Sanya Richards-Ross opens up on medical procedure that impacted her 2008 Olympic performance

Sanya Richards-Ross opens up on medical procedure that impacted her 2008 Olympic performance

Mark Kinyanjui 14:28 - 18.05.2024

Richards-Ross fluffed her lines at the 2008 Olympics and had to contend with Bronze despite having the gold medal labeled with her own name as she was tipped as the favorite.

American sprint legend Sanya Richards-Ross has opened up about the life-changing decision she made prior to the 2008 Olympic Games that significantly impacted her performance.

Despite being one of the most prolific sub-50 seconds 400-meter sprinters at that time, Richards-Ross had not yet won an individual world or Olympic title by that time. She had run a remarkable 27 races below the 50-second barrier, marking her as a favorite for gold in Beijing, China.

After winning the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, Richards-Ross was heavily favored to clinch the gold medal in the 400 meters at the Beijing Olympics. 

However, in a surprising turn of events, she faltered in the final. Leading the race as she came off the curve, she found herself unable to maintain her pace and finished with a bronze medal. 

Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain and Shericka Williams of Jamaica surged ahead to claim gold and silver, respectively. Richards-Ross later redeemed herself by anchoring Team USA to victory in the 4x400 meters relay, making up a significant deficit and securing the gold.

For many years, Richards-Ross attributed her unexpected loss in the 400 meters to a sudden right hamstring injury, lack of sleep, or fate.

However, in her 2017 memoir, Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Taught Me about God and Life, she revealed the true reason: she had discovered she was pregnant a month before the Games and chose to terminate the pregnancy the day before leaving for Beijing.

In a candid conversation on the Vault Empowers podcast, Richards-Ross shared the emotional and physical turmoil she endured following her decision.

“In 2008, I was favorite to win gold in the women’s 400. I had been undefeated all season, and that is like 15 or 16 races. I was dominating,” she recalled. 

“At the same time, I had been with my husband for about five years. At the time, we were engaged. I was not married to him yet but we were college sweethearts.”

Richards-Ross explained the shock she felt upon learning of her pregnancy. “Right before leaving for Beijing, I found out that I was pregnant.

"Even that in itself was difficult because, as a young athlete, we used to always hear that, ‘when you are at your youngest and fittest in your prime, you can’t get pregnant, you do not have enough body fat.’ I could not believe I was pregnant.”

The Olympic gold medal had been her dream since she was nine years old, and she felt unprepared for motherhood at that time. “I wanted to be a mom, but in 2008, I was not ready to be a mom.

"You talk about your faith being challenged. All of us, we have this kind of sin line. Everything is fine beyond this line but when you cross the line which you draw for yourself, it is like, who are you? How do you wrap your mind around that?”

Richards-Ross described the immense difficulty of her decision and its aftermath. “It was very difficult for me when I decided to have an abortion in 2008 and literally got on the plane the very next day to go to Beijing to compete. I feel like I left a piece of myself on that table.”

Despite medical advice against physical exertion for 14 days post-procedure, Richards-Ross continued to train and compete without anyone knowing.

 “The doctors had said I should not be doing those things for 14 days. My coaches did not know, my dad did not know, no one knew, so here I am training at that level with no support in that way. I won the prelims, and the semi-final, but the night before the final, I was in turmoil. My soul was just in turmoil and I could not sleep.”

Richards-Ross felt unworthy of winning the gold medal due to her recent decision. 

“I just felt I was not deserving of that moment. I had made a terrible choice a couple of days prior, and now here I was, asking God to give me the blessing of a lifetime. 

“Christine Ohurougou who won gold that day ran a great race and deserved that gold medal, but I feel like I gave the race away. I did not go there as confidently as I usually do.”

Following her disappointing race, Richards-Ross described an overwhelming sense of loss and disorientation. 

“It was overwhelming. I decided after the race not to go to the village. I am very fortunate because my family always makes these trips with me, and I remember they said it was the biggest disappointment of the Olympics,” she shared.

She recalled a moment of intense emotional distress, feeling lost both physically and spiritually. 

“I get off the bus, end up in the wrong place and I am crying so hard, I cannot even see through my eyes. I feel emotionally, physically, and spiritually lost. I am on my knees crying, and I felt God wrap his hands around me in Beijing, China,” she said.

This profound experience led to a sense of spiritual healing, allowing Richards-Ross to find strength. “To have that experience, whatever the cost, was worth it. It was a beautiful moment. I remember me and my mum being in tears because she knew what was going on with me and she was so happy for me,” she recounted.

Richards-Ross went on to channel this renewed strength into her performance in the 4x400 meters relay, delivering an outstanding anchor leg to secure the gold for Team USA. 

Her story highlights the often-hidden personal struggles athletes endure and underscores her resilience and ability to triumph over adversity.