EUGENE, Ore. — Sanya Richards-Ross walked the final homestretch of her gold medal-winning career, head high, as she waved to the cheering crowd, the tiniest limp betraying the loss of her final Olympic dream.
Trying to qualify at the U.S. Olympic trials for her fourth Games, Richards-Ross accelerated into the final turn of her 400-meter preliminary heat, then “I literally felt my hamstring grab on me.”
She was not surprised. Richards-Ross suffered a grade-two hamstring strain 2½ weeks ago running the 100 at an Atlanta meet. Her doctor said it would take four to six weeks to recover. That’s when Richards-Ross truly contemplated the end of a journey that included three 4×400 Olympic golds, a 400-meter victory at the 2012 London Games, and the American outdoor record of 48.70 seconds.
The crowd of 20,987 at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field understood the moment, gently ushering the 31-year-old champion into retirement with a prolonged ovation.
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Allyson Felix ran through the pain.
Despite an early exit from the U.S. track and field trials, five-time Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff has set the stage, and standard, for young Rio hopefuls such as Vashti Cunningham.
“I’ll always remember how the crowd reacted,” she said.
“Someone asked before the race how would I love to go out, and I said I would just enjoy the moment,” she said. “To be able to run a half a victory lap here at Hayward Field for my final 400 that I didn’t finish, I thought was pretty special.”
Richards-Ross won her first relay gold in Athens in 2004. Four years later in Beijing, she took a disappointing bronze in the 400 but ran down a Russian on the final stretch of the relay to give her team the gold. And she finally captured the individual 400-meter gold medal in London.
“My lows have been just as special as my highs. They taught me a lot about myself. They made me a better person,” she said Friday, her voice finally starting to quaver with emotion. “I’m really grateful even for my bronze in Beijing. I think it’s the reason I won in London, and it made London that much more special.”
She had already announced that she would retire after the Olympics. The rest of her life beckons — having children with her husband, Super Bowl champion cornerback Aaron Ross; various business ventures; perhaps a broadcasting career.
All of that became real halfway around the track Friday, when her hamstring suddenly announced that she would not be going to Rio.
“That’s the toughest part for every athlete,” she said. “You really want to go to the Olympics. No matter how banged up you are, you still think it’s possible. I just thought, ‘Man, this is really the end of it for me, I won’t get a chance to compete.’ That was the toughest part.
“Then, immediately after, I thought, ‘I’ve been so blessed, I can’t cry, can’t complain, I’ll keep my head up.'”
She hopes fans remember her determination. “I don’t win every time I step on the track, so I don’t deserve [today’s] ovation because I’m always a champion. But I think they just see my heart and my determination and my desire to be a good person. Hopefully they saw a little of God in me every time I stepped in the track.”
Toward the end of her media session, as many from the tight-knit track community thanked and congratulated her, Richards-Ross finally wiped a tear from her eye.
“Sometimes you give everything you have and it just doesn’t work out,” she said. “And that’s OK, too.”