On Her Mark

For the better part of a decade, Sanya Richards-Ross ran the women’s 400-meter race faster than anyone else. She clinched gold at the London Olympics in 2012 and bronze in Beijing in 2008. This year, after injury prevented her from qualifying for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the elite athlete-turned-business-woman told Austin Woman about coming home to Central Texas and taking her biggest leap yet.

By Emily C. Laskowski

The historic Hayward Field, the University of Oregon’s nearly 100-year-old track-and-field stadium in Eugene, Ore., holds a special place in the hearts of competitive runners. Elite track-and-field athletes return year after year to compete at this track mecca, the one iconic distance runner Steve Prefontaine called home. July 1, it kicked off the first day of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field, and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross lined up at the blocks.

She is no stranger to this track. Competing here throughout her celebrated career, Richards-Ross broke the stadium record in the 400-meter event, her signature race, four years ago at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, with a time of 49.28 seconds, a time that also vanquished a 22-year-old Olympic Trials record. She would go on to claim victory in London, earning herself a gold medal in what insiders of the sport hailed as a long-time-coming, well-deserved, career-pinnacle type of moment.

Now, on the first day of the trials, Richards-Ross, at 31-years-old, looks like the same woman who stood atop the podium in London four years ago. She’s pulled her long, fashionably braided locks back, away from the warm yet striking features of her face. Aside from the black physio tape bandaged across her right hamstring, her body looks as though it were cast from liquid power. Not even the skin-tight Spandex uniform can humble the pristine definition and fluid contours of each pulsing muscle, the result of two decades of incalculable work ethic.

She settles her white Nikes into the blocks of lane two. She must finish in the top three of this heat to advance to the semi-final round of qualifications. A voice over the speaker system silences the stadium with one word, “Set.” And then the gun goes off.

Born in Jamaica, Richards-Ross started running when she was just 7 years old.

“I knew Sanya had something special since she was 9 years old,” recalls her mother, Sharon Richards. “At the starting line of a 60-meter dash, Sanya stepped backwards at the sound of the gun. With less than 2 meters to go, she was two steps behind the leader, but dug deep within herself to propel herself forward and win the whole race in a photo finish.”

At the age of 12, Richards-Ross and her family moved to Florida, and her track career blossomed. In 2002, as a high-school senior in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., she became the USA Junior 400-meter champion and was named the Gatorade National High School Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year.

In 2003, she enrolled at the University of Texas and turned heads when she became the NCAA 400-meter champion as a freshman. She would turn pro during her sophomore year in 2004, and compete at her first Olympics that summer in Athens, Greece, where she won her first gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay.

To say her career has been merely a success would be an egregious error. She has exceeded the baseline benchmarks for success, having competed and won at the highest level of her sport for more than 10 years.

In addition to being a six-time USA Outdoor 400-meter champion (in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012), the 2009 World Outdoor 400-meter champion and the 2012 World Indoor 400-meter champion, Richards-Ross has also twice received the Jesse Owens Award, USA Track and Field’s highest honor, and twice been named the World Athlete of the Year by the International Association of Athletics Federations, an award that’s also been bestowed upon the likes of Usain Bolt and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Since collecting her first gold medal in Athens, Richards-Ross has tallied two more gold medals in the 4x400-meter relay (one each in Beijing and London), a bronze medal in the 400-meter race (in Beijing) and her treasured gold in the 400 meters in London.

Topping off her bursting medal collection, she also holds the American record in the 400 meters, her name etched in the record books beside superstars of the sport like Florence Griffith Joyner and Michael Johnson, emblazoned on a list of athlete names to which future generations of elite track-and-field athletes will be compared.

At the start of this year’s track season, Richards-Ross announced her plans to retire following this year’s Olympics. She hoped the games in Rio would be her swan song, a chance for her to compete in her fourth Olympics and defend her title in the 400 meters, something no American woman has done before.

“For me, I feel like after 20 years of running, it will be great to culminate with success in the Olympics one more time,” she told Austin Woman in May, less than two months before the Olympic trials. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

Following the announcement of her impending retirement, adoration and admiration flooded in from her compatriots and contemporaries.  

“I was in a press conference with a couple of my teammates, Justin Gatlin and Carmelita Jeter and Natasha Hastings, and one of the reporters asked them to say a few things on my retirement,” remembers Richards- Ross. “Justin was so gracious to say how he’s admired my career for so long, from [the University of Texas] until now, and the impact I’ve had on the sport, both on and off the track, and just how much they’re going to miss me on the track. I got a little bit emotional. … Many of my teammates came up and told me how much they’ve admired and respected me over the years, and wished me well this season. That meant a lot for me.”

Though easy to link Richards-Ross’ public persona back to those colossal athletic achievements, her friends, family and fans know she has plenty of plans beyond the track.

While at the University of Texas, then Sanya Richards met her future husband, Aaron Ross. A gifted athlete himself, Ross played cornerback for the 2005 National Champion Texas Longhorns football team, received the 2006 Jim Thorpe Award, which honors the nation’s best collegiate defensive back, and went on to win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Together, the pair embodies a modern-day power couple, with Ross proudly acknowledging where he stands in certain friendly, athletic, husband-wife competitions.

“To be honest, I think I’m faster in the [40-yard dash], but anything after that, she has it,” Ross told the NFL Network in 2012. “In the 40, I can get her. In the 100, I might need to lean at the line. In the 200, I’m pretty sure she’ll beat me. And in the 400, she’ll murder me. I wouldn’t even bother getting on the track.”

The couple married in 2010 in Austin, but their plans for a life together had taken seed years before.

“After Ross became professional, in 2006 or in 2007, his first year in New York, even when we bought a place in New York, we realized we never wanted to give up our home in Austin,” says Richards-Ross, who endearingly calls her husband by his last name. “I think we decided then that Austin would always be our home. … For sure, by 2012, we had a couple of discussions about the fact that we wanted to raise our family in Austin. My sister lives in Austin, my mom and dad moved from Florida and came to Austin, Ross’ family lives in Pflugerville… and so, we’re all so close.”

The city that bleeds burnt orange loves to praise members of its extended Texas Longhorn athletics family, especially those who have chosen to call Austin home. For Richards-Ross, the feeling is mutual.

“When I first came to Austin (I’ll never forget my visit.), I was on campus and around campus, and everyone said hi. There was this kind of down South, warm feeling where people were just so friendly. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about Austin. I feel like it’s a city, but it doesn’t feel like New York City. It’s not fast-paced, but you can get everything you need. You can go down to Lake Travis and Zilker Park,” says Richards- Ross, who lucky bystanders can sometimes spot running around Lady Bird Lake. “There’s so many things you can do that just feel like, even though you’re in a city, you’re also in this great town with great people. Of course, the food is amazing. You can go listen to great music down on Sixth Street, and we’ve heard great poetry here. There’s just everything here. If you look for it, you can find it. That’s what I love.”

Though Austin, parodied at times for its uber laid-back reputation, plays a central role in the couple’s retirement plans, their post-athletic-careers lifestyle is anything but relaxed.

In 2009, Richards-Ross and her sister, Shari Richards, opened The Hair Clinic, a multicultural salon located just north of the University of Texas campus. In 2015, she and Ross formed Ross Elite Chauffeur Service, a luxury limo service that serves Austin and surrounding areas.

The friendliness Richards-Ross first experienced as a college student in Austin translated into a welcoming, supportive business climate.

“We felt that [support] within a year or so [of opening The Hair Clinic]. It’s just been amazing,” Richards-Ross says. “I think one thing that’s really true to Austin is that the community does support local business. People want to support you, and they want to see you be successful. Ross Elite is new. We’ve just started doing some marketing to really get our name out there, and I’m pretty sure within the next six months or so, when people become really aware that we’re here, that they will support us even more. There’s always been tremendous support. I [don’t think] it matters who you are, and you don’t have to be somewhat of a celebrity or an athlete, or anything like that. I think Austinites want to support local business and that’s what makes this city special and makes the people of Austin so special too.”

Obviously, what Richards-Ross and her husband consider retirement exceeds the common standards of many silver-haired empty nesters. However, true to the essence of planning for life’s next phase, Richards- Ross has been studious and thoughtful in her preparation. Involved in the conception of both The Hair Clinic and Ross Elite well before the end of her track career, she will now have time to take part in her own plans.

“It’s nice to be able to have those ideas and then to be able to execute something and see it come to life,” Richards-Ross says. “I really do enjoy the marketing side of business and the management side of business. Thank God my husband likes to take care of the financial side because that’s not my strength. Tracking every dollar and making sure that we’re being smart with the money, that’s what my husband does really well. For me, it’s about how can we grow? What does our branding look like? How do people perceive the company? How can we make sure that we meet those standards once we put those standards out there?”

As a budding entrepreneur, Richards- Ross has also become familiar with the dynamics of running not one, but two family businesses, operating Ross Elite with her husband and The Hair Clinic with her sister, and relying on the support of her family to complement her own strengths.

“Sanya is the ideal older sibling and has always been my best friend. She’s loyal. She looks out for me and my happiness,” Shari Richards says. “As a business partner, she is the voice of reason, so business-minded. She makes sure the business stays on track, commits to all aspects of the business, like the PR and advertising, which makes us the perfect balance.”

Teamwork is nothing new for Richards- Ross, who has found it paramount to her success as an athlete.

“I think that in order to do anything great, you have to have a great supporting cast. That’s what I’ve been very blessed with when it comes to my family,” Richards-Ross says. “I think it’s important when you have a goal to find people who have the skill sets that could help you accomplish your goals and then relinquish those roles and have faith that they’ll get it done. It’s not just to find people, but to empower them and trust that they’ll do a great job. When you have that, it all comes together. It makes everything run smoothly and allows you to be successful. I think it’s very, very important to find people who love you, support you and who want to be a part of your team because they see the potential and also want to be a part of your success.”

As a competitive short-distance runner, Richards-Ross found those outside skill sets in her training team, which included Coach Clyde Hart, who had also coached Michael Johnson, the gold-shoe-wearing American sprinter and Hall of Famer.

“When I found Coach Clyde Hart, he had coached Michael Johnson and Jeremy [Wariner] to successes. I knew that he had the skill set to help me be great. I got him on my team,” says Richards- Ross with more than a hint of gratefulness. “I have a full-time physio who is phenomenal and great at what he does, and helps me to be healthy. I have a great strength coach that I started working with at the University of Texas who just knows me and is able to help me to be strong. I have a great sports psychologist because it’s as important for me to train my mind as it is to train my body.”

That Richards-Ross would assemble a small, dedicated coaching staff is common for an athlete of her caliber aiming to be the best. Her team implemented an acute strength-and-conditioning plan, which included doing 1,000 situps four to five times a week, and emphasized to Richards-Ross the value of hard work, whether in the weight room or the boardroom.

“I think sports has been one of my greatest teachers. I think it teaches you discipline, teaches you how to overcome failures and disappointments. It gives you self-confidence,” says Richards-Ross, who remembers moving from Jamaica to Florida when she was in middle school—already an awkward time—with a thick accent, and didn’t feel like she belonged.

“Of course, when I started running, I was so good and then everyone loved me,” she laughs. While Richards-Ross is certainly not the first person to extol the benefits of sports in other professional endeavors, her description of the intensity of her training regimen is a plain reminder of how similar the pressures of competition are to the struggles of everyday life.

“It’s not grueling in the sense of it’s really, really hard,” she says of those unremitting, 1,000-a-day situps. “It’s just making that commitment to doing them every day and finding the time.”

Prioritizing time for what matters will continue to factor into Richards- Ross’ teeming “retirement” calendar, which is nothing if not constantly brimming with blueprints for business ventures and philanthropic projects in Austin and beyond. She believes in and supports many local and nationwide causes that range from childhood literacy to combatting worldwide malnutrition to uplifting underserved communities.

In February 2016, Richards-Ross and Ross hosted their second annual Black Excellence Tribute, an artistic showcase that celebrates African-American achievements throughout the community.

“Ross and I always wanted to do something that was based on empowerment and enlightenment,” Richards-Ross says. “We love music and we love poetry and we love dance. We made this event to support local and national black artists who may not have opportunities to perform. We wanted to give them a platform to be able to perform.”

The annual event also supports a local organization each year. In 2016, it supported the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, which offers mentorship and other free resources to at-risk kids in an effort to help them become self-sufficient members of the community.

“Especially for a young black boy or a young black girl who may not have support, we want them to see us and see other people like us who have made a plan, stuck with it, who are great citizens in the community,” Richards-Ross says. “We want to inspire them to be great. That’s why it’s important to us, because we want to give back in a positive way.”

When asked about the causes she cares about most, like kids and education and the importance of role models, Richards-Ross speaks with passion and purpose, each word a step forward in what she sees as a path to success.

“One of the reasons that our kids who are in underserved communities aren’t successful is because they don’t see success. I think in order to be successful, first, you have to see it, believe it, and then you have to go after it. If a kid is never exposed to, or has never heard of a neurologist, [then he or she] can never aspire to be it,” she says, resolutely. “A lot of times, those kids just don’t have any idea that there are opportunities out there. You can turn what you love, your passion, into a life, into your lifestyle and into a way of making money. We want them to see role models, not just us, not just the rappers, not just the images that they see, but other successful individuals so that they can see it and then believe it, and then hopefully achieve it.”

Richards-Ross practices what she preaches. All of the advice she gives out, like creating vision boards and setting goals and finding inspiration through faith, she follows herself. This spring, Richards- Ross organized her third Prom Glam, a mentoring program designed to empower teenage girls to be the best they can be. Fittingly, its crowning glory comes in the form of a trip to the salon on the day of prom for the full hair-and-makeup treatment, plus a limo ride to the party itself.

“We select phenomenal young ladies who have great grades, have 100 percent attendance at school and have done community service. I sit with them and do a vision board [and talk about the] importance of seeing their goals, thinking through their goals and then starting the process of moving toward achieving [their goals],” she says.

Even though it’s still a small program, Richards-Ross insists there is no such thing as too small.

“Last year, one of the girls asked me why I do this,” Richards-Ross says, pride bubbling in her voice. “I explained to them, I said, ‘I just want you to know when you work hard, you never know where your reward is going to come from.’ I just want those young girls to know that they earned it. They’re the ones that did the work, even though they didn’t know that they would be rewarded. They worked really hard and their teachers selected them. I’m very passionate about young girls and empowering young girls to be great, and to believe in us and believe in themselves.”

Inspiration, belief and faith have steadily shaped Richards- Ross’ life, both personally and as it is seen to the public. She is forthcoming with her loyal throng of social-media followers, posting glimpses into her life with family and friends, snapshots of her latest and greatest running swag, tributes to fellow athletes, race-day photos and images of inspirational quotes and Bible verses.

“I try every morning, even if it’s just 30 minutes, to meditate on the word, do a little Bible study and just stay still for a moment and say my prayers. I think, a lot of time…the things that I do in the morning really help to set the tone for my day,” Richards-Ross says. “[My spiritual time] helps me to have inspiration throughout the day. I share it on social media because I feel like there are so many things that draw us down, or that are negative or distractions. I just want to be a little bit of light in the world if I can and encourage people.”

Time and again, a deep-rooted pillar of faith has braced Richards- Ross through toils and troubles, her past couple injury-riddled seasons being no exception.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and that God is in control of my path. That’s the main way I’m able to get through it and keep pushing, and try to learn my lessons along the way,” she says. “Then, of course, I just have great family and a great support staff, and a supportive team that shows me a lot of love and encourages me on the days that I feel like I just can’t make it, or that I’m overwhelmed by the pain or discomfort I’m in. I’ve been very lucky to have them around me.”

Back at Hayward Field, Richards- Ross lunges forward as the gun goes off on her Olympic-qualifying race. To educated spectators, hers is a slow, tentative start. For a give-or-take, 50-second race, every move, every millisecond is significant. For the first quarter of the race, the commentators plead for something magical—a miraculous burst of speed or change in form, anything—to halt what almost instantly looks to be the end of an era.

After 30 seconds, Richards-Ross pulls up, and everyone in this track town knows what it is. Her hamstring has locked up, that heavy, clamped-down pain all too familiar. Richards-Ross does not finish her qualifying heat, and all of a sudden, early retirement is a reality.

She walks down the track, breathing heavily. As she nears the stands, the sound of clapping crescendos and shouts of “We love you, Sanya,” erupt from the bleachers. Richards-Ross lifts her head and rolls into a light jog, waving to the crowd, blowing them kisses. For just a moment, she looks sad, as though she is exhausting every hard-earned muscle in her body to hold back something.

A sideline reporter greets her mid-jog, asking her to describe her feelings. She admits that the moment is tough, yet she takes nothing for granted.

“I’m grateful for an amazing career and amazing fan support, and I’m excited for the next chapter of my life,” she tells him, adding that her next chapter might also include broadcasting, working on a book and starting a family, to which she smiles, still slightly out of breath.

When asked what he loves most about his wife, Aaron Ross told Austin Woman, “I love that she’s God-fearing, beautiful, intelligent, charismatic. But most of all, I love how pure her heart and intentions are.”

In no other moment has his adoring praise more perfectly echoed the gracious, genial attitude that has garnered Richards-Ross countless admirers in Austin and throughout the world.

Despite a time of “did not finish” in her final track race, the reporter offers her a sincere, hearty congratulation. She did not win. She did not finish. Yet, he knows what we all know.

Sanya Richards-Ross may not have finished this race. She might not be going back to the Olympics. But in this historic place that has witnessed the greatest of the greats, we know this is far from her last lap.  

 

Photos by Erick Robinson.


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