According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black women are three times more likely to succumb to pregnancy-related complications than white women. Three times. Even in 2023 — with all the advancements in modern medicine – the maternal mortality rate continues to increase. That is a staggering number and discrepancy. The recent untimely death of U.S. Olympic sprinter Tori Bowie at the tender age of 32 thrust the subject back into the news cycle. On May 2, the three-time Olympic medalist was found dead in her Horizon West, Florida home when authorities performed a wellness check after she had not been seen or heard from for days. It was discovered that an eight-months-pregnant Bowie died from childbirth complications after reaching the crowning stage of labor. In the autopsy report, Associate Medical Examiner Chantel Njiwaj cited the possibility of respiratory distress and eclampsia. Eclampsia is a severe condition related to high blood pressure during pregnancy that may result in seizures or even a coma. Although the report mentioned that Bowie’s body and organs were in working condition in several instances, the 5’9″ Mississippi-born sprinter and long jumper only weighed 96 pounds.

In addition to a growing maternal death rate among Black Americans, track and field athletes face an even tougher battle. The 2016 U.S. Olympic 4×100-meter relay team that won gold in Rio included Bowie, who ran anchor leg, Allyson Felix, Tianna Bartoletta, and English Gardner. Of those four women, three died or nearly died in childbirth.

Felix, the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history, male or female, has advocated for change in the culture surrounding pregnancy in the world of athletics since carrying a child in 2018. Even with all her accolades and records, she still found herself going toe to toe with then-sponsor Nike over the company’s refusal to pay her during maternity leave. In a 2022 TED Talk, the 11-time Olympic medalist described the scariest moment of her career.

“One of the scariest moments of my career started on a dark October morning in 2018. I’m a professional athlete, and my training schedule can be a lot – six days a week, five hours a day. Still, I never train that early. But on this day, a special type of fear brought me out at 4 a.m. before the sun… a fear that someone might discover a secret I’d been keeping. I was six months pregnant, and I was scared enough to train in the dark so that no one would see the life that was growing inside of me. I feared that if a fan or someone posted a photo, that my sponsor would immediately change their mind about wanting to work with me. I feared that I would be forced to choose between motherhood and being a competitive athlete,” she said.

Although Nike eventually included a clause that specified they wouldn’t reduce Felix’s pay within 12 months of giving birth, it was a special exception, and that wasn’t enough for the seven-time Olympic gold medalist, as she called out the sneaker and apparel giant in an op-ed for The New York Times. Now, Nike offers 18 months of maternal protection for their female athletes who become moms during their sponsorship. Still, that’s only half the battle for Black women matriculating into motherhood.

Bowie’s death prompted her former teammate to highlight Black maternal health in an op-ed for TIME magazine. Five days before the birth of her daughter, Felix complained of swollen feet during her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Other women at the table shared their pregnancy experience; after all, swollen hands and feet are normal, right? Correct, but no one mentioned that those were symptoms of preeclampsia because no one really knew. “As we went around the table, the women shared their experiences during pregnancy. My cousin said she also had swollen feet. My mom didn’t. Not once did someone say, ‘Oh, well, that’s one of the indicators of preeclampsia.’ None of us knew,” Felix stated.

She went on to describe how her doctor never mentioned the condition or others that could present during pregnancy, despite Black women being at greater risk for developing such complications. It was at 32 weeks, at a routine prenatal visit, that Felix was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia and learned that she had elevated levels of protein in her urine. She was admitted to the hospital immediately for further tests. After a harrowing two days where at one point, she was on glucose and needed oxygen, Felix was sent for an emergency C-section and delivered her daughter at 3 pounds, 7 ounces. After spending her first month in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, Camryn is a thriving 4-year old.

Teammate Bartoletta went into labor at 26 weeks in November 2021 and shared with PEOPLE magazine that she entered the hospital “with my medical advance directive AND my will.” She added that with a total lack of confidence, she would be returning home from the hospital. Bartoletta also noted a tough conversation she had with her partner about who to save if it came down to it. Although baby Kai was in the NICU until his original due date, the three-time Olympic gold medalist credited her survival to two things: Knowledge and a partner who advocated for her. “Even though we agreed about who his priority would be in an emergency situation, he did not take no for an answer from the doctors and as a result saved me AND the baby,” she explained.

Tennis GOAT Serena Williams also had her own terrifying birthing experience. A day after delivering her daughter via C-section, the Grand Slam phenom started feeling short of breath. Due to her history of embolisms, she alerted a nurse immediately. Williams described the ordeal to Vogue writer Rob Haskell. He wrote:

“She walked out of the hospital room, so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin [a blood thinner] right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough, a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later, she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”

The embolism resulted in intense coughing, which caused the fresh C-section wound to pop. “I returned to surgery, where the doctors found a large hematoma, a swelling of clotted blood, in my abdomen. And then I returned to the operating room for a procedure that prevents clots from traveling to my lungs. When I finally made it home to my family, I had to spend the first six weeks of motherhood in bed,” she told CNN.

Felix said it best when she declared, “We’re dealing with a Black maternal health crisis. Here, you have three Olympic champions, and we’re still at risk.” As fast as these three women are/were, they could not outrun the deeply rooted systemic racial disparities in healthcare when it comes to Black women. It dates back to the days of the nefarious so-called ‘father of gynecology,’ J. Marion Sims, who basically mutilated Black female slaves in conducting his experimental research. Inaccurate assumptions regarding the pain tolerance of Black people have continued to manifest to this day by way of undertreatment and a lack of doctors actually listening to their patients. Oftentimes, this level of respect and comprehension between patient and doctor is the difference between life and death.

“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me,” Williams told USA Today of her experience. There is hope for improvement, as Congress has introduced the Momnibus Act — a package of 13 bills crafted to eliminate racial disparities in maternal health and improve outcomes. Addressing every leading cause of maternal death in the U.S., the act was passed in California in 2021. There are also efforts to detect and treat preeclampsia early in pregnancy, which will save many lives. The heartbreaking, and perhaps preventable, loss of Bowie and her child should not be in vain.