Olympic runner Alysia Montaño on fighting pregnancy discrimination at Nike
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Runner Alysia Montaño won a World Championship title in 2008 and Olympic medals in 2011 and 2013—but one of her biggest challenges came off the track, in the form of pregnancy discrimination. The now-mother of three says that when she signed a contract with Nike, long before having her children, she learned that the brand didn’t have a fair policy in place when it came to its female athletes taking maternity leave.
“A lot of sponsorship contracts [including mine] really were not allowing women a space in which they could pursue both motherhood and a career as an athlete in a reasonable manner or at all,” Montaño recalls, speaking over the phone while promoting Munchkin’s new prenatal line, Milkmakers. “So I brought it up to the head of Nike and asked, ‘What would happen if I became pregnant?'”
His response shocked her. “‘It’s simple,’ he told me. We’ll just pause your contract and stop paying you for the duration of your pregnancy and until you can return,'” Montaño recounts.
As the now-34-year-old discovered, Nike treated pregnancy like a sports industry, with sponsored athletes cut from payment until they were able to return back to certain performance standards. Olympian Kara Goucher, for instance, became pregnant in 2010, but because of Nike’s policy, she began training again just one week after childbirth—she even scheduled a half-marathon three months postpartum. When her son fell sick, she wasn’t able to be with him at the hospital, instead spending more time training in order to avoid losing more pay.
Knowing these stories, Montaño pushed Nike execs to consider changing the way the company dealt with maternity leave, but to no avail. “I kept having a conversation about making some changes,” she says. “And it was really just met with stone cold faces. They would say, ‘that’s just not going to happen.'”
Eventually, Montaño ended her contract with Nike and moved on to sports brand Asics. But even there, she was afraid to mention the words “pregnancy,” “postpartum,” or “maternity” when negotiating her contract in light of her previous experience.“[Pregnancy] was viewed as a shot in the foot,” the athlete explains.
In 2014, when she decided to start her family, Montaño was nervous to reveal the news to Asics out of fear that her pay would be suspended. Fortunately, at the time, she had a female ally at the company who supported her choice and told her not to be concerned about her contract or potentially losing out on pay before or after giving birth. Instead, Montaño focused on shining a light on athletes like herself by continuing to train while pregnant. At 34 weeks along, she even decided to run in the 2014 Outdoor USA Championships, which earned her significant attention as “the pregnant runner.”
However, by the time Montaño’s daughter Linnea was born later that year in August, her Asics ally had departed the brand, leaving two men in charge who told the athlete that they would retroactively reduce her pay from the time she spent away from running while pregnant. Montaño says she felt pressured by Asics to return to her previous physical condition quickly, so to prove that she could still compete postpartum, she entered won two national championships six and 10 months after giving birth. She also attended the World Championships in Beijing that year, while still nursing her daughter.
Over the next few years, Montaño continued to compete and bring more visibility to the plight of elite pregnant athletes. In 2019, she published an op-ed in the New York Timesthat discussed how the U.S. Olympics Committee threatened to take away health insurance from athletes who do not remain “at the top of their game” during pregnancy. Though the op-ed spurned the USOC to look into reforming their practices, it is still unclear if the organization provides insurance to pregnant athletes. Due in part to Montaño’s activism’s, though, Nike received major backlash and soon announced a change in its maternity leave policy that gave athletes pay and bonuses for 18 months around the time of their pregnancies.
“I thought to myself, ‘okay, I need to fight for every woman to feel comfortable in being an athlete and pursuing their career and motherhood,'” Montaño recalls now. “Even if a female athlete doesn’t choose to be a mom or it just happens, I wanted to make sure the words pregnancy, postpartum, and maternity were not met with a scornful eye.”
In September 2019, she signed a sponsorship contract with Cadenshae, a maternity activewear brand that did not make her pay contingent on her running performance or choice to have more children. In the time since, Montaño has dedicated herself to raising awareness of how athletes are often not supported by sponsors when pregnant. She launched the social media campaign #DreamMaternity in 2019 and co-founded the organization &Mother in 2020 to bring more attention to this issue.
“It feels like it’s my responsibility to continue breaking down those barriers and pushing those boundaries for the future generations, just as women ahead of me have done for me to even participate in sports,” Montaño says now.
She notes how important it is for her now-6-year-old daughter to see that she, too, can one day pursue a career and be a mother at the same time. Linnea has been watching her mom practice since she was young, cheering her on. “This is what she knows,” Montaño says. “And so when it’s her time, should she choose motherhood and career, she knows she can do both.”