Sanya Richards-Ross

Sanya Richards-Ross wants revenge in 2015, history in 2016

1 Comment

NEW YORK — Sanya Richards-Ross at last won the Olympic 400m in her third try in 2012. Then she required two right big toe surgeries and filmed a reality TV show.

So amid all that in summer 2013, the married woman considered retiring to start a family.

“For one second,” Richards-Ross said at a Midtown Manhattan hotel Thursday, two days before she competes in the Millrose Games (NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra, 6 p.m. ET). “I accomplished my greatest goals in the sport, and I’m happy. And the injury was tough. There were days where, literally, the pain was so intense I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to run on my foot.

“But I think there’s something inside of athletes, this burning desire to always see how much better you can be. I don’t think I’m done yet. I still love it. I still feel like my best is yet to come.”

Richards-Ross, who turns 30 in two weeks, points to the history of her event. Michael Johnson ran his fastest time at age 31. Marie-Jose Perec and Cathy Freeman won Olympic golds in their late 20s.

The motivation is evident when Richards-Ross utters “revenge” in anticipating this summer’s World Championships in Beijing. Not for the 2013 World Championships, which she failed to qualify for due in large part to that toe, but for the 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital. The favorite, she led off the final turn and fell behind Great Britain’s Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaica’s Shericka Williams in the final 50 meters.

“I want to conquer that track,” Richards-Ross said of the Bird’s Nest.

Richards-Ross returned in 2014 following two straight years cut short by surgeries for hallux rigidus, two bones in her big toe rubbing against each other. She couldn’t run in spikes at the 2013 U.S. Championships final due to the big toe pain.

“I think I have the sneakers record,” she joked of a sixth-place finish, 51.92 seconds.

The second surgery that summer inserted a screw and elevated the big toe permanently — “a little deformity,” Richards-Ross said.

Now, there’s less pressure when Richards-Ross pushes out of the blocks. Though one could argue that’s been the case since she finally won that individual Olympic gold in London.

Richards-Ross was back in form by late June last year, when she ran 49.66 in the U.S. Championships final in Sacramento.

She finished second to Francena McCorory, whose 49.48 was the fastest time from an American woman since Richards-Ross at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

“To be honest, 49.4 is actually a time I’ve run quite a few times, it’s not very threatening to me,” Richards-Ross said. “I think when I’m at my best, I know I can run that time and better, so what I look forward to is for me and Francena continuing to push each other.”

Richards-Ross and McCorory were the only women in the world to break 50 seconds last year and combined for seven of the eight fastest times overall. McCorory has been on Richards-Ross’ radar since 2006, when she broke Richards-Ross’ national high school indoor 400m record on a flat track.

At the London Olympics, McCorory handed the baton to anchor Richards-Ross in the 4x400m relay final.

“I know Francena wants to run sub-49,” Richards-Ross said. “My hope is that I’m in such great shape that we’re battling at 49 low, 48 seconds.”

Richards-Ross also ran the 200m at the London Olympics, finishing fifth. She says it’s “not worth it” to race the 200m anymore because of the pressure and force put on her toe blasting out of the blocks.

That will limit her races against Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix, though Felix has said she’s more open to making the 400m her complementary event heading toward Rio. Felix (and McCorory) outran Richards-Ross at the 2011 World Championships before dropping the 400m for the 100m for London 2012.

“I welcome the best challengers,” Richards-Ross said, cracking a smile. “If Allyson wants to focus on the four, come get some.”

Richards-Ross will be older in 2016 than any woman who owns an Olympic 400m medal, according to sports-reference.com. One woman has won back-to-back Olympic 400m golds — Perec in 1992 and 1996.

“I can see this being my last Olympics,” Richards-Ross said, “but then there are some times where I’m like, I want to have a kid and come back. I think the closer you get to possibly retiring is the more you want to push that further away, because you love what you do.”

More Track and Field: Lauryn Williams retires from bobsled | Usain Bolt ready after ‘off’ season, meeting Michael Jordan | Galen Rupp on Mo Farah, marathons, truck stop drug test

Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

Leave a comment

In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

Leave a comment

In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!