Healthy again, Sanya Richards...

Healthy again, Sanya Richards gunning for 400 meters gold
AP Sports Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — For Sanya Richards, 2007 was a disappointment even though she dominated most of her competition.

The top women’s 400 meters runner in the world, illness dashed her hopes winning the world championship in Japan, a bitter blow that only intensified when she recovered and swamped her competition in races later in the year.

With the Beijing Olympics fast approaching, Richards says she’s healthy now and is determined to claim the gold medal on the world’s biggest stage for track.

“This is what I’ve been training for all my life, to go to Beijing as the favorite,” Richards said Thursday at the Texas Relays. “I really want this gold medal. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t get it.”

Richards ran the four fastest times in the world last year. At 23, she’s an emerging American star in a sport in need of one after Marion Jones’ stunning fall from grace and prison sentence for lying to investigators about using performance enhancing drugs.

She won Olympic gold with the American 1,600-relay team in Athens in 2004 when she was still in college at the University of Texas. Her turned pro shortly afterward and quickly developed into one of the top individual sprinters in the world. By 2006, she was track’s world female athlete of the year.

Her coach is Clyde Hart, who tutored world record holder Michael Johnson and defending Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner. Hart predicted big things for Richards this year.

“I think she’s probably better (now) than she’s been since I’ve had her,” Hart said. “Sanya is very much like Michael Johnson, very focused. They approach it with a very aggressive attitude. That’s what separates them from other runners.”

The world championship would have been her biggest individual prize, but that dream was crushed by her first bout with Behcet’s (pronounced beh-CHETS) syndrome.

The disease is a rare disorder that causes chronic inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body. It first erupted in Richards in March 2007, causing painful ulcers in her mouth and on her legs. They were so bad, there were times she couldn’t talk, eat or stretch to run and she dropped out of several competitions.

She went to a series of doctors before an infectious disease specialist finally diagnosed an illness most commonly found in men from Asia, Turkey and the Middle East. It is very rare in black women.

“It was a struggle. We didn’t know what to do,” said her mother Sharon, who is also Richards’ manager. “It was very, very tough.”

The disease and medication left her tired and it was difficult to run on consecutive days. Richards made it through the early rounds of the American national championships, then stunningly finished fourth in the final to miss her chance for the worlds.

It was the only 400 she lost last year.

While she managed to qualify in the 200 meters, she did not medal in that event in Japan. She did qualify and win with the 1,600-relay team, but was frustrated at missing out in her signature event.

She recovered well enough to dominate the 400 in the late part of the outdoor season. She beat all the world championships medalists less than a month later at the World Athletics Final in Germany. Her time of 49.27 seconds matched her fastest time in the world last year.

The win also stirred an extra fire to get the gold in Beijing.

“It was frustrating to win all those races after the (U.S championships) and to not have had a chance to win the worlds,” Richards said. “Everything is heightened this season. I’m really anxious to get on the track this year.”

Now she has to stay healthy.

Richards’ doctors told her they can’t predict whether the disease will flare up again. It could stay in remission forever. She’s been symptom-free for four months and adjusted her diet and medication to help keep it under control.

“I feel great,” she said. “I think my hard work is going to pay off this year.”

With no open 400 meters at the college meet this weekend, Richards plans to run the 400- and 1,600-relays as she starts to work into shape for Olympic qualifying.

She also has been juggling her track with a whirlwind personal life. Her fiancee, Aaron Ross, was a rookie cornerback for the New York Giants last season and she was at the Super Bowl when the Giants won.

They are putting off their wedding until 2010, Richards said, giving her time to concentrate on the Olympics before she spends a year planning a Texas-sized ceremony.

If it’s anything like her 7-carat diamond engagement ring, it should be a whopper.

“It’s going to be huge,” she said.