Gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross talks about faith, family and fame

On Sunday, Sanya Richards-Ross won the gold medal in the women’s 400 meters. She will also be running in the 4×400-meter relay on Saturday, Aug. 11. She is a four-time Olympic medalist (three gold, one bronze), an eight-time World Championships medalist (six gold, two silver), and the American record holder in the 400 meters. She is married to NFL defensive back Aaron Ross, who played on the New York Giants Super Bowl-winning teams in 2007 and 2012. The couple, who began dating in 2003 when they were student-athletes at the University of Texas, was married on Feb. 26, 2010. Aaron will play for the Jacksonville Jaguars this season. Read this exclusive interview that Sports Spectrum partner 2K Plus International Sports Media had with Richards-Ross.

Q. How did you start running?
A. I started running when I was 7 years old. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Track and field and soccer are the two biggest sports (in Jamaica), and so most children do it on the island. I remember going for a sports day, I ran very fast. I went out for a track team, and I have been doing it ever since.

My parents migrated with my sister and I to Florida when I was 12 years old, and I remember my sister and I were so disappointed because we loved Jamaica and we had so many friends and we loved school. At first it was difficult for me, but since I started doing sports I was able to make new friends and kind of have my niche and carve out my identity at the school; and I feel like it’s been the best switch my parents made for us because my sister and I both have had such great opportunities in the United States.

Q. The 2004 Olympics was a great success and a great disappointment at the same time. Just talk to me through that.
A. In 2004, I wouldn’t say I was very disappointed. I came into the meet with the third or fourth fastest time. I had run a full collegiate season, so I wasn’t expected to do much in the open 400. I made it to the final, I was sixth in the final. Of course, I was disappointed, I hoped to get a medal. It would have been icing on the cake for me. But to win on the relay was very exciting and for me to be able to leave Athens with a gold medal was very encouraging. And it was in that moment I realized I really wanted to go on and become professional and see what I could do if I just did track instead of being in school and running track; so I went pro after 2004.

Q. There was that issue with the relay medal, that’s what I meant by disappointment.
A. We still haven’t had to give our medal up, so I haven’t had to go through that disappointment. We still have our medals currently.

Q. In 2006, you were just on fire.
A. Two-thousand and six rivals with my 2009 season as my best season ever. It was just a perfect year. My training with coach (Clyde) Hart was going really, really well. I had an undefeated season. I broke the American record that year. It was just a fantastic year with no issues with my health or illnesses or injuries so it was just a perfect year.

Q. And the U.S. record?
A. Yes, I broke  the American record at the world cup in Athens in 2006, so by far one of my greatest accomplishments of my career.

Q. In 2007, you were ill and couldn’t do much.
A. Yes, in 2007, I struggled with what was then diagnosed as Behçet’s disease where I had really bad mouth ulcers and lesions, and I would have bad body aches as if I had the flu all the time. So it was a tough time for me because I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, if I was going to continue getting sicker, and so, 2007 was rough. I still made the (World Championship) team to Osaka (Japan) and won a (gold) medal in the (4 x 400 relay), but I was very disappointed to not run in the 400.

Q. You went into 2008 perhaps as favorite and it didn’t quite work out.
A. Yes, 2008 I won every single race except for the Olympic final so that was a major heartbreak for me. You go in as a favorite and you want to win it so bad, and then you come out and you don’t perform as well as you hoped. So, it was hard for me, but I have such great support. My family was all there, my now husband, who was my fiancé then, was very supportive and my coaches. I was able to get past it, but it was definitely one of the lowest points of my career.

Q. How did you look back at that race now?
A. I think there were a lot of factors that went into that race. I didn’t sleep at all the night before. I was so anxious to go out and compete, and everyone thinks I ran the first 200 too fast, but I actually came through at about 23.4, which is good pace for me; especially for a championship final, that’s where I’d want to be. I came on the final curve and I panicked. I felt like my hamstrings started to grab, and I’ve never had that experience before, and I just started to tighten up, and it was like the finish line started getting further and further away. So, it was hard for me. I don’t know if I would have gone out slower, if I would have felt better coming home, or I still would have had that same thing happen so it was just hard to deal with.

Q. Everything seemed to work for in Berlin (at the 2009 World Championships).
A. Yeah, I felt like I grew a lot after 2008. I realized I was putting way too much pressure on myself, and so in 2009 I decided whatever happens it can’t be worse than what happened in ’08, so I was just going to go out and have fun. So, it was a different season for me. I remember in Oslo (Norway), which was one of my first European races, I came over, I ran 49.2, and I thought, “Man, I’m in great shape this year. I’m ready to run fast.” And it took a lot of pressure off. So I was able to go out in Berlin and really execute and win my first world title, which was really special.

Q. You’ve run under 50 seconds, is it like 40-something times? I mean, Hollywood would give you a lifetime award for that.
A. I know, right? … I think I’ve run sub-50, 47 times, the most times in history, and I’m still at it. So, it’s a great mark. I hope to continue to improve that and run faster and faster, but it just goes to show my coach (Clyde Hart), he’s just fantastic, and he knows how to keep us running fast for a long time, at a high level. I tip my hat to him because he’s the reason I’ve been able to do that.

Q. Some people win World Championships or gold medals, who just have one performance on that particular day, but you’ve just been there doing it day in and day out.
A. Yeah, thank you. That’s the part of my story that I hope people remember that I was one of the most consistent quarter milers in history, and I hope to add more titles to my collection.

Q. In Daegu, South Korea, last year (at the World Championships), you seemed to be doing well, but in the final you didn’t quite have it?
A. Two-thousand and eleven was just a really rough year for me. I got injured in 2010, and I thought I’d come back and be able to run well quickly, but man, it was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. I just never got my speed back, it felt like, and even though my endurance was there in practice, I felt like I wasn’t the same quarter miler. So, Daegu wasn’t an anomaly, I felt like the whole season was that way for me. It was hard, but I grew a lot, and it actually helped me this season to go back out and look at the small things and make some major adjustments for myself, so I felt like I needed that year to hopefully have a big year this year.

Q. You have a lot of good years ahead of you.
A. I just turned 27…this is my 11th international team. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences. I remember when I was 17 or 18, on my first team, someone said you can’t buy experience. So, now I feel like I’m there where I have so much experience, and I hope that will pay off in the championships because I’ve been through almost everything someone can think of.

Q. Tell me about your faith, what that is and what role that plays in your life?
A. My faith plays a huge role in my life. I think it’s the reason I am able to continue going, and I don’t allow my disappointments to keep me down for a long time because I believe God is working everything out for my good, and even though it’s not always good in the moment, doesn’t always feel good, I feel that, in the end, I’m going to be victorious. So, it plays a huge part. People always wonder how I’m always smiling; it’s because I don’t allow the negatives to keep me down long, because I know I’m just so blessed. So, it’s the major reason I do what I do. I know I got my gift from God, and every day when I go to practice, I’m just giving Him glory by trying to make it the best I can. So, I think it’s the most important thing in my life.

I think when I became a real avid Christian was when we moved to Florida (at age 12) and my aunt, who is a huge member of the church, she’s the head of the choir, and on every board at church, she made a huge impact on my life, and I saw the joy that she had from being a Christian, and I wanted to have that experience that same joy. So, I think, as I got older and older, I became more and more involved in the church, and my faith means more to me as I become older.

Q. What difference does it make to you having Jesus in your life?
A. That peace that you have, when you know Jesus, as opposed to when you don’t. I just don’t feel confused or baffled by my experiences, because, like said, I feel like everything is going to work out for my greater good. I think it’s just that peace and that understanding that comes. I’m able to hold my head high even when I feel like I don’t have the best performances because I know that God still loves me regardless of those things, and all of my shortcomings He still loves me so that gives me a peace that’s hard to explain.

Q. What role does prayer play in your life?
A. Prayer is also very important. My husband and I pray together every time we’re together; at nights before we go to bed, we try to do Bible study together. My best friend and I pray before races. We don’t just pray just because of races, but it’s something that allows us to come together. It’s a commonality that we have. So, prayer is very important to me, it’s our direct line to Jesus and we know that He hears us. Where two or more are gathered, we know that He’s there with us (referencing Matthew 18:20), so whenever I can I try to pray with my teammates to encourage them as well.

Q. You’ve already mentioned Romans 8; in all, God works for good. Just talk to me about what the Bible means to you.
A. The Bible is also very important to me. I think that is where we get all the information we need to equip us for life. I know last year when I was struggling, I kept reading the book of Job, and all that he went through, and how patient he was and that he never cursed God. I feel like everything we go though in life, there is a reference to it in the Bible, and if we’re patient enough and if we’re willing to read it, you find that peace and it gives you that resolve that you need to persevere so, the Bible is very important to me as well.

Q. What’s it like being the kind of celebrity couple? How does that work out?
A. It’s funny, people recognize us more together than they do apart. If they see us, “Oh are you Sanya Richards-Ross? Are you Aaron Ross?” So it’s exciting for me, because I’ve watched my husband grow so much and for him now to be a two-time Super Bowl champion. Nobody could have told us that six or seven years ago. I remember when he too struggled as was not starting on the (University of) Texas team and worked so hard to become a starter and is now one of the most decorated Longhorns in football history. So, it’s exciting for me. And He gets to come and support me, which he loves to do, so we don’t really get caught up in that part of it, but we’re more caught up in the fact that we’re so blessed to do what we love to do.

Q. Do you find it frustrating that you’ve achieved so much, but in the States you’re probably less well-known that an average NBA player?
A. No, I don’t get frustrated by it. I think it’s pointless getting frustrated in things you can’t chance. I know the entire U.S. is tuned in for the Olympics, so I want to prepare myself to give my best performance then, when they’re watching, so I’ve gotten used to it. I think with my husband, people know me more than they would the average runner because of the connection with my husband. I’ve gotten over that a long time ago.

When I’m over here (in Europe), people are always like, “Oh my gosh, that’s Sanya Richards.” In the States, I can walk by great sports fans and they have no idea that I’m the American record holder in the 400 meters, but like I’ve said, I’ve gotten used to it. It doesn’t bother me anymore.

The interview was conducted by Sports Spectrum partner 2K Plus International Sports Media, a Christian media company based in London that covers sporting events throughout the world.

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