Tuesday August 18th, 2009

BERLIN -- The giant thud reverberating across the world track and field championships in Berlin on Tuesday night was the sound of Sanya Richards throwing the boulder of never-winning-the-big-one off her shoulders.

(SEE PHOTOS OF THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS)

After years of disappointment, the talented American won her first major international title in the 400 meters. "It just feels so great to finally hear that I'm a world champion," Richards said. "It's an overwhelming experience." Richards ran a controlled 49.00 seconds and was never seriously threatened over the last half of the race. Jamaica's Shericka Williams finished second in 49.32. Russia's Antonia Krivoshapka started well, leading early out of lane six, but faded down the stretch and finished third in 49.71.

Though Richards owned two world and Olympic gold medals in relays, the performance on Tuesday undid her history of checkered results in individual races. She was sixth in the 400 at the Olympics in 2004. At the 2005 worlds, she won a strong silver and then went on a lengthy, but ill-timed period of dominance. Richards was chosen as the international governing body's female athlete of the year in 2006, a year that had neither an Olympics nor a world championship. In 2007, a season in which she battled illness, she ran a world-leading time in the semifinals at the U.S. trials, but then finished fourth in the finals and missed out on the open 400 at the world championships.

She was leading midway through the Olympic final last summer, but injured a hamstring and barely pulled into third place. "I can't say I'm glad to have waited this long," Richards said after the race, but I definitely think sometimes you have to learn things in order to grow. Hopefully this will be the start of many titles to come ... I didn't have much doubt going into this race. I knew what happened in the past, but I wasn't going to let it affect me. Whenever there was a negative thought, I just let it pass me."

Just after Richards crossed the line, she allowed herself a long skip, something in between a jump and a hop, the kind of unbridled joy she'd been waiting to express for years. "I'm not sure what that was," she said. "Whatever I did, a bound or a jump, whatever, I was happy." The Jamaican-born, Texas-raised runner followed that celebration with a dance she learned in her adopted state. "It was the Dallas Boogie," said Richards, who arrived in the South with her family when she was 12. "I told me sister and my cousin if I win this time, I'm going to do the Dallas boogie."

Even the other runners in the race acknowledged Richards' relief. "She did it finally," said Richards' teammate Debbie Dunn, who finished sixth in the race. "I'm really happy for her." Britain's Christine Ohuruogu, the defending Olympic champion took fifth and was never in the medal hunt. "Sanya was splendid," Ohuruogu said. "I didn't see her because she was so far ahead of me."

In the stands, members of the Richards family could exhale, too. "I think there was definitely some relief mixed in with happiness," said her father, Archie, once a member of Jamaica's 19-and-under national soccer team. "In the past, we helped her cry. We cried with her. I told her no matter what happens in each race, she's still the best in the world."

Her mother, Sharon, a travel consultant, was also there to clap and cry tears of joy for a change. She was the one who converted the family's two-car garage into a gym for Sanya and gave her a necklace with a bullet on it in eighth grade, so she could be faster than a speeding bullet once she got on the track. "Sanya broke it last week," Sharon explained, "but there is a safety pin holding it together. I'm sure now she wants to keep it."

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