To describe an athlete as ‘back to her best’, particularly one who is still just 24, doesn’t seem quite fair. But one couldn’t help but think just that after watching Sanya Richards, the world’s finest 400m runner of the last four years, comfortably and gracefully cruise to a commanding 49.23 to produce the runaway highlight of the ExxonMobil Bislett Games, the second stop of the 2009 ÅF Golden League.
It was Richards’ fourth fastest performance ever, and her quickest since she broke the American record with her 48.70 run at the 2006 World Cup. But while she visibly laboured in those waning moments at Athens’ Olympic Stadium three years ago, this time she gracefully and powerfully strode through the finish.
“I just feel really good, my training is going really well,” Richards said of her early 2009 form. “I feel that I’m running better and having more fun in my competitions. Even when it started raining I didn’t let it get me down, I was in really good spirits.”
After a 45 minute rain delay, competition resumed with the women’s 400m, and after such a torrential downpour, expectations weren’t particularly high. Adding a note of drama to the moment was the fact that the field clock was not yet turned back on when the runners crossed the line. Nobody knew what Richards’ final time was, and she didn’t know either until she ran past her parents during her victory lap on the backstretch.
“I would have guessed that it was around 49.6 or 49.5,” she said. “It felt a lot like the Berlin race, around 49-mid. So it was funny because I didn’t know the time and ran by my parents on the backstretch, so I was really excited when they told me.”
She was particularly pleased with her finish, admittedly her weak point in recent big meet appearances.
“It’s definitely been my weakness at major championships,” she said of her finish. “I get out well and then kind of falter coming home. So I’m making a conscious effort to try and finish stronger this year. Sometimes I hold back just that little bit more so I can have that really good kick.”
Coach Hart - No reason 'she won't be running 48s a month from now'
Her coach Clyde Hart was pleased as well. “We’ve been working on that,” he said, before confirming that Richards is clearly rounding back into 2006 form.
“There is no reason that a month from now, or six weeks from now, that she’s not running in the 48s,” Hart said. “With 49.23, a little bit more here and there and you’re down in the 48s. She’s executing and she’s getting her 200 speed to what we want. She’s doing the things she needs to do.”
'Baggage' behind her
Richards said there were two prevailing factors leading to a turnaround for her this season, one psychological, and one physical.
“I think that I was running with a lot of baggage after not winning a title and I was just getting worse and worse mentally,” she said. “I just put it all behind me know, and I’m having fun trying to run my best races. My coach has definitely gotten me prepared.”
The other is learning how to cope with Behcet’s Disease, the rare immune system disease which has stalled her training and drained her of energy when it was first diagnosed nearly two years ago.
“I’m also learning better how to handle my illness. I think that that was sometimes challenging for me. I just wouldn’t feel well, and it was hard to train and hard to compete. Now I know how to have it under control and so I’m able to compete at my best again.”
Again, Hart concurred. “That slowed us down a bunch. It flared up about two months ago, so we had a period there that we didn’t get as much training. But then we were able to come back. It too several weeks to build up her system back, but she’s fine now. It was good that it happened then instead of this time of year.”
Jackpot chase? Not a contender, yet
On Thursday Richards said that one can’t be considered a contender for the $1 million Golden League Jackpot until at least three or four victories were behind them. Having shared the pie previously with Yelena Isinbayeva in 2007, she speaks from experience. She also said she wouldn’t mind an exact repeat.
“I really, really, really admire Yelena Isinbayeva,” she said of the Russian superstar. “If I could be any other athlete, it would be Yelena Isinbayeva. I definitely love her. A two-time Olympic champion, a three-time World champion, 26 times a World record holder, I mean, who’s not inspired by her.”
“So I definitely watch and cheer her on. I would love to share the jackpot with her for the final time.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF