There was joy, there was triumph, and there was exuberance when Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix each captured their first individual Olympic gold medals in the 400- and 200-meters, respectively, this past week.
But above all, perhaps, there was relief.
It was visible, after Richards-Ross saw the scoreboard finally confirm her victory in Sunday’s 400 final – as she heaved a big sigh and broke into a smile before raising her arms skyward – and she said as much afterward. Felix basically did the same thing Wednesday after she crossed the line first in the 200 final. They would go on to collect Team USA relay golds in the 4x100 (World record 40.82 Friday with Felix on third leg) and 4x400 (3:16.88 victory with Felix running second and Richards anchoring) by the time the action concluded on the track Saturday during these 30th Olympic Games in London.
“It's a huge weight off my shoulders,” Richards-Ross admitted to ESPN.
But if a decade ago, when they were prep sprint prodigies, you’d told Richards-Ross and Felix that it wouldn’t be until 2012 that they’d reach their ultimate goals in track and field, chances are that despite the perseverance each surely possessed even then, you would have gotten a classic impatient teenage reaction.
What? No waayyy. You’re kidding, right?
Sorry about that, girls.
Flash back to August, 2002: Richards-Ross was just 17 and had finished at St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida. She had just won two medals (400 silver, 200 bronze) at
the World Junior Championships in her hometown of Kingston. She owned the 400 meter prep USR at 50.69, set during her USATF Juniors double earlier at Stanford, which also included a dramatic victory over Felix in the 200. Richards would go on to University of Texas and the following two years make her first U.S. senior teams for the 2003 Worlds in Paris and the 2004 Olympics in Athens, winning 4x400 relay golds in each.
Felix, in 2002 a 16-year-old finishing her junior year at Los Angeles Baptist, had crumpled to the track after that Juniors 200 loss with a hamstring injury and would struggle somewhat in finishing fifth behind Richards-Ross in the World Junior 200. But the following spring she would break the 200 indoor and outdoor prep USRs before turning pro and also make the Paris WC team. At just 18 years old in 2004, Felix would win silver in the Olympic 200.
Yes, few, if any, preps had ever seemed more destined for greatness than Richards-Ross and Felix and there’s no question that nothing less than Olympic gold in their specialties would do – and sooner rather than later, thank you. But it can be a roller-coaster ride to the top, marred for many athletes by injury, illness, bad races, and close-but-not-quites.
Coming into 2012, Richards had the American record at 400 (48.70), two Olympic and four World Championships 4x400 golds, the 2005 silver and 2009 gold medals for the World Champs 400, and a pile of other titles and honors. Felix possessed three World Champs 200 titles, six relay golds in the combined global championships over the years, and much more among her achievements and accolades.
But it was the less-than-fond memories of the 2008 Beijing Olympics that haunted them, with Felix taking a second 200 silver and Richards-Ross a 400 bronze. It was hard not to be defined by that. 2008 was to be their time and to wait four more years was an eternity.
“I think about how I ended in Beijing, and kind of feeling discouraged there,” said Felix to USATF after Saturday’s relay triumphs, “and now for years later to have all of this happen and to really accomplish every goal that I set out, is just such a blessing.”
For Felix, the three World 200 titles she won in 2005, 2007 and 2009 certainly
established that, at her best, no one in the world could top her. Yet the margin for error is slim and there have been other global stars to contend with, like Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell-Brown, who topped Felix for Olympic gold in both 2004 and 2008. In 2011, Felix went for a 400/200 double at Worlds, and had to settle for respective silver and bronze medals, breaking her threepeat Worlds streak in the shorter race.
So in 2012, Felix needed more speed, she decided, and she went instead for the 100/200 double. She would finish third in the Olympic Trials 100 and fifth in the final, and the speed she gained training for that was a big boost in her running a PR and meet record 21.69 for 200 in the Trials and then her 21.88 this week for London gold.
“I was in tears in Beijing, and gosh, complete opposite tonight,” she said to USATF after her 200 victory. “For it all to come together is just extremely special … I knew if I went out and ran my race it would come together … I said ‘Thank you, Lord.’ It was relief, joy, just a flood of emotions.”
“The moments that motivated me the most were losing on the biggest stage and never forgetting that feeling,” she told ESPN’s Bonnie Ford. “Now I’m able to say that I embrace that journey, because that is what has pushed me all these years.”
The road for Richards-Ross has been even more challenging. Mixed in with her American 400 record in 2006 and the 2009 World title were years like 2007 and 2011, when she missed Team USA for the Worlds (in the individual 400, though she did win relay golds), and 2010 when she missed much of the year with an ankle injury.
She spent five years fighting an autoimmune disease called Behcet's syndrome, which almost certainly contributed to the Beijing bronze. After a visit to a different doctor, she thinks she's been misdiagnosed. Fighting her illness -- which causes fatigue, sores around her mouth and splotchy skin -- with a new treatment, Richards-Ross said she arrived in London feeling as good as she has in years.
“What I have learned is you don’t win the race until you win the race,” she said after the 400 victory in 49.55. “I knew I had to cross the finish line first to call myself the Olympic champion … “I kept telling myself, ‘You are the champ. You are the champ.’ To go out there and actually accomplish it is really fantastic.”
More long quests fulfilled - somewhat
Team USA Olympians who medaled in London this week also included this trio of “DyeStat Alums” – athletes who we followed prominently on DyeStat during their prep careers – who have also had their ups and downs during the years before their London accomplishments. Each has a different take on their silver medals and, no doubt, still have gold medal aspirations for the future.
Lashinda Demus, 400H Silver, 52.77 – Few Team USA stars yearned for a gold – and only gold – more than Lashinda Demus, who has been on the path to the top since
she became the first – and still only – prep to break 40 seconds in the 300H while at Long Beach Wilson CA in 2001. Somewhat similar to Richards and Felix, she’d experienced international championship success – a gold (2011) and two silvers (2005, 2009) in World Champs 400H finals – but her Olympic resume had been even more limited, as she bowed out in the 2004 semis, and then was fourth in the 2008 Trials after a year off to have children.
In Wednesday’s final, she battled for the gold all the way, gradually catching Russia’s Natalya Antyukh in the home straight, but falling .07 short. “I can’t explain how bad I wanted a gold,” she told USATF. “I have been dreaming about it for years … Number two in the world says a lot, but number one says a lot more, so I won’t stop till I get that.”
Jason Richardson, 110H Silver, 13.04 – Jason Richardson’s high school career, which saw him ultimately move into the (then) top five all-time in the 110H (13.38) and
400H (49.79) in 2004, certainly portended a great collegiate and international career, but it took a while for the Cedar Hill TX product to get there. A 13.21 over the 42-inch barriers helped him get in the U.S. top 10 in 2008, and then he finally really broke through in 2011, when he appeared to get second in the World Championship 110H final and then was awarded gold after a disqualification for Cuban Dayron Robles.
Richardson took a 13.15 PR into 2012 and lowered it to 12.98 in the Trials while finishing second to Aries Merritt. He was again beaten by Merritt in the Olympic Final, despite a near-PR 13.04. The result seemed to leave him with mixed feelings while talking to USATF, saying he was happy for Merritt and that “the best man won here today,” but also wanting more. “You don’t train to get second … If I am satisfied with silver then there is no hope for gold, so I will keep that hunger.”
Leo Manzano, 1500 Silver, 3:34.79 - It’s unlikely that anyone would have pegged Leo Manzano as having a strong chance at an Olympic medal out of high school and, despite all of his accomplishments as a
collegian and a pro, few gave him a strong chance when he toed the line Tuesday for the 1500 final. Manzano has often been one of the USA’s better runners, and is blessed with perhaps the best kick of any American middle distance runner, but has also been maddeningly inconsistent. Four times he had made U.S. teams for the Worlds (2007, 2009, 2011) or Olympics (2008) and only once had made the final (12th at 2009 WC). On the other hand, he came into 2012 with PRs of 3:32.37 and 3:50.64 (mile), and enough instances in domestic or NCAA championships (or international invites) of winning with devastating kicks that it was not impossible to imagine him putting it all together at the right time for a really big result.
That perfect storm came Tuesday. In his two qualifying races, Manzano got it done, but hardly propelled his name into everyone’s medal predictions, but in the final he was always in the mix, positioned decently into the final 200 off a moderate pace, and his kick was at its very best. He passed four others in the final stretch with only Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi finishing ahead of him. Amazingly, his 3:34.79 is the fastest any American has ever run in an Olympic final, faster than Jim Ryun, Steve Scott, and all the rest.
“I’m really excited, so thrilled and so pumped,” he said to USATF. “It was an insane race. It was probably the toughest race physically and mentally that I’ve ever been in.”
In more detail to Letsrun.com, he explained that the pace felt faster than it really was and he had moments of doubt. Then, “Coming around the (final) turn I asked the big man for some help … My legs just felt like they were bricks, but something inside of me just said, ‘Keep going, keep going, keep pushing, keep pushing … I really prayed, ‘God give me the strength to push through' and I definitely felt a surge of energy just flow through my body and the next thing I know I’m in second.”
As a prep at Marble Falls TX, Class of 2004, Leo ran 4:16 and 9:18 for the 16/32 as a frosh, 4:11 and 9:06 as a soph, 4:06 plus 1:51 for 800 as a junior, then 1:50.48 (4th adidas outdoor) as a senior.
Next: Recent "DyeStat Alums" Christian Taylor and others take fast track to Olympic success