LONDON – Sanya Richards-Ross took a deep breath before stepping into the blocks in the Olympic women’s 400-meter final.
She had waited four years for this moment, ever since she held the lead in Beijing with 100 meters to go, then cramped and faded to third place.
This time, Richards-Ross would not be denied. Exactly one hour after the starting gun, she was taking another deep breath on the victory podium as she waited for the national anthem to play in her honor.
“This time when I went on the track, I knew I had to cross the finish line first to call myself Olympic champion,” said Richards-Ross, 27, who already had two 4 x 400-meter relay gold medals, but desperately wanted an individual Olympic title. “I had to dig really deep to do that tonight. I’m just so grateful to have this experience. It’s just been a phenomenal ride.”
Not only did Richards-Ross win the first gold medal for herself, she earned the first track and field gold medal of the London 2012 Olympic Games for Team USA.
Defending champion Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain, who withstood immense pressure from her countrymen to defend her title in her own backyard, was relieved to come away with the silver. DeeDee Trotter of the United States took the bronze and another American, Francena McCorory, was seventh.
Richards-Ross became the first American woman to win the Olympic 400 crown since 1984 when Valerie Brisco-Hooks won in Los Angeles. And Richards-Ross’ victory, coupled with Trotter’s bronze marked the second time two American women finished on the medal podium in the event at the Olympic Games.
Richards-Ross had to overcome illness and injuries in the last few years, but never wavered in her desire to be Olympic champion. “I feel very blessed to be living my dream,” she said.
Like Richards-Ross, Trotter had waited four years for redemption. She ran on an injured knee in Beijing, gaining the semifinals. Realizing she was too hurt to run the relay, she missed a chance at a second relay gold medal to go along with the one she took home in 2004.
Another Team USA runner, Justin Gatlin, had waited eight years to get back on the podium. The 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, Gatlin served a four-year doping suspension, then returned to form and finished third Sunday night behind Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
Bolt’s time was an Olympic-record 9.63 seconds — second only to his 9.58 at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin — and he joins Carl Lewis (1984-88) as the only men to defend a 100 title. Blake, Bolt’s training partner, was second with a personal best of 9.75, followed by Gatlin, with a personal best of 9.79. American record holder Tyson Gay was next at 9.80, with U.S. teammate Ryan Bailey in fifth place with a PR of 9.88.
Gay reportedly left the track in tears, coming up empty-handed yet again. Gay, who worked relentlessly to recover from surgery, has never won an Olympic medal.
“I knew it was going to be hard for Tyson this season,” Bolt said. “For him to come out and make finals, was a big step to show the fighter he is. I always say Tyson is one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever competed with. He’s strong, he’s determined, he works so hard.”
Richards-Ross, who said she is close friends with Gay, said she would tell him “to keep on keeping on, because his best is right around the corner and I believe that in time, he, too, will sit where I’m sitting.”
Wearing her trademark arm sleeves, Richards-Ross had an early lead in her race, then the pack caught her before she surged ahead again with about 30 meters remaining.
Richards-Ross then waited solemnly until the times flashed on the scoreboard. Her time was 49.55 seconds, with Ohuruogu at 49.70 and Trotter at 49.72. Then she could kiss her husband, grab and American flag and take a victory lap.
“I was almost 100 percent sure I had crossed the finish line first,” she said. “When I was coming down the homestretch I felt DeeDee, but I didn’t feel Christine, so it wasn’t until the last lean that I realized it was also Christine to my right.
“You never want to celebrate until you see your name on top of that list, so to finally have that moment and to see my name, it’s really hard to describe that feeling. I was overwhelmed and just really excited.”
She was also thrilled that her husband, Jacksonville Jaguars football cornerback Aaron Ross, got permission to leave training camp to watch her compete. Ross has two Super Bowl rings from his time with the New York Giants.
“We’ll just continue to try to get as much hardware as possible and continue to push each other to be the best athletes that we can be,” she said.
Trotter, 29, of Decatur, Ga., wore her “glitter face,” a temporary tattoo in what she called “a phenomenal race for me.”
“I’ve had such a tough journey since my knee surgery in 2008,” she added. “And not having that performance that I wanted to have in ’08, reminded me to get after it.”
Trotter said she took a little extra time with her glitter because “I wanted to have a little ‘oomph’ in it. It’s like my war paint. I put it on and I feel like I can give myself a little more inspiration, a little more motivation and get out there and try to make something happen.
“I always kind of compare it to Mike Tyson when he came back with the tattoo on his face. He was crazy, he just went out there and he got it done!”
Gatlin, 30, of Pensacola, Fla., said he was inspired watching Bolt and Blake as he served his suspension, and then worked his way back to the top.
“I went out there to challenge a mountain,” Gatlin said. “I went out there to challenge the odds, not just what I’ve been through, but the legacy of Usain Bolt. I went out there to be fearless.”
Choking up, he said, “Just to be part of an epic race, I just wanted to get on the podium and be there for my country. There were a lot of people in the audience with flags so I wanted to be there for them.
“I am just glad to be here. It just renews a different hope for me. And I’ve got a lot left in the tank.”
OTHER HIGHS: Evan Jager was sixth in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase with a time of 8:23.87 while Donald Cabral was eighth, clocking 8:25.91. … Kibwe Johnson was ninth in the men's hammer throw with a toss of 245 feet, 10 inches.
NOTABLE LOWS: For the first time other than 1980, when the United States boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, Team USA will not have a competitor in the men’s 400-meter finals. Neither Bryshon Nellum nor Tony McQuay qualified for the final, and LaShawn Merritt, considered a medal contender in the event entering London, was forced to withdraw with a hamstring injury.
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSAorg. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.