Sunshine on her shoulders

Rising star Sanya Richards sprints into the spotlight of her sport
By Ron Bellamy
The Register-Guard
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2007

She could be the new face of U.S. track and field. She’s talented, outgoing, caring, photogenic and untainted by scandal.

She’s sunshine, after a cloudy day.

She’s Sanya Richards, who last year set the American record in the 400 meters, and won every race she ran at that distance, and received major awards nationally and internationally.

She’ll run the first race of her 2007 outdoor season Sunday afternoon at Hayward Field, in the Road to Eugene '08 meet, that road leading to the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials here next summer.

And so you’ll see a lot of her - not just today, but in the Pre Classic on June 10, and in the Olympic Trials next year, and in marketing for the sport.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted,” Richards said Wednesday. "When I would watch Marion Jones when I was younger, and she was the female face of the sport, I always wanted that for myself.

“I wanted to be the best sprinter all-around, and hopefully I’ll prove that over the next couple of years, not just in the 400, but the 200 and the 100 as well. It’s something I’ve always wanted, and it’s coming into play now, and I’m trying to stay humble and work hard and be a really good role model for kids.”

At 22, Richards said her life has changed “a lot” since her fabulous 2006 season. She just got back from Zurich, where she was flown for a press conference to promote the Golden League meet there. She’s been to Hawaii for promotional photo sessions for Nike. She’s writing a periodic diary for the IAAF Web site.

She has the potential to be an athlete whose marketability isn’t confined by sport. For example, go to the Track & Field News Web site, and you can link to the AT&T Hometurf series, in which she shows host Deion Sanders around her home in Austin, Texas.

She’s also pitched herself as the co-star of a reality TV show, suggesting that MTV cameras follow her, as she trains toward the Olympics next year, and her boyfriend, former University of Texas cornerback Aaron Ross, as he goes through his rookie season with the New York Giants.

“She is one of the brightest emerging stars that there is in the sport,” Pre Classic meet director Tom Jordan said. "She certainly has to be a favorite for the gold medal in Osaka in the World Championships, and if she continues to progress, at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

“Generally in the sport, you’re judged by the medals you’ve won. So in that regard, once she’s won the Olympic gold medal, she’ll be one of the biggest names in the sport.”

Richards has gold medals, as a member of winning relay teams in the Olympics and the World Championships, but not yet individual gold, and her growing prominence would increase with that. With prominence, Richards said, comes a greater responsibility.

“You definitely have a responsibility to continue to work really hard, and to stay drug-free, which I think is one of the biggest things in our sport that we constantly face,” she said. “Hopefully I can push that, and the entire sport will get behind me, and we can show that you can run really fast without using drugs.”

While Richards is looking forward - to the World Championships this summer, when she hopes to double in the 400 and 200, and to the Olympics next year, where her goal is also to double - look back, for a moment, at her fantastic season in 2006.

She ran under 50 seconds nine times, including 48.70, the American record, last September in Athens, breaking the mark set by Valerie Brisco in 1984, the year before Richards was born. She ran the five fastest times in the world last year in the 400 and was undefeated in 13 races outdoors at that distance.

She won the 400 in the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, her second straight national title, and won the 200 and 400 in the World Cup. She won $249,999 for her share of the Golden League series jackpot.

For all that, she was the female winner of the IAAF World Athlete of the Year Award and of USA Track & Field’s Jesse Owens Award and was the Track & Field News Athlete of the Year.

Her reward? She bought a new car, a black CLS Mercedes, a four-door coupe. “I’m trying to work on my saving, not spending, because I’m really good at spending,” she said.

Born in Jamaica, Richards came to the United States a decade ago, living first in Florida and now in Austin; she trains in Waco, where she’s coached by Clyde Hart.

In Sunday’s meet, which begins at 2 p.m., Richards hopes to run in mid-to-high 49s, weather permitting. This season, she’d like to surpass the personal best of her idol, Marie-José Pérec, who’s run 48.25 for No. 3 all-time, and to break 22 seconds in the 200.

Her season debut was delayed to Sunday because she got sick in April, “a really bad virus.” But Richards said she’d already been planning on the Road to Eugene '08 meet, because it benefits the Professional Athletics Association, of which she is a board member.

“Our goal is to have something like the other sports, basketball and football, where the athletes can have a voice, and hopefully retirement funds can come soon,” she said.

In that, Richards would leave the sport better than she found it, off the track as well as on it.