Far apart in style, temperament and history, three U.S. stars share a goal for London: to win a first individual Olympic gold medal
This is an article from the July 23, 2012 issue
THEIR STORIES all begin with failure, and this is true of so many Olympians—whether as fact, contrived motivational force or marketing strategy—that the paradigm drifts toward cliché. Eyes roll. Why does the top step of the medal stand always represent a climb from the depths of despair? These three? They are among the most successful and decorated athletes in recent U.S. track and field history, with collectively more medals (17) in the last four world championships than entire handfuls of countries. Their failures would qualify as roaring success for most others.
Two of the three are lifelong Californians, Allyson Felix, 26, a onetime prodigy, and Carmelita Jeter, 32, a late bloomer. They train nine miles apart in greater Los Angeles. Felix invites scrutiny and disarms it with a smile; Jeter has come to mistrust scrutiny and parries it with bravado. The third is a Jamaican-Floridian-Texan, married to an NFL player and fellow Longhorn. Sanya Richards-Ross, 27, is the most glamorous of the three, as measured by presence and bearing. In the Olympic year she is wearing golden hair.
Felix is so slender that she might be a middle distance runner; Jeter so muscled that she might be a power lifter. Felix sprints like water flowing down a mountainside, Jeter like popcorn bursting from a pot. These will be Felix's third Olympics, Jeter's first. Richards-Ross is a hybrid of the two, smooth and powerful, a function of running a specialty—400 meters—that is longer and more strategically complex than the others'. This will be her third Olympics as well.
They share this: None has won an individual Olympic gold. And their London pursuit of that goal indeed begins in the well of disappointment four years ago.
ON AUGUST 19, 2008, Richards-Ross, who moved from Jamaica to Florida at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen at 17, curled into the starting blocks for the 400 in Beijing. She was just 23 and running in her second Olympic final, but her career had already been a riot of peaks and valleys: A U.S. junior record (49.89 seconds) and a sixth in the Athens Olympics at age 19 in 2004, a silver at the '05 worlds in Helsinki, a U.S. record (48.70) in '06; but then, in '07, a fourth place at nationals, weakened by a strange illness she is still battling. But she had run well enough in '08 that a gold medal was within reach. Instead, she faded to third in the final 60 meters. "I still remember those last meters," she says. "I remember exactly what they felt like."
Two nights later Felix tried to stop the Jamaican sprint onslaught that had begun with Usain Bolt and extended to women's 100-meter winner Shelly-Ann Fraser. Felix had taken a silver in the 200 at the 2004 Olympics at age 18 and two world titles since in the same event. She expected to win. She did not. Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica held her off in the stretch. "The feeling was, I can't catch her, I'm not going to catch her," Felix says. "Even now, thinking about it, I hate the emotions I feel." In the belly of the Bird's Nest stadium, Felix cried on her mother's shoulder.
Jeter watched it all from home. A year earlier she had completed a climb from decent high school runner to Division II college All-America to world medalist, with a 100-meter bronze in Osaka. But at the '08 Olympic trials she failed to make the 100 final and finished sixth in the 200. "I felt like, Oh, I won this medal, I'm good now," says Jeter. "I wasn't hungry. I didn't work hard. I didn't deserve to go."
RICHARDS-ROSS CAME nearly all the way back in 2009, winning her first world title, at 400 meters, in Berlin. But even then she was still fighting for an accurate diagnosis (and cure) for what she had been told was Behcet's, an autoimmune disease that produced dark patches on her skin, joint pain and fatigue.
Still wrestling with that illness—and newly married to then New York Giants (now Jacksonville Jaguars) cornerback Aaron Ross—at the start of 2010, Richards-Ross strained her left quadriceps that April and aggravated it at nationals 10 weeks later. At that same meet she took a bad fall on some aluminum bleachers. "She looked like somebody in a cartoon," says her longtime coach, Clyde Hart. "Her feet went straight up over her head, and she landed on her tailbone. Her quad was already hurt, and that hurt her tailbone and her ankle." Richards-Ross didn't race again in '10.
In 2011 she ran 10 finals and won only one. "Her training was unbelievable," Hart says, "but she had lost her confidence."
She kept racing and losing, but at the worlds ran a searing 49.2 leadoff leg on the gold medal 4 √ó 400-meter relay, a sign of the rebirth that lay ahead. "I had never had a season like that in my life," she says. "I tried to look on the bright side."
By the fall, she had a new diagnosis for her illness (she prefers not to disclose specifics) and the benefit of sustained training. She has lost just one 400 this year and also made the U.S. team in the 200. Richards-Ross will be among the favorites in a deep 400 field in London. "She's a fighter," says Hart. "And right now she's doing things in training she's never done before."
AFTER MISSING the 2008 team, Jeter switched coaches from Larry Wade to John Smith, who had coached 2000 Olympic champion Maurice Greene and other top sprinters. Since then she has been the best 100-meter woman in the U.S. and among the two best (along with Fraser-Pryce) in the world. At the 2011 worlds she won the 100, finished second in the 200 and anchored the gold medal U.S. 4 √ó 100 relay. She has run faster (10.64) than any woman since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 and owns three of history's 10 fastest times.
Normally, this would lead to a hail of profiles introducing Jeter to America. We would learn that she was one of three children born to Eugene Jeter and Althea Caldwell, that her parents divorced when she was two and that she was raised by her father and stepmother, Gloria Jeter, and by her biological mother. That her younger brother Eugene (Pooh) Jeter, played briefly for the Sacramento Kings. That she races in pink spikes as a tribute to her aunt, Brenda Washington, who died of breast cancer in 2007. But instead, there has been much more focus on how Jeter has run so fast. No woman has been faster older, and in track and field that raises the specter of performance-enhancing drugs, even though Jeter has never tested positive. She is resigned to this byplay but also defiant. "I'm 32 and clean," she says. "That shocks people. But I get it all the time, and I pretty much accept it. But it's hurtful, and I'd like to get credit for what I've done."
Jeter is a fierce worker in the weight room and on the track. "She didn't have success early," says Smith. "That's made her very hungry. The lady will run through a brick wall for me."
Jeter is protective, however, of some details of her private life. Smith told writers last summer that Jeter had virtually raised a younger sister from birth. Yet Jeter will provide scant details. Yes, there is a sister, born to Jeter's biological mother when Jeter was 18. Yes, Jeter was involved in raising her. She is 14 now, and a sprinter. "She is a very big part of my life," says Jeter. "She's helped me grow up."
But, she adds, "it's an ugly world, with Twitter and Facebook, and what if somebody doesn't like me because I win a race? I won't throw her into the fire."
Jeter won the 100 at the U.S. trials in 10.92 but has run 10.81 this year and also qualified in the 200. The 100 favorite is Fraser-Pryce, who ran a Jamaican-record 10.70 to win her Olympic trials. Jeter will have a hint of desperation on her side. "You know," she says, "I'm not getting any younger."
FELIX IS old and young at the same time. She has been on the world stage longer than Richards-Ross or Jeter. In 2003 she both won the California high school 200 and competed at the worlds in Paris. She has been through multiple coaches, agents, publicists and sponsors, but has stayed close to her family: parents Paul and Marlean and brother Wes, now her agent. Felix was overwhelmed by the loss in Beijing but says, "As down as I was, I knew there would probably be another [Olympics]. And I'd like to think there will be another one after this, but at what level I don't know."
So for 12 months her life has been pointed toward trumping her two silver medals with one gold. She shuttles to her training with coach Bobby Kersee at UCLA, to her various physical therapy sessions, to visits with her family. "I wanted to make my life smaller, more selfish," she says. "I'm a people pleaser, and I had to stop doing that."
This mind-set was never more apparent than at the trials, after Felix and training partner Jeneba Tarmoh ran to a controversial dead heat in the 100. Many outsiders expected Felix to cede her spot to Tarmoh, since the 200 is Felix's stronger event. But Felix said that was never a possibility, because running 100s makes her sharper for the 200. (She won the Olympic trials in 21.69, the sixth-fastest time in history, after running three rounds of the 100.) "From Day One," says Felix, "this year has been all about the 200."
As for the others, it has been about windows of chance, rare opportunities and the single gold medal that validates an Olympian's work like nothing else.