Sanya Richards – no cutting corners as she seeks ultimate Olympic goal

Sanya Richards – no cutting corners as she seeks ultimate Olympic goal

Wednesday 7 April 2004

At any NCAA Championship, many athletes are often very busy. Among the busiest at last month’s indoor finale in Fayetteville, USA was Sanya Richards, and not surprisingly, she was by far the most successful.

On Day One, the Texas sophomore finished runner-up in the 200m, clocking a World junior best of 22.49, to end the indoor season as the second fastest athlete in the world. On day Two, she sped to a 50.82 win in the 400, the fourth quickest in the world this year, the fastest by an American, and her third World Junior indoor best in less than a month. For good measure, she contributed a 50.2 anchor leg for the victorious 4x400 relay squad.

Perhaps most pleasing to American sprint fans is that Richards is barely 19-years-old.

“Happiest 18-year-old in the world”

Richards burst into national prominence last June after her 50.58/51.01 NCAA and U.S. National Championship win on consecutive weekends. She would later make the world take note when she held off Russian Natalya Nazarova in Paris while anchoring the U.S. quartet to gold in the 4x400 relay. As she crossed the finish line with her baton-wielding arm stretched to the sky, her smile of exhilaration radiated across the globe. She was arguably the happiest 18-year-old in the world last 31 August.

“I always try to downplay each competition so I don’t get overwhelmed by the meaning of the championships," she said of her two domestic titles. “But now when I look back and actually have those titles, and being compared to somebody like Jearl Miles-Clark who had won before, it’s a huge honour, and I was really excited to be able to be training to be at the perfect point to win those track meets.”

But that’s all behind her. “Now,” the teenager says, "I look forward to doing similar things this year.”

Early start, and at home in her native land

She began competing in track at age seven in primary school in her native Kingston, Jamaica, a sprint career that would later blossom into one of the finest U.S. high school careers ever while attending St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Pembroke Pines, Florida, where she moved with her parents when she was 12.

She ended her prep career as the national high school record holder in the 200m (23.22) and 400m (52.10) indoors, and exploded to a 50.69 performance to win the 2002 national junior title in the 400m outdoors, a U.S. junior record, and the seventh-fastest time in the world that year.

In a homecoming of sorts, she followed up with a silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Kingston.

“That was a little crazy at first,” she remembers. “I wasn’t sure how I would be received by Jamaicans.” But with dozens of old friends in the stands and her love for her native land, she soon became a crowd favourite. “It was awesome.”

Parental guidance

She enthusiastically credits the support of her parents for much of her success. Indeed, Newton and Sharon Richards can be likened to an in-house support staff that would leave many other athletes envious. Her father, a former member of Jamaica’s national soccer team, helped instill core athletic principles, she said, and with teaching her how to maintain her focus. Her mother, who owned and operated a gym in Kingston, has guided her conditioning, and has always overseen the nutritional aspect of things.

“They were both an integral part,” said Richards. “That’s the way they kind of molded me into the athlete that I am today. That’s why I was so successful in high school.”

She didn’t begin to focus on the 400 until her final year of high school, yet her success was immediate. Young sprinters aren’t generally eager to move up from the short sprints to the full lap. That too, came courtesy of her father.

“My dad kind of tricked me into it,” she remembers, laughing. “He said that Marion [Jones] trains by running some 400’s to help her 100 and 200 speed, So I said, ‘Okay, I can run this one or two times like Marion does.’ I ran well, and it kind of went from there.”

Baptism of fire on senior circuit

Following her domestic success last summer, she warmed up for the World Championships with a three-meet series, which, apropos for a young student, can be summed up as a solid learning experience. But at first, she said, her initial experience at the sport’s elite level was one of pure disappointment.

After a strong start, she faded to third at the Norwich Union Super Grand Prix in London, clocking 51.03. No other junior last year ran within a second and a half of that performance, but Richards said she let her own high expectations get the better of her.

“I let that have too much of an affect on me. I felt like I had been training so hard during the break from nationals that I was hoping to be able to run in the 50’s. The devastation I felt from that meet kind of carried over. I was so disappointed with myself that I didn’t get out of that rut until it was too late. I wished I would have known then that it takes a while to get adjusted. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I made.”

But valuable experience

Looking back now, the experience she gained was invaluable. “It’s a totally different thing being over there than it is racing here in the collegiate scene, or even at the US championships. It’s a lot more intensely focused. Actually being able to train while you’re over there, and knowing what to do in preparation for a meet like that. It’s all very different. I’m looking forward to going back, or whenever I’m a pro, and that being my job, and being able to master that.”

Two days after London, she finished third again at the Berlin leg of the Golden League (51.26), and sixth at Zurich’s Weltklasse in 51.15.

The latter is a memory she relishes. “It was like a football or basketball game,” she said of the vocal sell-out crowd. “They were so enthusiastic. It was really nice to be around so many knowledgeable people and who really enjoy the sport.”

World relay gold in Paris

She advanced to the semis at the World Championships, missing a spot in the final by just 24 one-hundredths of a second. On the final day of competition, just a little more than a year after being honoured as the top high school athlete in the U.S., came her golden anchor leg in the 4x400.

“That’s one race I honestly actually can’t remember running,” she said, laughing again. “I remember staying on the line and getting the stick. Only when I watch it can I actually remember running in that race. I didn’t feel any of the people behind me. I was just running my butt off trying to bring the stick around first, and was so excited when I did.”

Geared towards making the Olympic team

With Athens penciled in on the agenda, 2004 is an even bigger year. But Richards isn’t planning on cutting any corners to get there. While the Big-12 Conference championship meet kept her from competing at the U.S. Championships indoors, thus missing a chance to compete in Budapest, she views her university commitment as a strong stepping stone towards an eventual appearance on the Olympic stage.

“Thank God my coach and my dad are on the same page that the Olympics are definitely my ultimate goal,” Richards said of her spring and summer plans. “As [coach] Bev [Kearney] always says, in order to make the Olympic team, it kind of goes hand-in-hand that I should be NCAA champion. So I don’t have to focus on being NCAA champion. I think that my training is geared towards making the Olympic team. The NCAA’s will kind of just be a fun meet where I can hopefully come out victorious there.”

She expects a lighter competitive load than last year, and seemed a little disappointed that the World Junior Championships coincide with July’s U.S. Olympic Trials. “I was second last time, so it would have been nice to go for another medal there.” This year there are other priorities besides another medal in an already crowded mantle. “I’m definitely geared towards making the Olympic team.”

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF