Poised Richards gladly accepts sport's leadership role

Updated: June 19, 2007, 7:13 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Poised, personable and oh-so fast, Sanya Richards is ready to take over as the face of U.S. track and field, now that Justin Gatlin has fallen embarrassingly on his.

"I think he started to take the sport to higher levels with his accomplishments and charisma," Richards said, "but I think we have people now that can pick up the baton."

Richards is at the top of that list as the world's best female 400-meter runner.

She had the event's five fastest times last year, capped by an American record 48.70 seconds at the IAAF World Cup in Athens last Sept. 16.

After breaking 50 seconds nine times in 2006, she was named athlete of the year by the International Association of Athletics Federations -- the world governing body of track and field.

This week at the U.S. track and field championships, Richards will go after her fourth national 400-meter title -- and she's only 22.

"It's really humbling but really exciting," she said Tuesday, two days before the start of the meet. "There's a short window for you to be the best and have all these opportunities to be the face of the sport and a household name. I'm taking full advantage of those opportunities."

All that's missing is a major international title. She will be favored to win at least one at this year's world championships in Osaka and at next year's Olympics in Beijing.

"I'm training my butt off every day in practice to continue to win," Richards said, "because all this stuff comes from what you do on the track."

She enters the U.S. meet after competing only twice this year. She pulled out of her first four appearances because of a flu-like illness that still bothers her some.

It hasn't stopped her from entering the 200 as well as the 400 in Indy with an eye toward doubling next year in Beijing and, schedule permitting, this year in Osaka.

She believes that three years of working in Waco, Texas, with 400 guru Clyde Hart has prepared her to run that many rounds. Hart also coaches world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner. His former pupils include Olympic great and world record holder Michael Johnson.

Since she won the NCAA and her first U.S. crown in 2003 as a Texas freshman, Richards has been a leading member of a group of highly talented youngsters who vowed to clean up the sport's drug-stained image.

She recalls that she, Gatlin, LaShawn Merritt, Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams would make appearances carrying that anti-drug message as part of USA Track & Field's "Be a Champion" program. But last year at the Kansas Relays, Gatlin tested positive for steroids and other banned substances. Unless the penalty is reduced on appeal, the reigning 100-meter Olympic gold medalist faces an eight-year ban from the sport.

"I was really, really disappointed, but I like Justin a lot," Richards said. "I think he's a really great guy. There are so many stories now circulating about the circumstances. I'm hoping that he didn't know what was going on, that it was done without his knowledge and that he will be able to come back and prove that he's a great ambassador for the sport."

When she turned professional following her sophomore year at Texas, Richards asked her parents to serve as adviser and agent.

"She said, 'I just think you need to take care of me," her mother Sharon Richards said. "She just felt it was the right thing to do."

Sanya was born in Jamaica but moved with her parents to the United States at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen in 2002. Her support group has grown over the last few years.

Her boyfriend is Aaron Ross, a Texas cornerback who was the first-round pick of the New York Giants in this year's NFL draft.

She's even pitched an idea to MTV about a reality television show based on their relationship leading up to next year's Olympics. No one has written back.

"If not MTV, I don't care -- NBC, BET, any station," she said.

Her boyfriend shares her attitude toward success, Richards said.

"I think for every champion, it's a desire to be your best," she said. "Luckily for me, the person I fell in love with has that desire, too."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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