You cannot separate your human experience from your sporting success: A conversation with Sanya Richards-Ross

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Editor’s Note: This Saturday, NBCSN will air a full slate of track & field coverage beginning with the Drake Relays (NBCSN 3pm ET), followed by the USATF Grand Prix at the Oregon Relays (NBCSN 5pm ET). Four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross – who made her broadcast debut for NBC in 2016 – will be in the booth as an analyst for both events. Ahead of the back-to-back meets, On Her Turf caught up with Richards-Ross to talk about the women who inspire her, her move from running races to calling them, and what social justice advocacy means to her.


By Amelia Acosta 

On Her Turf: This is a question I’m sure you get a lot – who is your favorite track and field athlete of all time?

Sanya Richards-Ross: Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

I was born in Jamaica and nine-time Olympic medalist Merlene Ottey was our hero growing up. I admired her tenacity, her longevity, her grace, on and off the track.

But when I moved to the United States, Jackie became a huge role model to me. Just seeing how she bounced back from disappointment, winning a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and coming back and winning gold in 1992. It was kind of reminiscent of my own story at the Olympics [which we’ll get to soon!]. Later, she became an actual real mentor.

She would always reach out to me before races and after races and she was that shoulder I could lean on. She had been there before. For me it was also bigger than just track, so I also loved what she did for St. Louis, creating these great community outreach programs to help younger people get into sports.

On Her Turf: You are now that idol for many runners currently competing. What does it mean to you when athletes cite you and your career as a source of inspiration?

Richards-Ross: It just warms my heart when I hear young athletes speak about me as inspiration, whether it was our direct contact or just my performances on the track. I think inspiration is so important. When you see something great, it inspires you to be great, and to be that for somebody else, I don’t think that there is a better feeling. It means the world to me to know that the hard work I put in on the track inspired other athletes to want to do the same.

On Her Turf: At the 2008 Olympics, you entered the Olympic 400m final as the favorite and finished third, which you’ve described as one of your biggest disappointments. How did you handle that experience and come back to win gold in 2012?

Richards-Ross: When I was nine years old, I told my teacher I was going to be an Olympic champion.

And in 2008 I was literally undefeated in every 400m race that year until the Olympic final. To not cross that finish line first when that’s the race that you dream of, when that’s the race that you’re working for all those years… Heartbreaking is an understatement. It was so disappointing.

The toughest part about it is when you cross the finish line, you immediately know: I have to wait four more years to have this opportunity again. That is an overwhelming feeling that is really hard to describe. A few weeks later, I ran one of my fastest times ever [at a Diamond League event in Zurich] but nobody cared. It wasn’t the Olympic final.

After that year, I got a sports psychologist. I realized that as much as I felt like I had the best coach on the track, I needed to have someone to help coach me through being mentally tough and strong on the track.

I got my sports psychologist in 2009 and won my first world title in 2009. It was a phenomenal race for me and a phenomenal season – I was world athlete of the year in 2009. Unfortunately, I pulled my quad muscle in 2010 and really struggled that year. 2011 was tough on me too. I made the team for World Championships but still hadn’t really recovered from the injury.

But in 2012… I worked my butt off! I started doing 2,000 sit-ups a day. I was on a mission. I refused not to be prepared, mentally and physically, for that Olympic moment. It was still really tough. You walk on the track for that final and the last memory you have of being in that race is one of getting out first, being 50 meters away from the line and it just not happening. I had to work through all of that. I had to be there and say, This is my time. This is my moment.

It really felt like I ran into my fairytale ending. Here I was at 27, finally living the dream. People say it all the time: You’re standing on the podium and your life flashes before your eyes. It really does! You just wish they’d keep playing the anthem for you, like, run it back DJ!

I always reflect on my career: If I had won ’08, would I have won 2012? Would I have gotten too relaxed? You just never know. My husband [retired NFL cornerback Aaron Ross] was there, at his first Olympics. My whole family was there. It just felt like the perfect opportunity and time to win my individual gold medal.

On Her Turf: In addition to individual success, you were a staple of the U.S. women’s 4x400m relay team, winning three Olympic gold medals in that event. What’s special about running that event?

Richards-Ross: The relay is a beast of its own. When you get to step on that track and walk out with that USA uniform on, you feel like a superhero. There’s a kind of star quality to the team. That feeling just makes you feel like you’re unstoppable. Nobody’s going to mess with us.

With the U.S. team’s rich history in the event, there’s also this unspoken trust and responsibility of: We have to do this. Especially because the 4x400m relay is usually the final event on the track. It really sets the tone for how we leave the Olympics. We win this, we come back and dominate again next year. It’s an amazing amount of pressure… But it feels light. Because in an individual event, it’s a pressure that feels heavy. But in the relay the feeling is Oh, we got this.

One of my most memorable moments was in 2008, after losing the individual 400m, being able to come back for the relay. As the anchor leg, most of the time I get the stick in front and it’s kind of like a victory lap. If I get a head start, forget it. Nobody’s going to catch me. But in 2008 – for the first time – I got the stick behind. Heading into that final lap, Russia was in the lead. But I was more determined than ever, because I had only won a bronze. I was thinking I had to leave Beijing with a gold. Most people, when they think about my career or tell me the moments that were most memorable for them, it’s that anchor leg, running down the Russian team and overcoming them and winning that gold medal.

It made me so proud to see the 2016 team go out there and dominate because there’s also a confidence that’s transferred from each team, each year, where you feel like, We can do this. We’ve done it over and over again, and it feels good to be a part of the rich history of that U.S. Olympic 4x400m relay.

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On Her Turf: In 2016, you made an incredibly unique transition: Just days after competing at U.S. Olympic Trials and not making the team, you joined the booth as a broadcaster for NBC. How did you handle the disappointment and the move to the new role?

Richards-Ross: 2016 was a year of tremendous highs and tremendous lows. It was the first time I had ever tried out for a U.S. team and not made it, going back to 2003. In 2016, after having three surgeries on my toe and pulling my hamstring midway through the season, I was a longshot to make the team. But I’m that kind of person – I always think it’s possible. If I’m there, anything can happen.

So it was really tough when I wasn’t even able to get out of the first round at Olympic Trials. But I also remember this very special moment: I stopped running at the 200-meter mark and I kind of hung my head down. I was going through all the emotions of realizing that I didn’t make the Olympic team and that this is how my career is going to end, and I was feeling very overcome by the moment. And a woman yells out in the crowd: “We love you, Sanya!” And the entire stadium stands up and gives me this really warm standing ovation. It made me realize in that moment that this really was a beautiful journey, an amazing career.

I had already announced I was going to retire after 2016. I was very intentional about the things I wanted to do. I kept saying them out loud: I want to do television, I want to write a book, I want to become a mom. I’ll never forget when Lewis Johnson interviewed me after that race and said, “What can we expect from you next?” And I said, “I’m going to become a mom finally, I’m going to write my book, and maybe I could be up in the booth with you guys!” And that was it. I got a call a day or two later from NBC’s team. I still hadn’t quite gotten over not making the Olympic team, so I asked for a few days just to deal with that. And then I was in the booth with this fantastic group of broadcasters who I had so much respect for.

Being in the booth for the conclusion of Olympic Trials felt so easy. Ato Boldon, Tom Hammond, they just embraced me, and it was amazing. Then we go over to Rio and our producer, he has this kind of dry humor that I didn’t figure out until later. Right before we go on the air, he says: “30 seconds to 30 million. Be great.” And I’m like: Oh my god! I literally didn’t even breathe the first time I went on camera.

I’m so thankful that now I have the opportunity to contribute to my sport in a new way, in a different way. It’s really been an amazing joy for me to be a broadcaster and to do all the things that I would have wanted people to do when I was on the track: telling the stories of athletes as colourfully and as humanly as possible.

On Her Turf: How do you think your experience as an athlete informs the way you approach broadcasting?

Richards-Ross: I still feel like I’m an athlete. I still feel like I’m training, and I know what it takes. For the sprints, our commentary has to be brief. The race itself is done in 11 seconds, or 48 seconds, or 50 seconds. I just really want the viewer to understand what they’re seeing, to understand all the hard work that goes into these moments, the focus that it takes to go out and execute. You think about how long track and field has been around. To see someone break into the top-10 fastest times or break an American record – that means something. My goal is to try to make the audience understand the heroics of what they’re seeing and the greatness of what these athletes are doing.

My goal is also to humanize the athletes. We try to find stories or things that will connect them to the audience. There are big stories around someone like Nia Ali – she’s a mom twice over and has come back and run so well, become a world champion. There are so many women who can’t wrap their heads around that, who say, “What?! A mom juggling all that?” And then there are the small details like where a competitor is from, so that people can feel connected to the athletes that they see.

On Her Turf: Do you have a favorite moment you’ve called as an Olympic broadcaster?

Richards-Ross: Hands down – and I hope that there will be another moment that challenges it – but hands down the best moment I’ve called is Wayde Van Niekerk’s world record in the 400m at the 2016 Olympics.

Before the race, Ato and I were doing our preparation. I told Ato that I thought Wayde was going to break the world record that night. And he agreed, but he cautioned me about saying it, because if you say it and he doesn’t… It might be a great race, but then feel like a disappointment to the audience. But Ato said It’s up to you, do you. So I decided I was going to say it and of course afterwards I was like: I TOLD you he was going to break the record!

That moment of seeing somebody run the fastest time ever, in a race that many of us thought the record wouldn’t be broken anytime soon (Michael Johnson’s previous record of 43.18 is already mind-blowing)… That by far was the most incredible moment.

On Her Turf: I think you’re highlighting a challenge most viewers wouldn’t realize exists for broadcasters: Adding context to a moment while also letting a moment breathe. How do you balance the two?

Richards-Ross: It’s a challenge. Our producers are fantastic – they’ll say, “Let it breathe. Let it breathe,” because you can feel the energy speaking for itself. When you’re a commentator, especially because you’re not being seen, the only time people know you’re there is when you open your mouth. So sometimes there’s a feeling of needing to say something. But I learned very quickly that’s not what we’re there for. We’re there to enhance the experience for the viewer. Wayde was one of the moments – no one had to tell us. I just knew. And then because it was a world record, you get more time. We go back, break down the greatness of the race and contextualize what happened.

I think that’s also a great lesson for life. For me, many times I’m rushing to do something or say something, but there will come a time, and you will know. It will be appropriate to speak up or make that next step. And I think that also happens quite naturally in broadcasting IF you let it.

On Her Turf: Switching gears a little… A big focus for you has been in your post-athletics career has been providing a support system for Black women and Black moms. What does that mean to you?

Richards-Ross: As an athlete, you are having a very unique experience, especially as a Black woman. In sports, I never really felt discriminated against. You run fast, you get a lane. I’d stand on the track and be one of five or six strong Black women competing. I felt like that was what the world was like: You’re excellent, you get an opportunity. Then as I transitioned out of sports, I realized it was a very different world for Black women. I sat in rooms many times where I was one of one. I was invited into these rooms because of my excellence on the track, and I thought, Wow, I know so many women who could do this job, or so many women who could be here that just aren’t because of lack of resources or lack of access.

I started my platform, MommiNation, two years ago, because felt like as an athlete, I thrived on having a community and support that made me know I could accomplish whatever my heart desired. In motherhood, even though it’s not a journey you’re doing by yourself by any means, it can still feel very lonely. A lot of women go through postpartum depression, and there’s a huge transition around whether you want to go back to work. I wanted to create that safe space for moms to be able to feel Oh, this is normal. I am okay. I am doing the best that I can do.

I also wanted to create resources for Black moms to be able to provide for their families in meaningful ways and still be there for their children. I’m still in the process of working on making this group all the things I dream of.

The conversation around Black women and moms goes so far beyond sports: We look at the Black maternal mortality rate and see that Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than our white counterparts. Part of my goals with MommiNation is to consider why that happens and what can we do. This is the best time of a woman’s life – they shouldn’t feel like they are not being cared for or that they can’t speak up about how they feel.

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On Her Turf: Track and field has a long history of social justice activism, and you’ve been very vocal about issues of racial injustice on social media and elsewhere. What progress have you seen around race and sports in America, and what still needs to be done?

Richards-Ross: At the end of the day, if you’re an athlete, you cannot separate your human experience from your sporting success. People keep saying, We don’t want to have to deal with that when we’re watching sports. Well, as a Black person in America, we deal with this every day. And I think it’s so disingenuous as a human being, when you have a platform, not to use it to shine a light or to make a difference in whatever way you can.

I know it’s not easy. I’m so happy there has been a huge shift now where companies are embracing athletes for using their platform, but for a very long time, athletes were afraid to say anything that would ruffle feathers. Especially if you’re an Olympic athlete – the window is so small, the opportunities are so minimal – that most athletes would prefer to just stay quiet, even if their hearts rumbled with disappointment or if they are having these experiences themselves. That’s why I’m so proud and so happy with how far we’ve come, where athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams are able to speak up and tell their truths. Black people are having a really difficult time when it comes to police brutality, limited resources and access. It’s just telling the truth.

I think we’re headed in the right direction. Many times since George Floyd’s death, the activism hasn’t felt like a moment. It feels like a movement, where many people are actively trying to work against racism, actively trying to hold the door open for other minority groups. This is not just a Black issue. We’re seeing a really difficult time right now for our Asian brothers and sisters. This is all minorities – we want to see all of us treated fairly. I’m hopeful for a better world for my son. He’s three years old now – hopefully when he’s 18 or 19 years old, he’ll be proud of the progress we made in 2020 and 2021.

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On Her Turf: Speaking of your son… Your husband is retired NFL cornerback Aaron Ross. How do you two feel when someone like DK Metcalf runs really fast and you hear the debate about football speed vs track and field speed?

Richards-Ross: The good thing is when you have a track star and a football player in the same house, the football player knows the deal. My husband always says: People just don’t know. He used to do workouts with me and say This is bananas! We would do repeat 200-meter sprints. I’d do one 200 and I’d get a few minutes rest and then hit it again, really fast, and he thought he could do them all with me. But then he’d stop and wait until I’d done two more and then jump back in. So he has a good appreciation for sprint speed, strength and stamina.

When you’re super athletic and you’re great at one thing, you think it just crosses over and it doesn’t. I have a great appreciation for all other sports, but I also know how much technique and practice comes into play when you see Usain Bolt or Trayvon Bromell running under 10 seconds.

On Her Turf: World 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith (GBR) wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune this spring about the unique challenges for female athletes and how sponsors, media and others can better support them. How have you seen those challenges play out in your time on the track?

Richards-Ross: I’ve loved to see Dina Asher-Smith and her brand evolve and develop. I think she’s doing a great job of embracing all the beauty of being an athlete. Like I’ve said, representation matters. It’s important for young Black women to see themselves in other Black women.

I look at someone like a Dawn Harper-Nelson, who won the Olympic gold medal in the 100m hurdles in 2008. In interviews, she’s talked about being a dark-skinned woman in sports and my heart breaks, because there was no reason that Dawn Harper-Nelson couldn’t be bigger than life. She thought that if she won the Olympics, here would come all these sponsorships and all these partnerships, but it didn’t happen, outside of her Nike partnership.

For women it’s not just about winning – it’s about winning and looking beautiful, speaking well – so many other expectations that our male counterparts don’t have. I think the challenge to sponsors and the community is to honor the excellence, to look beyond whatever standards of beauty we may have and just honor the women that are doing great work. Give them the platform and the opportunity so that other young women who look like them can see that it is enough to just be excellent, because I think that’s the liberty and the freedom our male counterparts already enjoy.

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