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Even the slow days can go blurry for Sanya Richards-Ross. Last month she went through such pains to plan this interview for a weekday afternoon, when she wasn’t honing in on an elite track meet in some far-flung locale for her TV analyst job at NBC. But then hours before this anticipated Zoom call she remembered: Deuce, her four-year-old son, didn’t have school. “I almost got him dressed!” she says, mock mortified. “So if you hear him in the background … I’ll do my best.”
You know these are strange times when this famously fleet-footed 37-year-old is struggling to keep up during the pandemic, too. Before Zoom was an uppercase concept, Richards-Ross was queen of them, one of the fastest female sprinters of all time. For a solid six years, including from 2005 through ’09, no one was better than her in the 400-meter dash—the event in which, among other honors, she’d established the record for most sub-50 second times. At the Olympics she further cemented herself as a bona fide star and steely competitor for a USA Track & Field roster, on which American women’s legend Allyson Felix also reigned supreme.
After helping the U.S. to gold in the 4x400 meter at the 2004 and ’08 Games, Richards-Ross became the first female three-peat relay winner ever at the London race, and the second American woman ever to win the Olympic 400 meter. That last golden moment was sweet redemption for Richards-Ross, who went from perennial favorite to underdog on the way to running down Great Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaica’s Shericka Williams in the home straight.
But it wasn’t just a fiery competitive streak and the enduring tutelage of Clyde Hart (the legendary coach behind Michael Johnson’s gold rush) that kept Richards-Ross in hot pursuit of her Olympic dream. You could say the harshest stoking came from her husband, Aaron Ross, an All-American cornerback who was part of the Texas storybook national title run in 2005. In the winters before the Beijing and London Games, Ross won Super Bowls with the Giants. Talk about the pressure to keep up. “People always ask, Could you have done all you did with someone who wasn’t a student-athlete?” Richards-Ross says. “And I don’t know because I was so intense in my training. I would do a thousand sit-ups a day. I was eating clean. I was getting my rest. It took someone who also wanted to excel in sports to really get me.”
Certainly, USATF was lucky to get Richards-Ross—who chose the stars and stripes over running under the Jamaican flag. Born in Kingston, she started running at 7 and emerged as a standout in Jamaica’s world-leading youth track scene. What might her career have looked like if she had stayed? “I often wonder if I might have ended up a 400-meter hurdler,” says Richards-Ross, who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 12. “I like to think I got the best of both worlds, because I started out training with the national coach who was training Veronica Campbell and the national team. I got tremendous benefits from being born there and training and then coming to the States and having more resources.”
At Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High, she quickly distinguished herself as a force in the classroom (with straight A’s) and the track (with nine state championships) on the way to being named the nation’s top girl’s track athlete by Gatorade and USA Track & Field. She could’ve gone to college anywhere. But ultimately Richards-Ross felt most at ease with Beverly Kearney, the former sprinter who helmed the Longhorns women’s track and field program for a decade. “There was just something about having a Black female head coach,” says Richards-Ross, the first woman to win the NCAA’s 4x400-meter title as a freshman. “Up to that point, all of my coaches were male. She was just so electric and had this aura about her. And she was one of two Black head coaches in the country. At that time in my life my parents thought it was very important for me to see Black women in those positions. It really won me over.”
Now she’s the one providing inspiration to young Black girls, and showing them the various avenues their own athletic careers could possibly take them. After retiring at the end of the 2016 track season Richards-Ross made the seamless transition to the NBC booth—where she shined again during the Tokyo Olympics while paired with veteran analyst Ato Boldon. In ’17, she published a memoir, Chasing Grace, and disclosed that she had terminated a pregnancy a month before the Beijing Games—a shocking revelation that deepened the heartbreak of her ’08 individual medal upset, which she’d attribute to a hamstring injury. “I made a decision that broke me,” she wrote, “and one from which I would not immediately heal from. Abortion would now forever be a part of my life. A scarlet letter I never thought I’d wear.” And she’s shared other aspects of her life on reality TV; next month, she will debut on the new season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Try as she might, Richards-Ross just can’t stop running, and life only figures to get zoomier as the pandemic restrictions ease up. She wouldn’t have it any other way. “I always tell people there’s power in the tongue,” she says. “If you believe it, you speak it, great things happen.”
Andrew Lawrence is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.