Sanya Richards-Ross overcomes doubt and injury to win 400 meters gold

A rash of injuries had taken a mental toll as well on Sanya Richards-Ross before she rediscovered her form and won the 400 meters at the Olympics Sunday. She's not the only Olympian trying to solve the mind-body problem.

By , Staff writer

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    Sanya Richards-Ross celebrates her win in the women's 400-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London Sunday.
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Two years ago, Sanya Richards-Ross could barely have imagined this moment.

Sunday night, when she ran down the final stretch to gold in the women's 400 meters, there were no doubts, no lingering fears, no pain. There was only her two churning legs and an empty track ahead. 

It was, to say the least, a relief. 

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In 2010, amid a series of freakish injuries, Richards-Ross doubted everything. Already, she had finished third at the Beijing Games when she looked certain to win gold. And then, just when she was putting that behind her, it seemed that she started falling apart. Time and again, she would ask her body to do those things it once had done without conscious thought – to find that extra gear – and it would no longer answer.

At last year's world championships, she finished seventh. 

To win gold Sunday, Richards-Ross came back from that place perhaps most dreaded by many elite athletes: the fear that injury has changed them forever. As sport science improves, it is offering athletes unprecedented insight into the workings of their own bodies – splendid organic machines finely tuned, like Ferraris of flesh and bone. When tendons are oddly loose or muscles are not firing as they once did, the athletes of today know it.

But when this machine breaks down, it can lead to an almost metaphysical angst. Gone are the days when trainers just told athletes to go to bed and see if it feels better in the morning. Diagnoses are now pin point and specific, and if going under the anatomical hood doesn't work, the mental toll can be severe.

"The mental part of coming back form injury is the major thing, not the physical," said Richards-Ross at a media summit in May. "The mental aspect would hold you back from pushing yourself to that place physically."

"To get back to that place where you run fast, there has to be no fear, no inhibition," she said.

On the USA Track & Field website, Ralph Mann is listed as a specialist in performance enhancement through technical model optimization for sprint development. What that means is that he's got a lot of cool gadgets to help runners figure out how to be faster. If American runners are 007 on a gold-medal mission, then he is Q.

With every passing year, he has more data about his runners. He knows what they do when they're running well, and he knows what they do when they aren't, which means when someone like Richards-Ross comes to him, he can usually tell them exactly what they're doing wrong. For example, he can tell a sprinter that their stride rate has fallen from 0.92 per second in 2009 to 0.87 today.

The question, then, is fixing it. "In the majority of cases, it works extremely well," says Dr. Mann. "But if you're unable to get back – if something doesn't work right – it becomes very frustrating."

At the May media summit, American 200-meter sprinter Wallace Spearmon began by laying out his hopes for London: "I look forward to running with no pain, injury free."

An Achilles injury had ruined his 2011 season and got to the point that, when morning came, "I didn't want to stick my feet out of bed. I didn't want to touch the ground," he told runblogrun.com.

Every morning, the first thing he had to do was 30 minutes of rehab, "even before I ate breakfast."     

For Olympic athletes, that can take a mental toll. Spearmon, after all, makes a living with his legs. 

Even when things are fine, the connection between an elite athlete and the finest flutters of his body can be intimate. American swimmer Brendan Hansen said it felt weird when he started running triathlons – out of the pool, he could tell that his tendons were looser because they "were dealing with gravity."

But when the seemingly catastrophic happens, some Olympians simply don't know how to cope. When gymnast Shawn Johnson severely injured her knee while skiing 2-1/2 years ago, the first thought that came to her was that "there was no way I was going to be taken down on a stretcher," she said at the May media summit. 

"We're taught to be so tough," she said. "If you can walk, you're fine."

So she skied down on one leg. 

After that, she continued to train without treatment for a month and a half. It was OK, so long as she didn't turn. "I could run forward fine, but if it turned left or right, I fell down," she said.

Even in May, after years of treatment, she said she still could not get to that "place" that Richards-Ross spoke of. "I almost have to do all my stunts on one leg," she said.

In the end, her bid to make the 2012 team failed. She retired before Olympic trials, saying, "Time ran out."

For others, however, such injuries can have a silver lining. Gymnast Jonathan Horton had, perhaps, gotten too used to everything working properly, so when he injured his foot and "had gymnastics taken away from me," he realized he had to make a decision.

"You say, 'Is this worth fighting for?' " he said at the summit. "You have to dig really deep and think, 'I might not make it back in time for the Games, but I'll just keep pushing through.' "

At least, he said, he would have a head start getting ready for the Rio Games in 2016.

Instead, he made the 2012 team, and on Tuesday, he will compete on the high bar. "The injury was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he said. "I had lost my desire for a long time, and I realized that I don't want to quit." 

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