The Stars Retire

Evie Nguyen

This generation of female athletes has become increasingly impressive. Of course, they have the advantage of all the athletes who came before them. This year, however, sports fans around the world have the privilege of watching four of the best performers in their sport retire in one year. Sylvia Fowles, Sue Bird, Allyson Felix, and Serena Williams will all retire from professional athletics at the conclusion of their competition season this year. This will demand a moment of reflection for fans around the world, in order to accurately convey all that these four remarkable women have been able to accomplish in their careers. 


Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird will both take their retirement from the WNBA at the end of the year. Sylvia had an illustrious career within the WNBA for her time on the Minnesota Lynx. Her humility rings almost as loud as her accomplishments. In her retirement interview with ESPN, she noted that “Basketball is not who I am, it’s just something I do.” During her time in the WNBA, she played for both the Chicago Sky and the Minnesota Lynx. Drafted second overall by the Sky in 2008, she saw enormous success being named Defensive Player of the year in 2011, and leading the Sky to the finals in 2014. In 2015, the Sky traded her to the Lynx, and that is where she spent the rest of her career. Upon completing her career, she plans to become a mortician, rather than looking to profit further off her athletic skill. The way she is choosing to leave is something she hopes might outlive her legacy of playing basketball. She hopes to leave behind little reminders for her teammates, coaching staff, and staff that might allow them to remember her even after she’s left the locker room for the last time. But Fowles’ career stands on its own, without any fanfare, which is exactly why she did not want any. She retired a league MVP (2017), a two time finals MVP (2015 & 2017), was named Defensive Player of the Year four times and to the All-Star team eight times and has won four gold medals with Team USA. In 2020, she became the all-time leading rebounder in the WNBA. Her name is all over the history books. But for Fowles, she is ready to live a life beyond basketball and cultivate what so clearly separates her from others: her ability to form connections. 


Sue Bird is another WNBA legend. Her talent quickly made her one of the most recognizable faces in the league. Bird has been with the WNBA since its sixth year. After 20 seasons, and at 41 years old, Sue was ready to call it a career. After 20 years, she has quite the statistic sheet as a souvenir. Her leadership, however, is what arguably stands out most about her career: she will retire leading the WNBA in assists. In a New York Times article by Johnathan Abrams, Crystal Langhorne is quoted saying, “Even when I was working on my 3s and I wasn’t as confident if I knew Sue kicked it back to me, I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, shoot it. She’s giving it to you for a reason”. In her time in the WNBA, Bird would play with women who had grown up watching her in their girlhood. Her career outlasted some of theirs. Comparatively, people will look to Bird’s career to measure success. She retires with four WNBA championships, is a 13-time All Star, and retires fully satisfied with her 20-year career. 


Allyson Felix also had a 20-year career. Team USA’s golden child from her teenage years. She became a professional athlete immediately upon her graduation from high school, however, signing with Adidas made her ineligible for collegiate competition. Now 36, Felix takes her leave from running as the most decorated American track and field athlete of all time. Part of Felix’s fame came from her decision to part with Nike in 2017. The then-pregnant Felix underwent a contract negotiation with the sports tycoon upon the expiration of her previous contract. However, when the company proposed she take a 70% pay cut on account of her pregnancy, Felix decided to sever her ties with Nike, opting for Athleta instead. She had requested Nike put in certain provisions in her contract that would be beneficial to her as a first-time mother, and might stand as a starting place for their negotiations with other mothers. After Felix’s split with the company, Nike undertook a more protective stance for their mothering athletes. Felix’s departure and candor about the situation is the catalyst for that decision. Ultimately, Felix’s motherhood made her a better athlete. Less than a year after giving birth to her daughter Camryn, she broke Usain Bolt’s world record as the most successful athlete in the history of the IAAF athletics world championships. She attended the Olympic games five times in her career. Felix’s career was capped off by her selflessness. Only days after retirement, she was called up by Team USA one last time to help them qualify in the 4×400 race at the World Championships held in Eugene, Oregon. Upon completing the qualifier, however, she is officially retired. She will spend her time being a mother to Camryn, working with her nonprofits, and bettering her shoe company, Saysh. After two decades of dedication to Team USA and track and field, she is ready for retirement. 


Serena Williams is arguably one of the most recognizable faces in sports. Earlier this month, Serena released her statement with Vogue. For some, it is a heart wrenching article full of the realities of being a woman in sports. At 41, she wishes to build a bigger family and feels like it’s necessary to step away from tennis in order to be the mother and wife that requires. She candidly admitted that retirement, or evolution as she calls it, is painful for her. Abandoning tennis brings her no joy, but certainly, what’s around the corner will. In the end, Williams retires with 23 grand slam titles. As she says herself, that fact alone is, “extraordinary”. And that is true: there is only one Serena Williams. There is only one tennis player like herself. She is the kind of woman who slammed her racquet from frustration and disappointment with a loss. She is the kind of woman who never forgot the critics. She pays homage to her story: one of a little Black girl from Compton whose family pushed her into tennis and spent considerable time in the shadow of her big sister, Venus. In fact, as she goes to retire, she has paid homage to her and Venus’ roots. In one of her final match outfits, she wore a Nike diamond encrusted tennis dress, with matching shoes, and the same diamonds adorning her hair. The statement was far cry from the hair beads that got Venus penalized in an early tournament years ago. For nearly 30 years, Serena Williams has been on the tennis circuit. Her retirement certainly makes way for new names and young women who grew up idolizing her now have the opportunity to become that woman for other girls. It’s the circle of sports. But for Serena, her illustrious career guarantees her a spot next to names like Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and yes, even Roger Federer. 


These four women share one common theme: they have written history within their respective sports. Their time in athletics is not simply dictated by their in game performance. While their time in sport has drawn to a close, their names will be legacies within their respective crafts. As each moves on into a world beyond athletics, they all leave behind a solemn and realistic message. Sports do not last forever, as it often represents a short and intense period of someone’s life. Afterward, however, there is still life to be had and for women who have experienced life at a fraction of its entirety for decades, they are jumping into retired life with two feet.