‘To go from being healthy to having this very rare disease was scary’
Sanya Richards-Ross has had a busy year after winning the 400m world title and getting married, but stress hurts people suffering from Behcet’s disease
Anna Kessel The Observer, Sunday 23 May 2010
Sanya Richards-Ross wearily opens the door to her physiotherapist’s office in Zurich. An enormous diamond-studded wedding ring illuminates her left hand, but her usually bright smile is faded. The 25-year-old world champion is suffering from a flare-up of Behcet’s disease – a rare condition that causes ulcers and lesions of the skin – which has disturbed her career since it was first diagnosed in 2007.
“You know this is my worst bout with it going into this season,” the Jamaica-born athlete says, shaking her head. "I think it’s going to become a little more noticeable this year so I’ll probably be wearing sleeves and stuff. I don’t know if you remember but a couple seasons ago I ran in sleeves – it wasn’t a fashion statement it actually was to cover the lesions on my skin.
“You know with what I do I have to strip down, so I wear a lot of skin make-up to cover it. But it’s a psychological distraction, an hour before the race, to have to go and do all that work.”
Paradoxically the flare-up has coincided with perhaps the greatest 12 months of her life, in which she finally won a global individual title and, in February, married her college sweetheart, the New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross. The two met at the University of Texas when Aaron noticed her at a track meet. “He went home and told his mom: ‘That’s the girl I want to date.’” They got together the following year and have been a couple ever since. But, she says, the stress of organising the wedding contributed to the flare-ups.
“Oh yeah, it was bad,” she says. “My husband and I had the best time, but it’s so stressful having a wedding. I had a really, really bad flare before my wedding so I had to have full body make-up on the day. My veil also helped, too, and I wore it all night [miming how it covered her shoulders, see below] so you wouldn’t see as much. That helped a lot but it was just annoying to have to go through that.”
As an elite athlete who is known for doing 1,500 abdominal crunches per day, Richards-Ross should not have been a bride who needed to worry about her weight, but she prods her cheeks disparagingly at the subject. “You know my medication actually means that I retain weight. On the day of my wedding I was like: ‘Oh my face looks fat!’ I actually did struggle with that. When I have the flare-ups I have to up my medication so my face usually gets a little bit fatter.”
Richards-Ross moved to the US aged 12 after her parents decided it would give their children better opportunities. But the transition was not easy. “When they first told us my sister and I were like: ‘No, we’re not going, you can leave us here!’” At school in Florida Richards-Ross’s accent marked her out from the other kids in her class. “I remember I had to stand up and read a paper and everyone was staring, they kept saying: ‘Say that again!’ I went home and practised an American accent until I nailed it. My parents were like, ‘who are you?’ My sister says when I try to speak Jamaican now I sound like I’m faking.”
To the British public Richards-Ross is known as the athlete who dethroned Christine Ohuruogu at the world championships last summer. For those in the sport, that victory – her first major individual title – was a long time coming for the fastest 400m runner the world has seen in more than a decade.
On paper it was always a no-brainer – Richards-Ross is consistently faster than Ohuruogu, her personal best of 48.70 is almost a second quicker than the Briton’s 49.61. So what was holding her back? The media said she “bottled it” at major events. Publicly Richards-Ross blamed herself for wanting it too much, but there was always more to it than that.
In 2007, the year that Ohuruogu won at the world championships in Osaka, Richards-Ross was diagnosed with Behcet’s. By the time the US trials came around she was so badly affected with ulcers in her mouth and on her lips that she had difficulty talking and was forced to write notes to communicate with her coach, Clyde Hart. Training was so painful that Hart, the man who coached Michael Johnson to double Olympic glory, gave her paper cups to bite down on to prevent her teeth from scraping the insides of her mouth. Yet despite fatigue, sickness, joint pains and skin lesions, Richards-Ross insisted on training for the US national trials, but a fourth-place finish ended her hopes of a podium place that season.
“It was hard,” Richards-Ross says remembering that period. “For all of my life I’d been extremely healthy. I’d never had any health issues, so to go from being perfectly healthy to having this very rare disease was scary. In a lot of people it is very severe. Some people go blind, you can have neuro-lesions which affect your brain, so I was very nervous.”
Doctors put Richards-Ross on medication, but the side-effects of the antibiotics did not suit a world-class athlete. “Sometimes I say the medication is even tougher than the illness. I come off it from time to time because I think: ‘I know I could run faster if I wasn’t on this stupid medication!’ I have tried other ways – gluten-free diets, sugar-free, all of that. But because of what I do if I don’t have certain foods I feel more lethargic when I train.”
Still the effects of the disease – both physical and psychological – rumbled on. In 2008, when Richards-Ross hoped that she could claim her first Olympic title, she gave away a seemingly unassailable lead in the Beijing final, reacting to a hamstring pull on the last bend and allowing Ohuruogu to steamroller her way through to the finish line.
“That was the worst moment for me. It was the Olympic Games and the whole world was watching. I had won every other race that season and every other year except for the majors.”
While onlookers struggled to make sense of why Richards-Ross could perform so well in grand prix meetings yet fail when it came to major championships, Behcet’s provided some answers. “The fatigue factor made running rounds much more difficult for me than other athletes, so in one-off races I’d always feel great because I had a week to recover but in major competitions I’d struggle.” At the time Richards-Ross kept quiet. “I didn’t want to make excuses, you know how people can be. A lot of times in sport if you try to tell the truth it seems like an excuse.”
The difference last year, she says, was a mental attitude and Usain Bolt, a man she counts as a friend and with whom she links up on visits back to Jamaica. “Really, I watched him and saw him having fun and it was so inspiring. When I was younger and won all those meets I wasn’t thinking: ‘I have to get this medal.’ So I just let go and it really paid off. Now instead of a lot of bad memories I have one great memory.”
Back at the hotel in Berlin, Richards-Ross’s family celebrated doing the soul train, but there was one person missing – Aaron. “It’s one thing that really upsets me,” she says now. “My husband can never come to my major meets because August is when they’re in their mandatory NFL training camps.”
She pauses and then, eyes twinkling, reveals a plan. “I’ve been working on his coach to ask if he can come out to London in 2012, though. If he could just fly out for the final, that would be the best.”
Richards-Ross has already impressed the Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, who went so far as to invite her to speak to the team following her world title win. “You know American football is very private. When they’re having practice no one’s allowed to come, it’s like top-secret stuff. But after the Olympics, the head coach actually had me in to speak to the team and it was a huge honour because no player’s wife has ever, ever been to practice before. That’s never happened.” She beams.
The couple have become something of a Posh and Becks in the United States. Richards-Ross screws up her face, “What does that mean? Oh, Victoria? Cool, I like that. Actually in the States they call us the sporting Beyoncé and Jay-Z,” she adds. “I like that one, too.”
The pair work out in the gym at home together, but Aaron has learned to avoid any offers to share her track drills.
“In football they never run more than 40 yards aggressively. He used to try and do my 200s with me, but he’d get one or two and then he’d be like [mimics panting]: ‘I’ll catch you when you get back over here.’”
It must be pretty cool to be a better runner than your husband. “Yeah!” she says, “I think so.”
It helps if you have also proved you are the best in the world. Now that Richards-Ross has finally reached the top, you have to wonder if anyone can stop her.