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Before RHOA, New Housewife Sanya Richards-Ross Made History at the Olympics
"There is nothing like the Olympic experience," the four-time gold medalist in track and field said.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta will be welcoming Sanya Richards-Ross to the cast in the upcoming Season 14. But before Sanya was the proud holder of a peach, she was used to carrying gold medals in her hands as a four-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field.
Sanya became the first female athlete in history to win gold in the women's 4 x 400m relay at three consecutive Olympics as part of USA's team that reigned supreme in the event at the Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), and London (2012) Summer Games. She also earned an individual gold medal in the Women's 400m at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Sanya previously won the bronze medal in that event at the 2008 Summer Games.
As the world prepares for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which kicks off on February 3 on NBC and Peacock, The Daily Dish spoke to Sanya over the phone in mid-January to learn exactly what it's like to be an Olympian — and it turns out that the experience is actually almost indescribable. "It's very hard to describe because anything I tell you, it is bigger, more significant, more grandiose than I could put into words," Sanya said. "For most athletes that get an opportunity to compete in the Olympics, it's a dream come true. And I always say that there is nothing like the Olympic experience."
That's because there's a certain feeling that just comes with the world's greatest athletes all coming together in one place. "There's a moment that was always the most meaningful for me. The first day you walk into the Olympic Village, there is this spirit and feeling of, like, a utopia, because there is just so much peace and love and positivity. Because, you know, all the athletes from all over the world are there. Very hopeful and optimistic about what they can accomplish. [I] always feel like, man, if we could just bottle this up and sell it to the whole world, you know, then the world would be such a beautiful place," Sanya shared. "Just nothing like it, to work your whole life and then have an opportunity to represent your country and your family at the highest level, it's an extremely unique experience. I think it also is a very empowering experience for the person who gets to go there because, like, man, you did it, you know? All the work paid off. So I could go on and on and on, but it's really special."
Originally from Jamaica, Sanya aspired to one day compete at the Olympics practically from birth. "Track and field is the most popular sport there. So when the Olympics would take place, in Jamaica, the entire country would shut down. Like, no one went to work. No one's going to do anything except for watching the Olympics and supporting these athletes," Sanya recalled. "And so, at a very young age, I was like, man, I want that to be me. Like, I want people watching me and cheering for me."
Sanya started running when she was 7 years old, and two years later, she wrote that she wanted to be an Olympic champion in an assignment for school. At age 12, Sanya moved to the United States with her family, and she soon put her goals in motion. "I kinda knew at a very young age that I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I would say it didn't become real for me where I actually started doing the training and doing all of the things 'til I was 16, my senior year in high school," Sanya shared. "I would say that was kinda the pivotal year in my career where I started to do everything that I could to make the dream a reality."
It was during her senior year in high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that Sanya was named National High School Female Athlete of the Year and USA Track and Field Youth Athlete of the Year, according to her bio on Olympics.com. She then went on to study at the University of Texas at Austin before training with Clyde Hart, who also coached four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson and three-time Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner.
Sanya not only achieved her dream of competing in the Olympics with Team USA in Athens in 2004, but she also won a gold medal in the 4 x 400m relay. However, it was Sanya's second Olympics that left an even greater impression.
"I was very fortunate to have some wonderful experiences at the Olympics. In 2008, my second Olympics, I was favored to win the gold in the 400, and I won the bronze. Took me a long time to say I won the bronze, but, you know, I see it as a win, now many years later. And I remember it was probably the most crushing experience of my track career because when you cross the finish line at the Olympics, you know you have to wait four long years for the opportunity to do it again. And so much happens in the life of an athlete those four years," Sanya recalled. "But then, I was able to step back on the track in the 4 x 4 relay which is probably one of my most memorable experiences on the track. For the 4 x 4, I was at the final leg, and we were behind the Russian team. To be able to, in the last 50 meters of the race, you know, overhaul the Russian [team] and bring my team to gold and all of us embracing and just what it meant to our track team as a whole. And to end the Olympics on such a high note, to be a part of that, was by far one of my most memorable experiences. And I think because I had suffered a loss in the 400, it was even more special for me."
But achieving victory after a disappointing race is no small feat. "I'm gonna be very honest. In the moment, it is one of the hardest pills to swallow when you feel like you've done all the work, and you feel like you deserve to be on the top of the podium or you deserved a better performance," Sanya said. "But, you know, as I've gotten older, I'm so appreciative of my losses because that's where I thought I really built my character. It made me more resilient, more dedicated, more determined, and that's what life is. It's like, there's always something that you don't expect that can really kinda knock you off your block, you know, and to have the experience of not winning the Olympic gold, but taking that, moving forward, and focusing for four more years, to be able to do that has given me the confidence in my life to be able to do that in other areas."
Sanya said that learning to be "at peace with delayed gratification" is one of the biggest takeaways from her time as an Olympian. "I think, especially in this day and age, everybody wants everything right now. It's like this microwavable success. And what I've learned through sports is that you gotta put in the work. You have to put in the work. And our sport, specifically, four years of training and focus and intention and then, you know, good things happen," she said. "So, I would say, one of the things that I'm most proud of, the lesson that I learned in track and field, is that when people aren't watching, when you're doing all the work, eventually your gold medal moment will happen. And, you know, it's about being patient and trusting the process."
It's also important to never give up on yourself, according to Sanya. "Keep pushing," she said. "It's gonna happen for you if you just believe in yourself."
Sanya said that her faith and family were "the two rocks that really kept me going" during challenging times in her career. "So, you know, for me when I was going through it, I always say my faith was the first thing. I always knew everything happened in my life for a reason, and you know, God's in control. And even though it hurts in the moment, there's gonna be some good thing that comes from it," she shared. "And then my family, I have tremendous family support. My mom and dad were my managers. My husband [former NFL player Aaron Ross] is also an elite athlete, and when I just didn't have the courage to, like, go back on the track even for the 4 x 4 or to go to training the next day because of disappointment, they were the ones that really bolstered me up and said, 'Hey, the sun's gonna come tomorrow. You're still the best in the world. This one race doesn't define you.' And, you know, they really helped me through."
Of course, finally winning an individual gold in the 400m in 2012, only the second American woman to do so in the nearly 60-year history of the event at the Summer Games, definitely makes the highlights reel of Sanya's Olympic career. "Obviously, we get to come together at big competitions and run relays, but [for] the most part, you're training by yourself, you're competing by yourself. It's a very grueling yet highly disciplined sport because it's really all on you," Sanya said. "So it is a wonderful feeling to be able to win the relay. But every single track and field athlete, you know, really wants to be an individual champion because that's what you train for every day."
For Sanya, earning that individual gold medal was validation for all of the hard work and sacrifice she put into the sport leading up to that 50-second (well, 49.55 seconds, to be exact) race. "So, for me, it was a culmination of many years of hard work and focus and overcoming. People always say it, but it's really true: When you stand on the podium and the national anthem's being played in your honor, it's really like your life does flash before your eyes and you think of all of the hard work and the sweat, blood, and tears that it really took for you to be there," she shared. "You know, your family's sacrifices and your coach's time, and it's very overwhelming when you achieve it. So, it was a very special moment."
Being able to share the win with her loved ones made it all the more memorable. "I was happy my husband was there. [It was] his first time coming to the Olympics because he was competing in the NFL, and the coach wouldn't allow him to come," Sanya said. "So, to have him there, my mom, my sister, my cousins — I had, like, 20 people there — it was just incredible."
Though Sanya came away from her three Olympics with five medals and loads of memories, she wishes she had been able to spend more time visiting the host cities. "Looking back, that's one of my biggest regrets — and I started to do it a little bit later in my career — but I still didn't do it as much as I wished I had. I didn't. I was always so focused on competition and not taking too many steps and saving my legs for racing day, that I traveled to the most beautiful parts in the world and the only thing I saw was my hotel room and the track. And I regret that now," Sanya said, although she acknowledged that it probably contributed to her success at the Olympics. "For the most part, I was laser-focused on competition, and it was all about my training, my rehab, my pre-hab, rest."
Luckily, Sanya has been able to return to the Olympics as an analyst for NBC Sports at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games and experience the global competition in a whole new way. "I have loved it. I think, for most athletes, the hardest part about retirement is no longer having a connection to your sport, and it's tough, you know? You've done something for the majority of your life and you love it and you're so passionate about it and it just, one day, you wake up and it's gone. It can be very, very tough. So, for me to be able to still get to go to the track, to share and illuminate the stories of these incredible athletes, and give perspectives, it's such a joy for me," Sanya said of her transition to sports commentating. "I don't consider it work at all. It's definitely a treat to be able to do that, so I feel very fortunate that I still get to do it. And I just wanna do my best to represent the athletes in the best light possible."
Sanya's first time as an Olympics commentator at the Tokyo Summer Games was particularly memorable. "We were all like, you know, what is it gonna be like, obviously post-COVID, and it was postponed for the athletes. And we had some of the best performances ever," she said. "A young man, his name is Karsten Warholm from Norway, ran 45 seconds in the 400m hurdles, which is something none of us thought was even possible."
Sanya will also never forget having the opportunity to see fellow sports icons compete at the Olympics over the years, including Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, and Usain Bolt, as well as a memorable meeting with Serena Williams.
But Sanya isn't just about the Summer Olympics; she also follows the Winter Games, including the careers of snowboarders Shaun White and Chloe Kim, as well as Lauryn Williams, who is one of her "best, best, best friends" and the first American woman to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Games, including a gold and a silver in track and field and a silver in bobsledding.
Of course, Sanya will be watching the 2022 Winter Olympics as a fan just like the rest of us. "You know, it's so funny. Since I've been retired, I watch them a lot more than I did when I was actively competing, and I was like, oh my god, this is amazing," she said of the Winter Games. "To see how invested you get with the athletes and following their stories. And NBC does such a good job of that, of like introducing us to new athletes every year, helping us to understand all that they went through. Like, I fall in love with the Winter Olympics."
For those athletes competing at the upcoming Winter Olympics and beyond, Sanya encourages them to "just savor the moment." "To be very honest, it's like when I look back at my career, obviously, winning the gold medals were special and that was my target. But what I miss most is my teammates, my coaches, going to practice every day, having the honor of wearing that U.S. uniform down onto the track," Sanya shared. "It goes by quickly, so I would just say, savor the moment, don't take anything for granted. I would say, enjoy it more, you know? Meet other athletes who are there competing from other countries. And just don't let it go by without you taking a moment to really make sure you're present and enjoying the experiences."
Catch the Winter Olympics on NBC and Peacock starting February 3.
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