Life

Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross Knew That Pregnancy Would End Her Running Career

“I can't think of one athlete that was prominent during the time of my competitions that had a child and came back.”

Winning Look

The day before Sanya Richards-Ross was set to get on a plane and fly to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she had an abortion. She had grown up Christian; it was something she never thought she’d do. She was engaged to her college sweetheart, and she'd always dreamed of having a family, but before that, she had things she wanted to accomplish.

The Jamaican-born sprinter had been laser-focused on her sport since age 9. “I wasn't one of those young girls who thought about my wedding and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “It was: Olympics, Olympics, Olympics.”

In her prime, the sprinter was virtually untouchable. She was the world leader in the 400-meter race for four years straight from 2005 to 2009, and again in 2012. In 2006 she set the American 400-meter record at 48.70 seconds, which still stands to this day. She won four Olympic gold medals throughout three consecutive Olympic games. Richards-Ross was fast.

When she found out she was pregnant, she was the heavy favorite to win gold in the 400-meter race, for the first time in her professional track and field career. She had worked so hard to be number one in the world for three years straight. This was a lifelong dream, this was her moment. There was no way she was going to risk that.

Doctors advised her to rest after the procedure, but two weeks later, there she was, standing on the starting line with millions of people watching, expectations soaring, and the one lap she’d been training for her entire life in front of her. As she positioned herself on those starting blocks, her body was exhausted; her mental state was shaky — waves of guilt and shame washed over her.

“A lot of times we think the road to gold is paved in gold. And it's not.”

Richards-Ross finished with a bronze medal and a crushing disappointment. “I just didn't feel like I was worthy of this great prize when I had done something that I felt was so far away from who I wanted to be,” she told me over a video call. She says that after the race in China, she broke down.

“It’s still hard for me to talk about it, but I am grateful that I had the choice,” Richards-Ross said in a 2023 interview with Emmanual Acho. “I don’t know what my life would’ve been like if I had given up this dream that I had my whole life.”

She wanted to give up, but she didn’t. Three days later, she was the anchor leg for the 4x400-meter relay coming from behind to give the USA a gold-medal victory by a 0.28-second margin. It felt fated.

Richards-Ross, 38, didn’t decide to share this part of her story until she released her book Chasing Grace almost 11 years later. Not even her dad knew until she started to write the chapter. “A lot of times we think the road to gold is paved in gold. And it's not,” Richard-Ross said. It was important to share her full story, including the worst moment of her life, she adds. “We're all having to overcome really tough challenges in our lives to reach the mountaintop. I didn't want to be disingenuous about my real journey to gold. If you even help one person, it's worth it.”

After she shared her story, she received some backlash (“Especially from men,” she says, rolling her eyes and sticking out her tongue in disgust. “Who will never, ever be in that position so how dare you speak on it.”) but, overwhelmingly, droves of support came from women, who felt seen.

Richards-Ross enjoyed years of success but even from her prominent position, the worlds of motherhood and competing felt incompatible. “I can't think of one athlete that was prominent during the time of my competitions that had a child and came back,” Richards-Ross adds. “For me, it was always: do the sports first and then family second.”

So, the decision to retire from track and field in 2016 and start her family at the age of 31 was deliberate and arrived at after a lot of prayer. Now a mom of two boys — Aaron “Deucey” Ross II, 7, and Asani Legend Ross, 3 months — she has a newfound admiration for her body’s capabilities.

“When I was an athlete, I appreciated my body for being able to go so fast and to have endurance and to look good,” Richards-Ross says. “Then you become a mom, and it's like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just grew a life in my body.’ And now I'm creating milk for this little life. I just have this new level of appreciation for my body.”

She’s enjoyed this next phase of life without the pressures of quickly returning to competition shape or feeling left out at the Olympic trials. She’ll go to the 2024 Paris Olympics, but she’ll be in the broadcast booth for NBC providing analysts on the meet and interviewing athletes. Of course, she still works out in her home gym, but it’s nothing like her high-intensity training days.

“I learned so much from sports that translated to my motherhood journey. There were times where it was so overwhelmingly hard, and I just kept thinking to myself, this is what it's like when I was preparing for the 400.”

Richards-Ross is now on her metaphoric second lap. With an Olympic career in the rearview, she's enjoying being a mom and having fun on social media lip-syncing viral sounds to her half-million Instagram followers. She’s curating a virtual community, MommiNation, that brings the experience of a Black mom to the forefront. And, she’s starring on the popular reality TV show Real Housewives of Atlanta to show a positive example of a Black family.

“I learned so much from sports that translated to my motherhood journey,” Richards-Ross says. “There were times that it was so overwhelmingly hard, and I just kept thinking to myself, this is what it's like when I was preparing for the 400. There are gonna be moments where this hard work that I'm pouring into my son is gonna come back.”

When asked what her kids have taught her, she smiled, “Oh man,” she said, and went on to tell me that she and her husband of 14 years — former NFL cornerback Aaron Ross, a two-time Super Bowl champion — are so “corny.” And her kids have boosted their relationship in a new way. “Before he was just my husband, now I look at him as someone’s son,” she says. “They're teaching me how to love my husband in a different way. To care for him in the way that I would want someone to care for my son.”

“It’s elevated my love for my husband and it's made our marriage stronger and better, and it's making me a better mother too because I'm also learning I'm raising somebody’s husband,” she laughs. “They need to also understand what it means to be a great man, too. It’s a really beautiful phase.”

Sports are definitely in her boys’ future — with athletic parents like theirs, do they have a choice? Deucey is currently taking to martial arts and soccer, which Richards-Ross adds is a lot of running so basically track-adjacent.

Her boys weren’t able to witness in person the blazing speed their mom possessed. But they’ll watch the videos of millions cheering her on as she crossed the finish line donning red, white, and blue. They’ll get to feel the weight of the medals she’s earned — 13 gold, three silver, and one bronze. To Richards-Ross, her career is an example of dreams realized, and she wants to pass that on to her children.

“I do hope that they’ll be like, ‘Wow, my mom had this dream at 9 to be an Olympic champion, and she worked and worked until she did it. And I want to do the same thing,’” she reflects. “Whatever that goal or dream is, I hope that it will inspire them to work as hard to achieve it.”