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Superstar Richards prepares to take world by storm

Source: www.timesonline.co.uk

14 April 2007
By David Powell,
www.timesonline.co.uk

Sanya Richards is everything that athletics has been waiting for — a genuine new international star. True, there has been Carolina Kluft, Paula Radcliffe, Kenenisa Bekele, Asafa Powell, Hicham El Guerrouj in recent years — Justin Gatlin before he failed a drugs test — but all have had their limitations. Richards, the world woman athlete of 2006, has it all.

From the potential to be the dominant athlete at the Olympic Games in Beijing next year, to her infectious personality, model looks and celebrity boyfriend, Richards comes complete with mother, father and sister from the ideal family catalogue. Parents who changed their lives to help to make Sanya what she is today. A sister who does her hair and joins her in dance routines.

Then there is the extended Richards family. Clyde Hart, the coach, who trained Michael Johnson and now coaches her. Jeremy Wariner, the training partner, who is the men’s Olympic champion at Richards’s event, the 400 metres. Nothing this good has come along in the sport since Marion Jones launched her “Drive for Five” gold medals at Sydney in 2000, before her submergence in a swamp of drugs-related issues.

It is a lunchtime in downtown Austin, Texas, and Richards introduces your correspondent to her husband-to-be. Aaron Ross is a top-ten pick for the NFL draft which, insiders say, should guarantee him at least $25 million when he signs for a professional team this month — the Dallas Cowboys he hopes. Million-dollar girl marries multimillion-dollar man. Ross says that they are developing into the “Texas Power Couple”.

Richards was unbeaten at 400 metres last year, broke the long-standing United States women’s record, did the 200 and 400 double at the World Cup and charmed the sport’s glitterati with her gregarious nature and dazzling looks at the gala awards night in Monte Carlo when she collected the IAAF Athlete of the Year award. Ross won the Jim Thorpe Award as best defensive back in American college football. “She is at the top of her game and I am on the rise,” Ross says. They plan to marry in 2009, by which time Richards hopes to have four gold medals from the Beijing Olympics, joining legends such as Fanny Blankers-Koen, Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens in achieving the feat at a single Games. His goal is to play in a winning Super Bowl team. Achievable? “Absolutely,” Richards says.

Richards, 22, has her sights set on the 200 and 400 metres titles, and two relay golds, in Beijing. As she opens her 2007 season this month, she is stepping down to the 100 metres, a distance she has not raced since 2003, seeking to progress towards the US 4 x 100 metres team for the World Championships, in Osaka, Japan, in August. The timetable prevents her doubling at 200 and 400 in Osaka, but that should change for Beijing.

Back at the family home, on the outskirts of Austin, Richards’s father, Archie, shows footage of the nine-year-old Sanya winning the 300 metres and the 100 metres at the National Prep School Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. We are watching on a 52in screen and the entertainment extends to Sanya and her sister, Shari, performing their Nutbush City Limits routine.

Guess which one is Tina Turner? “I had just started working out, so my legs had started to look good,” Sanya says. “My sister was, like, ‘you’ve got Tina Turner legs’, so that’s why we did it.” That one was filmed some years ago, but they work on new routines whenever time permits. “I would go crazy if I was thinking about track 24/7,” Richards says.

The first door on the right after entering the Richards residence opens to “Sanya’s Memorabilia Room”, as the athlete’s mother, Sharon, calls it. Apart from the desk, where Sharon works as her daughter’s manager, the room is given over to trophies, medals and photographs from the career of the world’s top woman athlete since her earliest school days.

On the desk is the IAAF Athlete of the Year award, medals are hung on three hooks and there is an eye-catching framed picture on the wall of Richards as a junior, just 18, anchoring the US to victory in the 4 x 400 metres at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. “She brought the team home ahead of the Russians and Jamaicans — that was special,” Sharon says.

The room is a veritable museum. “Sanya walked in here the first time and she was, like, ‘Is this all mine?’ ” Sharon says. “We keep everything. It keeps me motivated and wanting to keep working with her.” Archie, too, is part of Sanya’s support team, overseeing her coaching and ensuring that she gets the best nutrition.

The Richards family moved from Jamaica when Sanya was 12. Archie, a former outside left for the Jamaica under19 football team, felt that he might have become a better player with greater support and his lost opportunity convinced him that his daughters should not suffer in the same way. So they left their family rent-a-car and clothing businesses in Kingston and moved to Florida. “The girls did not want to come, they were kicking and screaming,” Archie says. But it was not long before Sanya chose the US over Jamaica.

Forced to pick between the countries for the World Junior Championships in 2002 — ironically in Kingston — she opted for the US and won medals at 200 and 400 metres. “I sat down with my parents and wrote out the pros and cons of competing for the US or Jamaica,” Richards says. “I was going to go to university in the US and work with American coaches. A lot of US athletes were my friends. I just thought it would be the best decision for me and I am happy I made it.”

While the profiles of Kl?ft and Radcliffe suffer from them competing rarely and Powell, Bekele and El Guerrouj have lacked personality, Richards has all the tools for sustained stardom. The Texas Power Couple are ready for lift-off, or at least one of them is. “I think she is more ready than I am,” Ross says. “She likes things like that.” Her museum awaits.

Different faces of all-round phenomenon

Mischievous Sanya

She wears a bullet on a chain around her neck when racing and still tells the story, tongue-in-cheek, to new acquaintances of how she was shot in the rear while out playing as a child in Jamaica. The truth? “My mom gave it to me,” Sanya says. “She told me I was faster than a bullet.”

Persuasive Sanya

Her boyfriend, Aaron Ross, lacked confidence and aggression as a college American football cornerback until Sanya put him straight. “He preferred to make a safer tackle, I preferred that he knock the receiver’s lights out,” she says. He changed his game, acknowledging: “When a woman tells you that you have got to hit harder, that is something you take to mind.”

Poster-girl Sanya

“I remember watching Marion Jones go for five golds at the Sydney Olympics [in 2000] and it made me want to be the face of track and field like she was.”

Catwalk Sanya

“Marie-Jos? P?rec was a phenomenal athlete. She did the 200/400 double in Atlanta [at the 1996 Olympics] and made the 400 look easy. She was so graceful. But she was a personality as well — a model — which is something I aspire to. She was the first version of me.”

Cheeky Sanya

On why she and Aaron Ross, whom she plans to marry in 2009, are not engaged (Ross is waiting to be drafted into an NFL team): “He has to get a job first.”

Showgirl Sanya

Began performing Tina Turner dance routines after she started working out and her sister told her that she had legs like the pop diva.

Unbeatable Sanya

Won all 13 of her 400 metres finals in 2006.

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