As the blistering July day fades into a cool sunset, an unexpected guest spreads across the rust-colored oval at Waco’s Hart-Patterson Track & Field Complex. Dusk settles, and the clouds and current stir air in from the north. Most any other occasion, this would be a welcome thing, a gust to break relief from the relentless heat, but right now Sanya Richards-Ross is at work. The track is her office, and wind is the sprinter’s constant foe.
When gobbling up 8 meters per second, springing the body forward at nearly 18 mph, even a gentle wind must feel like a gale. Of course, Richards-Ross didn’t become the American record holder and reigning Olympic champion in the 400-meter dash by bending with breezes. “Be still,” her mind says, and even if the blowing doesn’t slow, she believes it does.
Ultimately, her journey to every finish line, to every medal stand, is a testament to trust —a belief in herself, her ability, and her supportive team, which blurs the lines between loved ones, coaches, managers, and friends. As this late summer practice boils to its climax, Richards-Ross is shepherded by the nurturing presence of two men who always see her at full potential. Her father, Archie, is the Richards family athletic patriarch and his daughter’s constant training companion, while coach Clyde Hart purposefully orchestrates all the action on this, his namesake track. A decade ago, Hart walked into their lives as a mentor who prophesied Richards-Ross as the best quarter-miler in the world, stealing the words right out of Archie’s throat.
Together, they monitored Richards-Ross as she slugged through the weekly practice Hart reserves for event situations; the workout poses some circumstance that prepares the runner’s mind and legs for a race. For this one—a pair of 320s—Hart wants Richards-Ross rolling at almost race pace, and of course, he’s forcing her to charge straight into that headwind.
“She’s tough, and she knows it,” Hart said.
Richards-Ross dominated this workout in 2009, her world championship year, but today, during her rehabilitation year, Richards-Ross hit even harder. Hart’s prescribed time appeared conservative, as Richards-Ross fluidly revved up to drop the hammer. In the fading light, Archie smiled with wonder, absorbing “one of those workouts” that, one day, with the grace of hindsight, might be remembered fondly as an indicator, a trigger, a primer. See, even after her two hot laps, Richards-Ross didn’t wait through the entire rest period before starting her cool-down run.
“That’s how we know she’s ready,” Archie said.
Even in the immediacy of time, those 320s revealed that Richards-Ross was indeed ready to race, and coming into the 2014 season, that’s a victory unto itself. Following her double-gold medal performance at the London Olympics, Richards-Ross, 29, underwent two surgeries to treat the stubborn bones of her right big toe. It seems that after more than two decades of bearing the spring-loaded power of Richards-Ross’ sinewy, leg-dominated, 5-foot-9 frame, even her toes are calling out, asking when they get to retire, slow down, and chase after children with her husband, Aaron Ross.
Richards-Ross answered by winning a pair of Diamond League races in Europe and breaking 50 seconds twice. “The race to me is so magical when you’re fit and ready and race sharp,” Richards-Ross said.
The physical potential was never in question. It’s been there since Archie noticed his 7-year-old daughter was running better times than older kids at her Jamaican preparatory school. The family—Archie, wife Sharon, Sanya, and youngest daughter Shari—migrated to south Florida, where Richards-Ross flourished as a junior competitor before a championship career at the University of Texas.
“She already had a killer instinct. She knew what she wanted,” said Bruce Johnson, the strength and conditioning coach who has worked with Richards-Ross since her UT days. “She’s strong-willed and just has an ability to hone in and focus on the task at hand.”
This season is a building block, a foundation, for her final two years as a full-time professional runner, culminating with the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and then the Rio Olympics—the capping stones to her legacy on the track. And as always with Richards-Ross, this season came down to one thing. It came down to belief.
“Are you ready to believe that the toe is fine?” Johnson asked.
Trust it, dig into it, and push. That’s how Richards-Ross responded. It’s also how every race starts.
For the crouched sprinter, a starter’s pistol ignites the coiling power harnessed throughout the trunk and torso. At her best, and most of this season, Richards-Ross is one of the first to react out of the blocks, and it begins with that right foot. It’s the ignition, the launching pad, the burst that allows her to drive through the first 200 meters at almost top speed.
Surging into the back straightaway, Richards-Ross can open her stride and settle into her rhythm, which appears effortlessly smooth because of her efficient turnover and easy-flowing arm action. As the race builds through the final turn, it’s all about claiming the right position.
“Pace and race,” Hart said. “Execute or be executed.”
For 400 meters, one full lap around the track, no person can maintain top speed the entire race, which makes the quarter mile the ultimate test of mind over matter. As the body fills with lactic acid and muscles stiffen, the last 100 is a gut check. Who can refrain from retreating to bad habits and still retain a small stable of stamina? No one is actually speeding up at the finish. The winner is the one who slows down last, who draws on every ounce of motivation and memory to hold the line.
That’s why, when Richards-Ross breaks that turn into the home straightaway, she’s not looking at the finish line. Maybe her eyes carry 15 feet beyond that line, or to the next bend in the lane. Maybe there’s even a whisper of Beijing, the site of Olympic disappointment in 2008 and possible retribution next year. Anything, so that she just keeps running. Anywhere, so in that space and that time, she believes.
“I learned that you don’t win the race until you win the race,” Richards-Ross said. “In my heart, I feel like I have more to do and more to accomplish, so that keeps me motivated.”
By the Numbers
If a holistic body of work is to be viewed as a testimony of dedication and drive, Richards-Ross is building a case to be the most dominant 400-meter runner of her generation, if not all time.
Dr. John Hoberman, University of Texas professor and noted expert in sports and culture, said character still matters when reviewing an athlete’s career. “It’s always a guessing game when you compare performances. There are always incongruencies, be it shoes or weather. The more data you see, the better,” said Hoberman, who authored Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport.
The Sub-50 Standard
Richards-Ross has logged more sub-50 second race performances in the 400 than any other female runner in the world. Marita Koch of East Germany, who set the 400 world record of 47.60 in 1985, holds 37 sub-50 finishes. Richards-Ross currently holds 48.
“Right now, historically, Sanya is on the same level as Flo-Jo. They stand ahead of the class,” said James Dunaway, a sport documentarian who is in the United States Track & Field Hall of Fame. Flo-Jo is Florence Griffith Joyner, the legendary American world record holder and multiple Olympic champion.
SR-R Sub-50 Races By Year
Top 400-meter times by American women
1. Sanya Richards-Ross, 48.70, 2006*
2. Valerie Briscoe, 48.83, 1984
3. Richards-Ross, 48.92, 2005
4. Richards-Ross, 48.94, 2009
5. Richards-Ross, 49.00, 2009
6. Richards-Ross, 49.05, 2006
Chandra Cheeseborough, 49.05, 1984
7. Richards-Ross, 49.23, 2009
8. Richards-Ross, 49.25, 2006
9. Richards-Ross, 49.27 (three occasions)
*Richards-Ross’ American-record setting run in 2006 stands as the 16th fastest time ever in the world. All 15 faster times were run between 1979-1996.