Sanya Richards-Ross

by Leah Fisher Nyfeler in Summer 2017

What’s next when you’ve focused your career on becoming the world’s best? For Sanya Richards-Ross, 400-meter star, NCAA national champion, Olympic gold medalist, Hall of Famer, and world record holder, retirement is less about walking off the track and more about applying her trademark grace and goal-oriented focus toward reaching new personal and professional heights.

This athlete isn’t pivoting so much as expanding her golden circle of opportunity to cover greater ground.

Welcome to Texas, Baby Ross

Forbes ranked Texas, and specifically The University of Texas at Austin, No. 3 on its 2009 list, “The Best States for Keeping College Grads,” and the Lone Star State can count its lucky stars it held on to these two Longhorns. Jamaican-born Sanya Richards and Aaron Ross (Tyler quarterback, UT cornerback, and NFL veteran with two Super Bowl rings) met on the Hundred Acres and became campus sweethearts, dating for seven years before their paparazzi-worthy 2010 wedding. Now living in Round Rock, the two still seem like honeymooners, and their fondly expressed respect and support for each other’s endeavors is endearing.

Valentine’s Day 2017, therefore, was the only fitting date to announce the Rosses were expecting. That they’d been planning a family was no secret; at her 2016 SXSW presentation just four months prior to the Olympic trials, SRR had laughingly said in response to a question, “My husband jokes that the minute I cross the finish line [in Rio], we’re going to try starting a family.” (For brevity, we’re using Sanya Richards-Ross’s nickname, SRR, throughout. Also, we’re referring to husband Aaron as “Ross,” as does Sanya.)

Sadly, there would be no Rio finish line for SRR. Though she’d preemptively announced 2016 would be her last racing season, SRR had visualized competing in—and taking the podium at—those summer games. Powers beyond her control, however, had selected a fitting place for the superstar’s final sprint.

“Hayward Field in Eugene, OR, has always been a very special track for me,” SRR recalled. “I was invited there to compete against the pros—the only high schooler at the Prefontaine Classic—when I was 17 or 18. From then on, I’ve had a really special relationship with that track.”

“I’ll never forget [this race]; I’d pulled my hamstring three weeks before and I didn’t have enough time to recover but still wanted to go. I got out [of the blocks] and actually felt pretty good the first 50 meters and then I thought, ‘Oh, I definitely don’t have it,’ and then…at the 250-meter mark, I stopped and kind of hung my head down. It was the first time I’d ever stopped in a race before; I’d never not finished a race. A woman yelled out, ‘We love you, Sanya!’ and it literally brought me back to the moment; how amazing it was to be on that track; and all the great memories I’d had there. I started to trot down the track and got a standing ovation. It gave me a special moment to have as my farewell.”

Instead of racing Rio, SRR joined the NBC commentary team as a track analyst, a new task she thoroughly enjoyed (“particularly the Trials, because I knew 90% of the athletes competing in the sprint”). The Olympics proved more challenging.

“It was intense,” she said, with a wide-eyed smile. “So many different athletes from all over the world…athletes we’re seeing for the first time at the Olympics…and then 30 million people are watching on any given day. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right.”

Ever one to put in the necessary work to get it right, SRR is glad that she’s got several years to hone her broadcasting skills before Tokyo’s games in 2020. So far, she’s covered the 2017 USATF Indoor Championship and assorted indoor meets. She’d be calling the IAFF World Championships in London had not Baby Ross dictated otherwise; their son is due this August. But SRR has no regrets: “I feel like [this pregnancy] is the most amazing thing my body could do—and my body has done some amazing things in sports. To see what my body is growing and to be able to bring a life into the world…I love it…I’m totally embracing this change.”

Preparing Her Heart (and Wallet) For Retirement

Leaving a career is as big a change as starting a family. SRR has been a competitive runner for 24 years and professional athlete for 13, which is amazing when considering she is 32 years old. SRR saw two significant steps as she considered retirement: acceptance and financial planning.

“I think retirement is easier for an athlete when you first prepare your mind,” SRR said. “It’s really hard for an athlete who’s forced out of sports—you feel like you’ve left something on the track or playing field, and in some ways, like you didn’t accomplish all your goals.” SRR’s body was moving her toward inevitable acceptance. Since 2006, her right big toe had given her an agonizing pain that special shoe modifications, custom orthotics, and three surgeries couldn’t alleviate. A big toe may not seem a crucial body part, but that forefoot push-off provides the explosive force that propels a sprinter. The injury was worse than most people ever knew.

“I’ve literally run on a broken toe for five years. After my surgery in 2012, I had been running in so much pain for so long that I knew I had to give my body a break; I didn’t want to run until I couldn’t walk any more. And I was getting close,” SRR said. “So, I think I prepared my heart and mind [for retirement] first…I still believe, if I hadn’t hurt myself, I would have [made the Olympic team], but everything happens for a reason… I got to go to Rio anyway with NBC, so it was just the perfect way to end my career and I was very grateful.”

Not every athlete is financially ready for retirement, but SRR has always been a shrewd businesswoman. Smart alliances with major brands (Nike, for example, has been a sponsor from the beginning) provide income and support. When SRR shifts into her entrepreneurial mode, you can feel the passion.

“I love business and I love marketing,” she said emphatically. “A lot of the skill sets I learned from sports are helping me transition into this entrepreneurial role. Understanding how all that works is super important to me, and I try to find ways to inspire other young women to take advantage of financial opportunities.”

“Being an athlete has put me in a lot of the right rooms with the right people. And I do the work; I learn about the company, figure out how we are really connected, and only work with brands that really do align with who I am and what my goals are.”

SRR is involved in several Austin-based businesses; she and sister Shari Richards are partners in The Hair Clinic, a salon. Also, Sanya and Aaron own Ross Elite Chauffeur Service, a luxury car fleet. She’s been outspoken concerning Olympic rules pertaining to athlete sponsorships. At that 2016 SXSW panel, SRR said she’s proud to help future athletes gain more financial support. This,” she declared defiantly, “is our livelihood.”

That fire to help others develop the monetary stability she’s worked so diligently to assure has led SRR to a new partnership with Capital One. As spokeswoman for their Banking Reimagined Tour—“they’re totally rethinking and restructuring how we interact with personal finances”—SRR is especially excited about access to a key educational component: the new Capital One Cafés, coming to Texas this winter.

Jaci Stoltz, vice president of Capital One Cafés, hopes that visitors to these non-traditional bank sites will make use of the services offered (money coaching and workshops, among others) and feels SRR “embodies just how important feeling confident in your relationship with money is.”  The other hope—that her example inspires others to hone their financial know-how “so they can pursue their passions, just like Sanya has.”

SRR credits a lot of their family financial planning to her husband. With a sheepish grin, she admitted, “I’m lucky to have him.” He’s had the long view, as “Ross has always wanted to make sure we save enough so we can retire and send our sons or daughters to school. Now that I’m pregnant and retired, I feel like I too need to be more responsible with our money. How can I partner with my husband to make sure we are making the best financial decisions together?”

She laughed and said, “I definitely have made a 180 when it comes to thinking about [financial decisions]. I’m happy my husband started planning before me, because we’d definitely be behind in those things if he hadn’t.”

Setting a Gold Standard for Philanthropy

For the Ross family, money management involves giving back to the community, and so SRR established the Gold Standard Foundation. The nonprofit has been improving young people’s futures through a variety of good deeds in SRR’s home country and in Austin, where needy high school seniors have been mentored and treated to a special night through an empowerment program called “Prom Glam.” In April, the NFL Alumni-Austin Chapter named the Gold Foundation founders their “Couple of the Year.”

“Each year, we honor members of the community who are active, long-term, impactful supporters of causes related to children,” said John Haines, chapter president, board member, and former Longhorn and NFL Viking and Colt. The couple exemplifies these traits, he explained. Imagine what the two will accomplish with a bit more free time. SRR is already mulling over the philanthropic possibilities:

“We did a lot of really cool work in Jamaica for about seven years; we helped some 7,000 kids read at grade level, which was about the most rewarding thing I could ever do. But Ross is from Texas and I live here, and we want to start doing some things in the United States.”

What’s the drawback? It boils down to bang for your buck. “Here, it’s a little bit more expensive to accomplish some of the same things,” she explained. “In a third world country, $50,000 goes a long way.” Now they’re done with track and football, they’re focusing on how to raise money and where their focus should be. “What do we think will really move the dial and help young people change their circumstances and, hopefully, help their families?”

Running the Race of Life

That desire to move the dial and deliver a positive impact has pushed SRR to become an author. After all, could anyone doubt that her story would be a riveting read for track fans? But there’s more to recount than national championships, world records, and gold medals. The ups and downs—on and off the track—are what SRR sees as the revealing mettle of her life.

“Originally, I wanted to write a teen book for young girls,” SRR recalled. There’s a special affinity; if you’ve ever attended the Texas Relays, you know the deafening shrieks of excitement whenever she’s announced. Though her fan base is broad, young women especially identify the star as an exemplar in everything from nutrition to workouts to fashion and beauty. Social media, particularly Instagram, where @sanyarichiross interacts with more than 275,000 followers, vividly illustrates their connection.

“I love hearing from my fans as much as they love hearing from me,” said SRR.

Followers got the first peek at SRR’s new books. She’d met with agents from Zondervan, a publishing program under HarperCollins Christian Publishing, to propose a teen book, and they encouraged two more—one for adults and another for middle-grade readers. Written for the 8-12 audience and published in June, Run With Me aims to inspire kids to pursue their dreams.

Her memoir, Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me About God and Life, also debuted in June. Fans might be surprised to read that one of SRR’s toughest struggles occurred off the track and within her high-performing body; in 2007, the 22-year-old was diagnosed with the debilitating Behcet’s disease. Or that this exceptionally fit and elegantly poised woman was subjected to body shaming. And even a storybook couple can experience conflict.

Writing Chasing Grace became an exercise—a challenging, albeit rewarding, workout. “The commitment to the book is very similar to the training it takes in a year to run the World Championships or the Olympics…meeting all the deadlines, really digging deep and being honest with myself about what my goals were in writing,” SRR said. “It wound up being very raw, telling some of my toughest life experiences—also some of the greatest—and about how I really feel like God walked with me through the entire journey.”

Those experiences on and off the track have forged a woman dedicated to attaining her best self, a gold standard, in family, business, and community. SRR is glowing and eager for the next challenge. “I truly believe the most beautiful people are the ones who have a great spirit,” she said.

 

Leah Fisher Nyfeler (@leahruns100) is an Austin-based freelance writer and editor who enjoys all aspects of an active lifestyle. You can read more of her work at Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life.