As the outdoor track and field season began in earnest, Sha’Carri Richardson offered a succinct self-assessment that, so far, can also apply to U.S. women’s flat sprinting.
“Y’all say I’m back,” she said earlier this month. “I’m not back. I’m better.”
Ten months ago, the U.S. earned zero medals across the women’s 100m, 200m and 400m at a world championships for the first time. A year before that, the U.S. didn’t win a single gold or silver medal across those events at an Olympics for the first time since 2000.
Times are changing. To be more specific, they’re getting quicker for U.S. female sprinters.
Collectively, they’ve been the story of the early season: Richardson’s hot start in the 100m and 200m, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone‘s decision to start racing the flat 400m and Britton Wilson‘s similar choice between the flat 400m and hurdles. What’s more, McLaughlin-Levrone and Olympic 800m champion Athing Mu could each go for three gold medals at this August’s worlds by adding the mixed-gender and women’s 4x400m relays to their lineups (see about that for Mu, since the 800m final is an hour before the women’s 4x400m final on the last day).
On Saturday, Richardson headlines the 100m at the Los Angeles Grand Prix (4:30-6 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app and Peacock).
She’s already the world’s fastest woman this year (it’s early) after clocking 10.76 seconds on May 5 (and beating world silver medalist Shericka Jackson of Jamaica). She’s also second-fastest in the world this year in the 200m, registering 22.07 two weeks ago while shutting it down early in an easy victory.
In LA, Richardson faces a 100m field that includes the second-fastest U.S. woman this year, fellow former LSU Tiger Aleia Hobbs. It marks another test for Richardson, who come July’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships will try to make her first global championship team. The 200m in LA features Olympic bronze medalist Gabby Thomas, who was slowed last year by a torn hamstring but torched her 400m personal best in April.
Richardson has spoken about finding her peace on the track again, two years after having her Olympic Trials win stripped for testing positive for marijuana, which she used after learning of the death of her biological mother. Last year, Richardson was eliminated in the 100m heats at USATF Outdoors.
NBC Sports analysts Sanya Richards-Ross and Ato Boldon both have Richardson winning a 100m medal at August’s worlds in Hungary, should she keep this up. No U.S. woman has won an Olympic or world 100m medal since the late Tori Bowie‘s title in 2017.
Boldon said Richardson has specifically worked on her start with coach Dennis Mitchell, and it is much improved.
“What I’m seeing now is I think that she has regained her confidence,” Richards-Ross said. “You could tell in her early couple of races, she looked a little bit timid, especially through some of her phases. But now, when she’s coming up and getting tall in the final phases of the 100m or the 200m, she looks so confident.”
Jamaica owned the women’s 100m for the last 16 years, but Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the reigning world champion, has yet to race this year, withdrawing from her most recent scheduled meet with a reported knee injury.
“It’s just hard to bet against someone who has so much experience and so many medals,” Richards-Ross said of the 36-year-old Fraser-Pryce, who owns two Olympic 100m titles, five world 100m titles and is coming off her most dominant season yet. “So until she proves me different, I think that she’s still the favorite.”
Elaine Thompson-Herah, the reigning Olympic champion, raced one low-key 200m and 400m this season, ranking outside the world top 100 in each event. Jackson is the lone Jamaican superstar to compete at the top level so far this spring, and Richardson beat her.
Moving up in distance, the U.S. could be taking over the flat 400m in the absence of Olympic and world champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas, who gave birth to a son last month.
McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world champion and world record holder in the 400m hurdles, has yet to compete this outdoor season. But the three races she’s announced are all in the flat 400m — the LA Grand Prix (from which she then withdrew), the Paris Diamond League on June 9 and USATF Outdoors in early July.
She has a bye into the 400m hurdles at worlds as defending champion, but her coach, Bobby Kersee, said she will race one individual event at worlds, to be decided after USATF Outdoors. That means she could bypass the hurdles for the flat 400m, should she finish top three at USATF Outdoors.
Richards-Ross and Boldon wouldn’t be surprised if McLaughlin-Levrone does not clear a single hurdle in competition this year.
“She’s done everything imaginable in the 400m hurdles, so it makes sense that in a season that’s not an Olympic year that she’d decide to do the 400m, see how fast she can run,” said Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400m champion.
Richards-Ross believes that her American record of 48.70 seconds is under threat this season. Her eyes are not only on McLaughlin-Levrone, who at last July’s worlds posted the second-fastest 4x400m relay split in the last 33 years, but also Wilson, a University of Arkansas junior.
At the SEC Championships two weeks ago, Wilson won the 400m in 49.13 seconds, a time that would have taken silver at the last Olympics and worlds. Less than two hours later, she won the 400m hurdles in 53.28, just two tenths off her personal best, for the fastest one-day 400m-400m hurdles double in history.
Boldon believes the 400m hurdles is her best event. Richards-Ross says it’s proving to be the flat 400m.
Wilson is running both events again at this weekend’s NCAA regionals. The finals at the NCAA Championships in two weeks are 25 minutes apart. At July’s USATF Outdoors, the 400m final and 400m hurdles semifinals are 15 minutes apart, so conventional wisdom says she must pick one race there, though Wilson has not announced her plans.
How Richards-Ross analyzed Wilson could hold true for multiple U.S. sprinters this season.
“She’s barely scratched the surface,” she said.
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