EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Reigning Olympic 400-meter champion Sanya Richards-Ross calls them gold-medal moments, when a complete stranger walks up to her and thanks her for a career that’s included plenty of celebrations, along with some tears.
Those moments are priceless for Richards-Ross, even more so with the 31-year-old retiring after the Rio de Janeiro Games. She’s a long shot to make the American squad at the Olympic trials because of a painful big toe that’s haunted her for years and a hamstring ailment that recently surfaced.
Richards-Ross insisted she’s OK if she doesn’t make the team — that it’s just as much about soaking it all in one last time.
Still, that competitive nature is hard to switch off. The four-time Olympic gold medalist and American record holder won’t go without one final kick down the back stretch.
“As an athlete, you’re optimistic until the very end. I can’t help but be that way,” said Richards-Ross, who begins Friday with a first-round heat. “If I’m in it, I can win it. If I don’t, I’m grateful that I made it this far.”
It’s been a stroll down memory lane for Richards-Ross since she arrived in Eugene earlier in the week. She and her dad went to the track and took a casual trip around it. Her dad has been by her side through her triumphs (her crowning achievement, 400-meter gold at the 2012 London Olympics) and her heartaches (finishing third at the 2008 Beijing Games when she struggled down the stretch and was later found crying underneath the stands). Not only that, but the health concerns, too — she spent five years fighting a painful autoimmune disease called Behcet’s syndrome, only to discover it may have been misdiagnosed.
“To walk the track with my dad and reflect on this amazing journey I’ve been on felt perfect,” Richards-Ross said. “I’m trying not to get too emotional, because I need to give everything on the track.”
Her big toe is a big reason she’s calling it a career. Before this season, she had her third surgery, but the pain remains a “10” when she runs. Her shoe company, Nike, designed a spike for her to train in to take the pressure off her foot and it helps, but the pain persists.
“There’s a quality of life thing where I don’t want to run to the point that I can’t walk,” she said. “I want to run with my kids one day and not say, ‘Well, I used to run but that was only when I was young.'”
She’s long been the gold standard in the 400 since her days at the University of Texas. She was a member of the last three 4×400 relay teams that captured Olympic gold, but an individual Olympic gold eluded her until London.
Richards-Ross would love nothing more than to defend her crown in Rio, but it’s going to be difficult with a field that includes Allyson Felix — even if she has a sore ankle — up-and-comer Courtney Okolo and Francena McCorory, to name a few. Making matters worse, Richards-Ross hurt her hamstring in a race a few weeks ago, limiting her practice time. This after finishing seventh, more than 2 seconds behind the winner, during the Prefontaine Classic in late May at Hayward Field.
“Just taking it one race at a time,” said Richards-Ross, who’s trained under legendary coach Clyde Hart.
She’s already thinking about her post-race career. At the top of the list, she’d like to start a family with her husband, NFL defensive back Aaron Ross. She’s also in the process of writing a book, owns several businesses — including a luxury car service with her husband and a salon with her sister — and wants to launch a broadcasting career.
“Be the female version of Michael Strahan, because he transitioned so well,” said Richards-Ross, who lives in Austin, Texas. “I want to do something with as much fire and passion as I did my sports career.”
While there’s a chance she could be in the U.S. relay pool if she doesn’t finish in the top three, there’s also a chance this could be it. If it is, Richards-Ross said she’s not sure how she will punctuate her final big race on the track.
“It’s impossible to rehearse for something like this,” Richards-Ross said. “I want to be in the moment and whatever my emotions lead me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
As for how she wants to be remembered, that’s simple: Giving every race everything she had.
“I hope that fans were inspired by my effort,” Richards-Ross said. “As I was leaving the track (Tuesday), this father tapped me on the shoulder and said to me, ‘Sanya, you’ve been such a good role model for my daughter. “‘
Another gold-medal moment.