LONDON — Sanya Richards-Ross delayed her 400-meter victory celebration for a few moments, glancing anxiously at the super-sized results board at Olympic Stadium. She wanted to be certain of the official order of finish. Down the final stretch, Richards-Ross felt US teammate DeeDee Trotter close on her left, but didn’t sense the approach of defending Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu on her right. Cheered lustily by a home crowd of 80,000, Britain’s Ohuruogu accelerated toward the line, but fell just short of repeating.
The official results revealed Richards-Ross in first with a time of 49.55 seconds, earning the first US gold of the track and field competition. Ohuruogu captured silver in 49.70 and Trotter took bronze in 49.72.
“I was almost 100 percent sure I had it,” said Richards-Ross. “But you never want to celebrate until you see your name on top of that list. So, to finally have that moment and see my name at the top at the Olympic Games, it’s really hard to describe that feeling. I was just overwhelmed.”
Waiting a few moments for confirmation was easy. Waiting four years for another chance at individual Olympic gold was the hard part.
Richards-Ross entered the Beijing Olympics as the overwhelming 400-meter favorite, but faded from first to third over the final stretch. The shock and disappointment of a bronze medal left her in tears at the Bird’s Nest. On Sunday night, Ross again looked in danger of squandering gold with a less-than-perfect race. Of the eight runners in the field, she went out the fastest, and sat in third approaching the final straight. Then, Richard-Ross summoned a decisive burst of speed for the win.
‘Every time I tried to press that last lap, the back just hurt so bad . . .I haven’t felt that kind of pain since I pushed out a baby. I’m serious.’
In her postrace news conference, Richards-Ross, 27, commented that the 400 final went as well as she could have hoped, though she admitted not hitting her splits right. Between what happened in Beijing and an Olympic Stadium in London buzzing in anticipation of the men’s 100-meter final, she said it was “really difficult to come out here and control your emotions and your desire when you want something so badly.”
In the four years between Beijing and London, she stayed among the world’s fastest 400-meter runners, winning the 2009 world championship. All the while waiting impatiently for another shot at gold. She also has dealt with a misdiagnosis of the autoimmune disease called Behcet’s syndrome. She is handling an illness that results in fatigue and mouth sores differently now, and feels healthier.
“In 2008, what I learned is you don’t win the race until you win the race,” said Richards-Ross.
“That was Christine’s title in 2008. It took me some time to get past that. This time, when I went on the track, I knew I had to cross that finish line first to call myself Olympic champion. I had to dig really deep to do that tonight. I’m so grateful to have this experience. It’s just been a phenomenal ride. There’s been some difficulties. You have to overcome so much in four years to get this opportunity.”
Richards-Ross has a sizable group of supporters in London, about 40 people, including her husband, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Aaron Ross, and mother, Sharon Richards. And she shared part of her celebration with them.
“She kept her poise,” said Sharon Richards. “She had tunnel vision [at the end]. After the race, she came up to us and said, ‘This was a tough one.’ ”
Aaron Ross, a calming influence, missed three days of training camp to see his wife win gold.
“This was a long time coming,” he said. “She executed. She stayed in the moment and finished perfectly. I was more anxious than nervous, especially the last 10 seconds of the race . . . It’s been a really good year. She was with me on my ride, all the way to the end, and I wanted to be here for her to join her ride.”
The ride Aaron Ross referred to was the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. At the time, Ross was a member of the title-winning team. Now, with two Super Bowl rings for Ross and an individual gold medal for Richards-Ross, the couple has a pretty impressive trophy collection. Richards-Ross became emotional when talking about the support she received from her husband.
“We don’t compete,’’ she said. “His Super Bowl ring just gives me motivation. To see him at his best inspires me to be my best. We’ll just continue to try and get as much hardware as possible and continue to push each other to be the best athletes we can be.”
The same can be said of the way US marathon training partners Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan work together. Earlier Sunday, in an Olympic marathon that started and finished in a cool, hard rain, they motivated and pushed each other. But the race ended in disappointment as neither came close to the podium or personal bests. Flanagan of Marblehead, Mass., finished 10th with a time of 2 hours 25 minutes 51 seconds, and Goucher followed in 11th in 2:26:07. Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana took the title in 2:23:07 in what could only be described as difficult conditions.
“I had to talk myself through some really tough spots and just not give in to the pain,” said Flanagan, who called it the toughest of the three marathons she has run. “Your body automatically wants to stop when it’s hurting and say, ‘Hey, back up.’ It’s a mental battle to keep pushing when you don’t want to and your body’s saying it doesn’t want to do it.”
Both Flanagan and Goucher cramped badly over the final loop. And they needed to feel good, have almost a perfect race, and see others make mistakes to have a chance at a medal.
“Every time I tried to press that last lap, the back just hurt so bad, and it was really frustrating,” said Goucher. “I haven’t felt that kind of pain since I pushed out a baby. I’m serious.”
Flanagan and Goucher can look to Richards-Ross to see what a difference four years can make and how pain and disappointment can turn into celebration.