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Career
summer 2023

Sanya Richards-Ross on Success from Olympic Gold to Reality TV

Olympic Gold Medal Winner Tanya Richards-Ross on Switching Tracks and Taking Control of Your Life
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team
Sanya Richards-Ross

Speed queen Sanya Richards-Ross—the fastest American woman in history over 400 meters—has some unlikely-sounding advice for young people starting out in life: slow down! The four-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion runner cautions against missing out on today because you’re so focused on getting to tomorrow.

Looking back on her younger self, she was “still very unsure of who I was, and I was in this rush to be great and to dominate on the track,” she says. “If I could have reassured myself that everything I needed was already within me, I could slow down, enjoy the journey and really feel the experiences that I was having.”

She is certainly doing that now, appreciating family life (a son with husband Aaron, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants) and a multifaceted career. A longstanding NBC sports commentator, Richards-Ross is also a veteran Nike ambassador, a recent addition to the lineup of Bravo’s long-running The Real Housewives of Atlanta and founder of MommiNation, a multimedia community supporting Black mothers (“We believe that it takes a village to raise a child and a NATION to support a Mom”). Along the way, she has also written two books (Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me About God and Life and Run With Me: The Story of a U.S. Olympic Champion).

Though she hung up her running shoes almost a decade ago, the principles and practices that drove her to dominate the 400 meters continue to fuel her success today. “I always say that sports, and specifically track and field, have been my greatest life teachers,” Richards-Ross tells WayMaker Journal. And maybe the single most important lesson she learned, as an Olympian, was about delayed gratification.

For while she now says it’s important to take time to enjoy the present, she says you should still have an eye on the future. “There’s nothing like the track and field experience, where you are literally training every single day for an opportunity that comes once every four years,” she says. “It’s really, really hard to wrap your mind around that level of commitment, dedication and focus. And you only get one shot at it.”

Many times, “you’re putting in work, you’re doing things that nobody’s going to see, that feels in the moment very arduous, very challenging. You get knocked down; you have failure. But if you can stay focused on the long-term, that’s where the reward is.”

Jamaican pride

With so many different commitments, Richards-Ross has accepted that she can’t be everywhere at the same time. Still, she can be fully present wherever she is. “Obviously, when I’m being the best commentator, I’m not being the best mom because I’m not at home,” she acknowledges.

“But how I have been able to find joy and peace in ‘having it all’ is giving my best to that thing that I’m doing right now. So, when I’m in mommy mode, my phone is off, I am with my son, and I’m very intentional about the time I spend with him, and that’s very fulfilling to me. And when I’m working, I’m very fulfilled by the fact that I’m doing the things that I’m passionate about and I’m giving back to the world and I’m setting an example for my son.

“So I think you can have it all, but you do have to prioritize, and you have to be OK with not always being perfect at everything and not always being present for everything.”

Richards-Ross was a winner from her early years growing up in Jamaica, a small island nation (population less than 3 million) with a disproportionate number of athlete greats. They have amassed over 70 Olympic, World Championship and Commonwealth gold medals. “It’s just in our DNA,” she says. “To see the impact athletes from that small island have had in this sport all over the world, and to have been a little part of that history, brings me a lot of joy.”

Her love for athletics was sparked as a 7-year-old when she took part in a fun sports day, beating everyone else and getting recruited for the school team. When she was 12, the family immigrated to the United States to pursue better educational opportunities. Her high school 400 record still stands. 

Though she enjoyed running, it was her father who first saw real potential in her. “I remember him telling my mom when I was 9, 10, 11 and 12, ‘She’s going to be a world-beater, she’s going to be the world’s best.’” 

It wasn’t only his encouragement that spurred her on, but also his challenge. Richards-Ross suffered her first serious injury in her junior year of high school. “I wasn’t running as well, and I remember my dad saying to me that summer, ‘Do you want to be the best?’ I realized in that moment that being the best meant being intentional about it and really putting in the work.” 

She began to apply herself with a vengeance. Her grueling training regime included 1,000 core exercises a day: situps, obliques, toe-touches. “I always felt like whenever you want to do something great, you make some big commitment, some huge sacrifice,” she says. 

Richards-Ross spent two years at the University of Texas in Austin before turning pro—time that was “crucial to my success and my longevity in the sport,” and during which she debuted for Team USA at the World Championships, anchoring the 4×400 relay gold win as an 18-year-old. During her career, she was twice named Female World Athlete of the Year and won gold at three consecutive Olympics. Those medals included a still-talked-about final leg in the 4×400 relay at the 2008 Games in Beijing, when she clawed back a 10-meter deficit to beat the Russians. 

Mental fitness

Though Richards-Ross’ athletic career had its remarkable highs, there were also low moments, back before there was as much awareness of the mental health stresses on top-flight sportsmen and women as there is today. “We were expected to push through no matter how you were feeling mentally; to go out there and perform,” she recalls. “And so in the early part of my career, I struggled with the mental pressures that I mostly put on myself to always be perfect, to always win, to always excel.” 

Working with a sports psychologist was a game-changer for her. “He helped give me real tools to deal with the stressors that came with being the best in the world and always having that target on my back.” 

What she learned helped prepare her for the 2012 Games in London—her third Olympics, itself something of a rarity for the track, and probably her last chance to win the individual gold that had so far eluded her. 

“I did a lot of visualization,” she says. “I would see myself crossing that finish line first. I would walk through the experience of what it was like to be in the warmup area with the women, to walk through that tunnel and step onto that track in front of 90,000 people in person and, of course, millions live, and to cross that finish line first.” 

She also practiced controlling her breathing, a technique caught in the video of her gold-winning final. “I put my hand right on my stomach, and I breathe into my stomach, and I ground myself with my breath, remembering that I am prepared for this moment and I’m equipped to win this race,” she says. To this day, she still turns to visualization, positive affirmations and the power of her breath when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. 

Although she was laser-focused on her performance during her years in athletics, Richards-Ross was also looking beyond the finish line to life after. “Growing up, my dad always used to say to me, ‘Never be one-dimensional,’ and I always remembered that. I knew I would eventually have to stop running because my body would no longer allow me to do it, and I started to think of what else am I great at?” 

That required some counterintuitive thinking, envisaging herself as “more than the athlete, which is really challenging because when you are in it that’s all that everyone tells you to do: eat, sleep, breathe track and field.” But she began to network and meet people, “and when the opportunities presented, I was ready. I was blessed to be able to make a very smooth transition.” 

Role model

Good preparation means you are ready for unexpected opportunities, she discovered. After her final race in 2016—when injury forced her to pull up short at the Olympic trials—she was asked in an interview what was next. She wanted to start a family, write a book and become a commentator, she answered. “NBC called me literally the next day and asked, ‘Were you serious about that?’ And I was in the [commentary] booth the following day.” 

Richards-Ross’ philosophy—“always say yes to life”—led to her joining the popular Housewives series. She had been in Atlanta working on Central Live, a new entertainment news show (“dream job”) that faltered during the COVID-19 pandemic—“a lot of things didn’t work in the world at that time.” 

Somehow, she came to the attention of the Housewives producers, however. “When they reached out to me I wasn’t sure, but there’s something about me that always says yes first, and then I kind of figure it out,” she says. “I just thought it would be a great opportunity for people to see me in a different light. I also feel that for shows like that, I want to be what I want to see on television, and so to be able to bring my Black love, my Black excellence, all of that to television… I’m still very grateful to be on that platform.” 

Housewives isn’t her first foray into reality TV: back in 2013, she starred in the WE show Glam and Gold, which followed her as she trained and at home and ran for one season. Part of her reason for letting the cameras into her personal life is that she wants to be intentional about “pouring into the next generation and showing them what’s possible,” she says. “Because if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And I’m just grateful for the people that did that for me.” 

With her own track-switching in mind, from competing to commentating, Richards-Ross has some career advice for those enjoying success in sports: don’t get locked into one lane. “All blessings aren’t meant to last a lifetime,” she says. “The minute I realized that track and field was a blessing that was for a time, and it was a setting, a foundation for me that I would be able to stand on to do all the other things, it freed me up to go out and try other things.” 

Transition can be scary, she agrees, “but it’s exciting and it’s OK to move on from something that you gave your heart to, something that you loved all of your life. It’s OK to give yourself permission to do that.” 

At the same time, recognize that what you learn in one world can help prepare you for another. “Every single thing that you’re learning as you’re developing as an athlete is absolutely preparing you for real life,” she says. Setting goals, being disciplined, learning to come back from disappointment—as she did in winning the individual 400 meters gold in 2012, having taken only the bronze four years earlier—“all of those things have helped me in entrepreneurship and in parenting and in becoming a mom. Just know that all of those skills that you have honed actually will really help you as you transition from athlete to that next thing.” 

SANYA RICHARDS-ROSS: MY WAYMAKERS

My dad, for sure: he believed so long and so strongly that I could be special that he made me believe it too. My mom sacrificed so much to help me on my journey; she was my manager and traveled all over the world with me my entire career. Then there were role models like [Olympic gold heptathlete] Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who I was very blessed to meet early on in my career. She would send me encouraging words and set this example of excellence that I was able to follow.

The commitment that my coaches made to my career and my success is just mind-blowing, from my coaches in Jamaica to my coaches at high school and college. In particular, there were my professional coaches; not just my track coach, Clyde Hart, but I had a strength coach, Bruce Johnson, who went above and beyond the call of duty to be there for me mentally, spiritually and physically to help me be great. I know that I would not have gotten to where I am without people like him, who just bought into my dream. I got to stand on the podium, yet his level of commitment always matched mine.

She had always enjoyed television and, with her father’s prodding, took the interviews she did seriously. They would watch recordings of her appearances “and he was like, ‘You have got to slow down [talking]. People are only going to see you for 50 seconds. This is the chance for them to get to know you and to see your personality.’ I was always really thinking of myself as a brand and thinking of myself holistically.’”

From an interview with Louis Carr