Sanya Richards-Ross celebrates winning gold in the women's 400-meter at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Aug. 5, 2012 in London.
When the Olympic 400-meter gold medalist decided to retire after this season, she couldn’t keep the news up her sleeve — not even one of those long, colorful sleeves she’s made her trademark on the track.
Instead, Richards-Ross announced her upcoming retirement on Instagram in late April.
The quarter-miler had the perfect description for her “farewell tour.”
“I am so excited to celebrate with one last lap around the world,” Richards-Ross wrote, “and I hope you will follow along #SRRFinalLap! Let’s do this!”
Richards-Ross, 31, hopes that last lap includes Rio, at what would be her fourth Olympic Games going back to 2004. She is the defending champion in the 400-meter, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, American-record holder with a time of 48.70 seconds (set in 2006) and a former world No. 1 (2005-2009 and 2012).
Richards-Ross is also seeking an unprecedented fourth gold medal in the 4x400-meter. No other athlete — male or female — has more than two golds in the event. Her anchor leg in Beijing, when Richards-Ross chased down Russia, is one of the Olympic YouTube Channel highlights.
Her first big test is Saturday at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, a Diamond League meet where she will open her individual season.
“The last couple of years I’ve known that my career was definitely coming to an end soon, mostly because of my big toe surgery,” said Richards-Ross, who underwent her third surgery in November on the right big toe, which has tormented her for years.
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it with the toe being so tough; the training every day has been really hard for me. I made up my mind about halfway through my training this year, ‘This is going to be it for me.’”
|Sanya Richards-Ross celebrates winning the women's 4x400-meter at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 11, 2012 in London, England.
The farewell tour of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant inspired Richards-Ross to tell her fans she was hanging up her spikes after her 12th season as a professional athlete.
“Even though I know for sure I’m not on the same level as a Kobe Bryant,” she said, “it kind of gave me the idea, ‘Wow, it’s really cool to know when an athlete you really admire and love to watch is going to step away because you, too, get to enjoy it with them.’”
Soon after her Instagram post, Richards-Ross anchored Team USA in the 4x400-meter at the Penn Relays on May 1. As she ran to an easy victory, Richards-Ross was given a standing ovation by the crowd.
“That was overwhelming,” she said. “When I did make the announcement, I honestly didn’t anticipate how the fans would react. When I went to Penn, I can’t tell you how many young girls came up to me actually crying and asking me not to retire, and telling me stories of how I inspired them to continue running and never give up and not to be afraid of the 400.
“I remember when I crossed the finish line even the Jamaican fans were saying U-S-A! I don’t think that has ever happened.”
At the Prefontaine Classic, Richards-Ross will be up against fellow Team USA Olympians Natasha Hastings and Francena McCorory, the defending U.S. champion, as well as Quanera Hayes, an up-and-coming American runner who has clocked 49.91 this season. Shericka Jackson of Jamaica and Shaunae Miller of Bahamas lead the international field.
Alas, there will be no showdown with Allyson Felix, the world champion at 400 meters and defending champion at Pre. Felix withdrew Wednesday with an ankle injury and has not yet opened her season.
“I’m just excited to get my first race under my belt,” said Richards-Ross, who is seeking her seventh Prefontaine win. “The 400 is not like the hurdles, but there is a little bit of rhythm that goes with running a great 400, so I’d like to get two or three races in before (Olympic Trials).
“For me, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about just me executing the phases on my race. I’ve been really working hard on my first 200, really working my third 100.”
She hopes to “land somewhere in the 50-point range,” which would be an indication that she could get down into 49-point range by July, when Olympic Trials will also be held at historic Hayward Field in Eugene.
No American woman has ever defended an Olympic 400-meter title. Only Marie-Jose Perec of France (1992, 1996) has been able to do it.
“I know how challenging of a task it is,” said Richards-Ross, who was favored in 2008, but cramped and faded to third behind Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain. In 2012, Richards-Ross won and Ohuruogu was second. “It’s very, very hard to put together two consecutive championship seasons in the 400.”
It’s even harder when illness and injury seem to dog every step. Richards-Ross had to overcome a disease which caused painful sores in her mouth and across the body.
Then her big toe became a huge problem.
“I think that’s how life is, it’s the smallest things that trip us up sometimes,” Richards-Ross said. “You don’t realize how important your big toe is until it doesn’t work well.
“It’s actually a small part of the body, but a big part of being a sprinter, pushing out of the blocks, generating the kind of speed that you need to run fast.”
The pain began in 2007 and progressively got worse. It was diagnosed as a stiff big toe, a hereditary trait that is like having severe arthritis in one joint.
With all those left turns on the track, the cartilage wore down, so her bones were rubbing together. By 2012, she had pain during training. The bone had to be shaved down.
|Sanya Richards-Ross approaches the finish line on her way to winning gold in the women's 4x400-meter at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 11, 2012 in London.
Her first surgery in 2013 was unsuccessful. “I had no mobility,” Richards-Ross said. “At nationals, I actually raced in sneakers because I couldn’t even put my foot in spikes, it was so painful.”
She did not make Team USA for the world championships. Last year, Richards-Ross failed to reach the final in the 400 at the U.S. nationals, but was named to the world championships team, where she won a silver on the 4x400-meter.
That prompted her third surgery.
While Richards-Ross said the toe is “the best it has been in a while,” she admitted with a rueful laugh that it still hurts.
“It’s bearable,” she said, adding, “It’s just a nightmare with this toe.”
And it’s not as if the 400 is a bed of roses, either.
“I think a lot of people underestimate how hard it is when they first run it,” said Richards-Ross, who attempted the rare 200/400 double in London, placing a respectable fifth in the 200 after her 400 gold. “Like many of us, you go out too fast, and then they say that grand piano jumps on your back, and it’s not always a pleasant experience. For a lot of athletes, once they’ve run the 400 once they don’t want to do it again.”
But she has kept putting in lap after lap.
After the 2012 season, Richards-Ross considered starting a family with her husband, NFL player Aaron Ross, and then returning to track.
“It could have happened, but it didn’t happen,” she said. “It was a little bit of me and a little bit of God. I decided I wanted to go through 2016.”
Richards-Ross also knew that when she and her husband start a family, she wants to be able to focus on their child.
“Track and field takes so much for you to be great, so much focus and dedication,” she said. “Being an athlete is really about being selfish at many times, and, of course, I think being a mother is the most unselfish job you can have. I’m excited to start a family once I retire, because I think I can give 100 percent to that part of my life which will be very important to me as well.”
Richards-Ross said that she hopes when people look back on her career, they “will remember just how persistent I was. I definitely had a lot of obstacles in my career, with my illness and injuries, but I just never gave up. I always fought hard and gave my best every time I stepped on the track.”
That included the famous relay in Beijing. Richards-Ross said when it came up recently on the Olympic YouTube Channel, “It still gave me goose bumps to see that race unfold.”
Richards-Ross had to make up 7-10 meters on the anchor leg. She ran a 48.93 split compared to 49.92 for Russia’s Anastasiya Kapachinskaya. The U.S. won with a time of 3:18.54, with Russia at 3:18.82.
“It’s funny, to this day, people still come up to me and that’s one of my fans’ favorite races,” Richards-Ross said. “That race meant a lot to me.”
That’s because it encapsulated her career. After losing the 400, in which she was favored, she had to come back on the relay.
“I feel like that’s almost a perfect picture of how my career has been — always kind of rebounding from disappointment,” Richards-Ross said.
Now she has a chance to do it one more time, rebounding from her toe travails to another Olympic podium.
“I think this will be a perfect opportunity,” Richards-Ross said, “to leave it all on the track and then walk away and start to pursue some of my other passions.”
Besides starting a family, she wants to go into broadcasting.
“My dream job would be a lifestyle host on a show like ‘The Real’ or ‘The View,’” said Richards-Ross, who had her own reality show on WE tv called “Glam and Gold” and whose wedding was featured on a television program. “I love being in front of the camera and I would love to talk about not just sports, but lifestyle stuff that affects women.”
She’s also an entrepreneur, owning a salon with her sister and a luxury car service with her husband in Austin, Texas. “That marketing aspect of business is something that I’m passionate about as well,” Richards-Ross said.
A native of Jamaica, she started a foundation there to benefit children and after she retires she wants to stay involved in her sport
“I would love to help to effect change in a positive way for athletes,” Richards-Ross said, “and consult with USA Track & Field, Nike or the IOC to help athletes that come after me.”
But wait. She’s not finished yet. She’s just on her last lap.