Sanya Richards - profile

World Athlete of the Year Sanya Richards aims at being the Best Ever - IAAF Magazine
Monday 5 February 2007
Undefeated at 400m since the Moscow World Indoor Championships, winner of the Golden League Jackpot and now holder of the American record, Sanya Richards has established herself as a true force of women’s athletics. To top it all, the young woman who was awarded the 2006 World Athlete of the Year award has also the personality of a winner!

By Ed Gordon

The setting was Zürich, at the fabled Letzigrund Stadium, on a mid-August evening in 2005. Sanya Richards stood at the starting line in the women’s 400 metres in her first-ever appearance at the Weltklasse meeting.

The American glanced over to the lane immediately to her outside for a quick look at Tonique Williams-Darling, her Bahamian rival who nine days earlier had captured a dramatic come-from-behind victory at the Helsinki World Championships to go along with her Olympic gold medal. Many pundits had tipped Richards as the favourite, but Darling had ended up as the darling of Helsinki.

Now, with the remainder of the invitational season at hand, the mental and physical fatigue after Helsinki was a common bond among the runners. For Richards, the disqualification of the US 4x400m relay unexpectedly augmented her planned four days of rest to eight. But the steady, hard summer rain pelting the runners this night in Zürich did nothing to inject a positive atmosphere into the race.

Richards ran a strong opening curve and took the lead down the backstretch. But as the runners entered the final bend, it looked like another Darling win was unfolding, as the new World champion began to pull far ahead.

Midway through the turn, Richards started a comeback, and in the final straight the American moved even with Darling and then shot boldly ahead with about forty metres to go. At that moment, her victory was secure, and Richards’ winning time of 48.92 came as a supreme bonus as she avenged her World Championships loss.

It was a defining moment in the career of the 20-year-old. Not only did she become the youngest woman in history to circle a stadium in less than 49 seconds, but she also immediately set her sights on greater goals.

“I was disappointed last year before Zürich that I didn’t pull off a win at the World Championships,” recalled Richards, “so I wasn’t really mentally fatigued. At that point, I was even more inspired and motivated to win the rest of my races after that.”

Not coincidentally, that soggy night started Richards on a string of one-lap outdoor wins which, at 16, is still unbroken.

Now a very mature 21-year-old, Richards has further enhanced her resumé with accomplishments coming late in the 2006 season. At the IAAF World Athletics Final in Stuttgart, she won the 400m as expected, but she also added a PB 22.17 in placing second in the 200m.

One week later, a win in the 200m at the IAAF World Cup in Athens followed her astounding 48.70 victory in the 400m. The latter performance broke the 21-year-old American record (48.83) of Valerie Brisco in winning the 1984 Olympic gold and was the fastest clocking since the Atlanta Games in 1996.

After her Zürich breakthrough in 2005, the fossilized American record had frequently been on Richards’ mind in 2006, especially as the season drew to a close and opportunities became scarce. “It was definitely my goal going into the race [in Athens],” she admits. “I thought I could get it earlier in the season, but I kept making errors in my races. I was going to give it all I had. I figured that if I didn’t get it, then at least I gave my best effort.”

Ironically, that landmark race was one of the few not witnessed by her coach for the past two years, Clyde Hart, who had to return to his Texas home after the Stuttgart competition. But he had left notes for Richards to follow.

“On the bus going to the stadium in Stuttgart, I wrote ‘48.6’ on a card, and I broke it down into its components,” said Hart. “I told her that if she executed, she could do it. Of course, she didn’t get it done in Stuttgart, but I wasn’t surprised that it came in Athens.” He still was able to watch the memorable performance by way of a web-cast. Such are the perks of being a coach in the cyber-age.

With the pressure of the Golden League now behind her, Richards could finally compete more relaxed. “And since she had run so much already, we rested her a bit more before Stuttgart and Athens. I think it paid off,” her coach added.

Even Sanya’s father, ex-footballer Archie Richards, had preached relaxation to her after having previously observed his daughter habitually watching the finish-line clock at the end of her races. “My dad told me to focus only on the finish and not on the clock, and that I would be surprised with the time. That’s what I did in Athens, and it worked out,” she said.

Far from being archetypical doting parents, Archie and Sharon Richards still gave parental encouragement by presenting their older daughter with opportunities for developing her talent ever since those early days in Kingston when Sanya’s superiority became evident.

“In Jamaica, we have an annual sports day,” recalled Sharon. “Kids as young as four or five line-up, and they just run. Sanya started competing in this when she was about five, and she would win all her races. When she reached age seven, we realized she could really run because she was also beating the boys in her age group. Even back then, my husband and I knew we had a ‘winner’.”

Sanya’s years at the well-known Vaz Preparatory School brought her into a fully-structured sports programme at age five. By age 11, she had moved on to Immaculate Conception School, which at that time had only an embryonic programme devoted to sports.

“In those years, Sanya was trying all the events, and she broke her arm trying to high jump,” recalled her mother. “That was about the time we moved to the United States.”

With a sister already established in south Florida, Sharon was encouraged to emigrate with her family from Kingston. “The move was partly because of Sanya’s aptitude in sports, but also because she had already started in the Catholic school system in Jamaica,” she explained. “In this way, Sanya, along with her younger sister, could make a smooth transition to a school in Florida before they became too settled socially into high school in Jamaica.”

The lucky school benefiting from Sanya’s arrival was St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, a short distance north of Miami. By the time she had finished there, John Guarino had coached her to the American junior record in the 400m. For this and other accomplishments, Sanya was named US Women’s High School Athlete of the year in her final season.

Richards then joined the high-profile programme at the University of Texas at Austin under the tutelage of Beverly Kearney. Her times continued to drop, and within two seasons - while she was still a junior age-wise - she won an NCAA title and lowered the US junior record another five times, the final instance coming in her 49.89 second-place finish at the Olympic Trials to earn a place on the Athens team.

But it was not all roses for Richards during that Olympic year of 2004. In attempting to defend the NCAA title she had won the previous year, she finished only third—especially disappointing as the competition was held on her home track in Austin. And although she later reached the Olympic final, her sixth-place finish was not exactly satisfying.

Sanya abruptly ended her season after Athens and returned home to her family. It was the end of an exhausting year which had begun on 17 January and continued until 24 August. Thirty-six times she went into the blocks during that period - in races at 60, 100, 200 and 400 metres - plus numerous other times in both relays.

In retrospect, Richards was paying the price for her versatility. “She was running too many races at the collegiate level,” recounts Sharon, who now manages her daughter’s sports career. “My husband and I felt that Sanya had matured enough and had gained enough information during her two years at Texas that she was ready for the next level. We thought it would be to her advantage to forego her final two university years and to turn professional early, to eliminate lots of races as well as the risk of becoming burned out early.”

Richards concurred with her parents’ suggestion, adding that she wanted to be “absolutely the best in the 400 metres”. With this goal in mind, the family did not need to go far to find a mentor for that next big step. Semi-retired from his duties as head coach at Baylor University, Hart lived only 90 minutes from Richards’ university residence in Austin, and he readily agreed to discuss the proposition with them, even though his prior success at the elite level had primarily been with male runners, most notably Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner, both Olympic champions.

“I suggested that we give it a year because I was not certain this would be the answer for her,” recalled Hart. “She felt as if she had not done as well in the Olympics as she wanted, and earlier she had not fulfilled her expectations as the favourite in the NCAA championships. She would run fast at times, but she fluctuated too much. That is why our initial goal was to improve her consistency.”

Richards responded immediately to Hart’s training programme in that first season which culminated in her brilliant, career-changing PB in Zürich. “This year [2006], our goal was to work on her 200m, and she had five times faster than her previous PB,” he noted with pride.

Now that the American record is part of her resumé, Sanya has had time to ruminate on the remaining hurdle on her statistics list, the 21-year-old World mark of 47.60 by Marita Koch of GDR at the 1985 IAAF World Cup in Canberra, a performance which came only eight months after Richards was born.

Sub-49 territory itself is still a rarefied one in the women’s 400m, and sub-48s are almost never encountered. Since Koch first broke the 49-second barrier in winning the 1978 European Championships, it has been done on only 34 other occasions in the intervening 28 years. And only twice has a time under 48 been recorded.

Still, Richards does not cower when her thoughts turn to this ambitious challenge.

“I think the World record is breakable,” she firmly admits. “Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have said that. When I break the race down and analyze how she [Koch] ran it - 22 seconds, followed by 25 seconds - then I can relate to it because I’ve finished in 25 consistently for the past two years.”

But Richards quickly adds that she needs to get faster in the opening 200m in order to reach 22 seconds comfortably. “I hope that running lots of 200s in the next few seasons will help me get into that feeling of a quick opening.”

Hart’s view, at the moment, is decidedly more conservative. “I thought the American record was very realistic, but I don’t think the World record is, not at the moment,” he said. “She will have to get much stronger, and that takes time if it is done the natural way. Sanya is young and I do think she has the talent to get it, but it’s going to take lots of work in the weight room and on the track. Strength and speed are synonymous.”

With a gruelling season behind her, and the knowledge that the “pressure cooker” known as the Golden League will likely not reappear for her until after the Bejing Olympics, Sanya has had time once again to relax with old friends before training began anew.

“6 November,” she says, indicating the day she went back to work. This year, she will split time between her training site in Waco and her old university city of Austin, where her boyfriend, Aaron Ross, is a member of the Texas football squad which was designated national collegiate team champion last year. For the moment, she has temporarily interrupted her studies in the demanding field of management information systems (MIS).

As Richards teams up with Hart for a third year together, all eyes will be on the track in Osaka next August to see if that half-second improvement expected by the 400-metre “guru” will materialize. Don’t be surprised if it does . . . and more.

Published in 2006 Yearbook