasn’t really that clean. And in my desperation, I decided to park there because the Dirty had great parking — a lot of it.
Back in those days, we also had something called a Club. Now I know that none of you guys know what that is, but ask your parents or Google it: A Club is a device that you put on your steering wheel, and it locks the wheel into place so that if somebody breaks into your car, they might get in, but they’re not going to be able to take it anywhere.
So in my desperation, when I parked in that lot, I made sure that I put my Club on, and I was all set. I headed across the street to class. Classes went great. Everything went well. And I went back to find my car. I looked up and down the aisle where I thought I parked, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I got really nervous that somebody broke into my car — they must have figured out how to remove my Club and they took off in so my car. I called my brother in a panic. I told him all of that. And he quickly calmed me down started to chuckle and let me know that my car had been towed.
So yeah, I will never forget my first day of classes here. And I guess I share that information with you guys because, I think, in moments like this — where you’re sitting here and you’re being congratulated for your hard work and your success — you might think that there’s something special about your speaker, about me, but really there isn’t. I cram for tests just like you guys. I wish I had more friends. I felt misunderstood. And I didn’t understand that my brother was trying to protect me by keeping me away from those parties.
Of course, there were a few things about my life that were a little bit different, like missing the first week of school my sophomore year because I was competing at the Olympics, or having camera crews come to my graduation because NBC and CBS thought it would be a really cool story. But even those things, they didn’t feel different to me; it was just ordinary and it was what I knew. And I think I probably felt like a lot of you sitting out there: I felt a little lost and just really trying to find my place in the world, trying to find my voice and trying to find my purpose.
Today, as you move into the next phase of your life, having just graduated from this prestigious university that we all love so much, I want to share with you an experience that taught me so much, and a few things that I wish I had learned earlier in life, My hope is that you’ll hold on to these words and that they’ll resonate with you exactly when you need them most. These learnings have really comforted me not in moments that feel like the mountaintop, but in moments that are really those valleys.
All right, so here are the things that I wish that I had learned earlier. Your voice has power, and you have to use your voice, even if it shakes. There are times when you’ll ask for change, and there are times when you’ll have to create it. Your life has purpose, so it’s important to live a life of purpose.
Now want to run that back for you one more time. I know, you know, you guys are graduating, but you know you’re students, so you might have missed a few things: Your voice has power, and you have to use it even if it shakes. There are times when you’ll ask for change. And there are times when you’ll have to create it. Your life has purpose, so it’s important to live a life of purpose.
I want to tell you a story of how I found my voice, how I was able to create some change, and how I stepped into my professional purpose.
As a professional athlete, our lives are based on sponsorship from companies. And it’s pretty similar to golf and tennis: As a runner, I put on clothes from apparel and footwear companies and I wear them in hopes of selling more product for that company, and that’s how I make my living. I can win prize money for going to races, but 85% of my income comes from those apparel companies.
So I’ve worked with some of the biggest sportswear companies in the world, and this particular story is about what I thought would be my last sponsorship deal. I was with Nike — and I loved my time working with them, so to be very clear, I don’t hate Nike, nothing like that; I’ve made some great friends there, and I think they do really important work. But like all companies and, really, like all of us, there was just some room for improvement. This story focuses on a place where I think that they could have been better.
I’ve always been an athlete that is hyper-focused on performance. My first professional track coach told me that to be great at anything was going to take a lot of time, was going to take patience and dedication, and I bought into that 100%/ I worked as hard as I could. I dedicated myself; I made sacrifices, I put my head down and I did the work. I went to four Olympic games without really coming up for air — performance, medals, winning, my life was centered around that.
I got to the point where I realized I had all the medals, I had the accolades, but what I didn’t have, what meant most to me, was a family. So I decided I wasn’t willing to give up the most important goals for my sponsor. I married my longtime boyfriend, and we started a family. But a lot of fear came along with that part of my life. I was in the middle of an almost-two-year-long contract negotiation with Nike, and their initial offer was 70% less than what I had previously been making — and that was even before they knew about my pregnancy. I felt worthless. In track and field, getting pregnant has been called the kiss of death. There was a culture of silence around pregnancy. And I’d watched teammates and women that I respect hide pregnancies since I was a teenager. I had seen some of my best friends struggle between being a mother and being a competitive athlete not because they weren’t capable, but because they weren’t supported.
So when I became pregnant, although I was so excited about that part of my life, I was scared because I knew I still wanted to compete, but I also knew that I could lose everything. So I started to train in the dark. I would come out at 4 a.m., at 5 a.m. when I knew that nobody would be around. I would do my workouts and then I would go back home, I would stay inside. I would wear baggy clothes, rarely go out. What should have been the most celebrated time in my life turned into to a lonely and isolating experience, and I was scared because of everything I had witnessed growing up in this sport. I thought about the consequences of my decision to start a family.
Eventually, when I told Nike about my pregnancy, the difficult negotiations continued. And they offered me 60% less than what I had been making. The money it felt like a slap in the face. But I could handle that.
What I asked for was maternity protection. A typical Nike track and field contract has performance reductions, and they have bonuses built in: If you win a medal, you get a bonus, if you don’t win a medal, you get a reduction. So I asked them not to reduce me if I didn’t get a medal at the World Championships that year. And they were great about it; they were quick to say, “No problem.” They were ready to support me.
But when the contract came back for review, there was no mention anywhere that it was because I was having a baby. They were willing to give me maternity protection, but they weren’t ready to give it to all female athletes.
So here’s where we are. I was pregnant. And I was scared. I was staring at a contract that provided me with exactly what I was asking for — but in a way that would only benefit me, and not all of the women who came after me. I thought about my daughter — Hi, Cammie; I don’t know if she’s still with us — I thought about her and the life that I wanted her to live in, the world I wanted her to grow up in and that all women and girls deserve. I knew what I had to do, but I knew that I was scared. I knew that I had to use my voice — but I knew that my voice would shake.
So I sat down and I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times telling the world about my experience and the change that I believe needed to exist. I wrote, and I used my voice, but I was scared and I was unsure and, without a doubt, my voice definitely shook. I knew that I needed to do something to be the woman that I wanted to be, to be that mother that I knew I could be, and my daughter was that motivation. She gave me that courage to push for a better future for women. And what’s absolutely incredible is: Three weeks after I wrote that op-ed, Nike did the right thing. They changed their maternity policy. And like I mentioned before, I never hated Nike, I never thought that they were bad. And I think their willingness to change, their policy really reinforced that. I used my voice and change happened.
You have to use your voice even if it shakes.
Well, I went on and I found a new apparel sponsor, in the female-lead, female-focused Athleta. And I saw value far beyond financial terms. I was focused on wanting to create change and advocating for women, and our goals really aligned with their mission. I saw business done in a different way, and I had a seat at the table. I felt empowered. They wanted to approach sponsorship from a different angle and really to support me and celebrate me holistically as an athlete, as a mother and as an advocate.
And I was more motivated than ever to make it back to the Olympic Games. And when somebody tells me that I can’t do something, that’s really all I need to hear. I felt like I had been told that, but I felt also like all women had.
And I eventually came to the point where I was really frustrated because I was training for my fifth Olympics, and I had this amazing apparel sponsor, but I didn’t have a footwear sponsor. And I’m a sprinter — so, you know, it’s kind of essential. I need shoes to wear. And I was talking with my brother, and I was really just venting to him. I was exhausted of just asking companies to see my value and my worth, and he looked at me and he said, “Well, what if we did this ourselves?” And I looked back at him, I thought he was absolutely crazy in that moment. I mean, everything I had been through, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it felt just so big.
But the more I sat there, and I sat with it and thought about it, I realized that it was an opportunity to create change instead of asking for it. So we created Saysh, a lifestyle brand for women — and, “a lifestyle brand for women,” it’s just brand talk for a community of women that we want to create products for. I believe more than anything that we have a desire and a need in this world to be seen to be known to be loved. and that’s why we created Saysh. And when I spoke about my experience at Nike, what was most amazing and incredible to me was the community that supported me and told me that they experienced things that were similar to mine, and I knew that I wanted to build something that made a difference. And if any of you graduates out there, you have ideas on creating an engaging community of women, and you’re passionate about creating shoes, definitely shoot me an email at CEO@saysh.com. We’re always looking for amazing Trojans, and I’d love nothing more than to see Saysh shoes around this campus.
After all of that, I did make it back to the Olympics, I made it to Tokyo. And it was the highlight of my career, because I was competing and it wasn’t about the medals, it wasn’t about the time on the clock. It was about being a representation for women, for mothers, for anybody who had been told that their story was over. I crossed that line. And I remember looking down at my feet, and for the first time in my entire career, I wasn’t wearing Adidas, I wasn’t wearing Nike, I was wearing Saysh.
There are times when you’ll ask for change. And there are times when you’ll have to create it. Each one of us can create change, and you do not have to be an Olympian, or even have your life all figured out to be able to start. We all can start exactly where we are.
When I was sitting in the seats where you guys are today at graduation, I was excited to pursue my passion. I wanted to win gold medals. I wanted to be the best. But what all that led to was finding my purpose. And it didn’t happen right away; it was a journey. I had so many defeats and failures. I had heartbreaks, and all of those lessons, they helped me grow. It took me a long time to find my voice. And that’s absolutely OK.
On the other side of your passion lies your purpose. So pursue it relentlessly. Focus. Do the work that got you here. But do it all with the understanding that you can have a greater impact on this world.
And don’t expect that creating change will be all about yourself — because it will probably be to provide a better future for someone else, which is a beautiful thing.
Remember, your voice has power, and you have to use your voice even if it shakes. There are times when you’ll ask for change. and there are times when you’ll create it. Your life has purpose, so it’s important to live a life of purpose — and I cannot wait to see the impact that you’ll all have on this world.
Congratulations, Class of 2022 and fight on!