U.S. Women’s Athlete Of The Year — Sha’Carri Richardson

“We cannot stop at world champion, but it is a nice beginning,” says Richardson. (JEFF COHEN)

NOT BACK BUT BETTER — it was a season of rebirth and resurgence for Sha’Carri Richardson, who stormed her way to the top of the WC podium in the 100 in a campaign that won her honors as our U.S. Women’s Athlete Of The Year.

Indeed, it’s not as if she returned from serious injury or time away from the sport. Rather, after a ’21 Olympic season that was marked by her dramatic victory at the Olympic Trials, a short-lived moment of triumph that was obviated 2 weeks later by a positive test finding for marijuana, Richardson surely felt like she had to establish herself all over again.

Her ’22 season, however, was one of frustration. Moments of extreme speed mingled with disappointment. She blistered dashes of 10.73w and 10.85 leading up to Nationals, then failed to make the finals in the 100 or the 200. She only broke 11 once more that year, a 10.93 in Brussels, but that was just good for 5th.

The ’23 campaign would be astonishingly different. Only once, in 16 efforts at 100, heats and finals, did she run slower than 11-flat. After a season-opener 4×1 leg at the Texas Relays, she put the world on notice in her first test in the 100, running a 10.75w heat and 10.57w final in Miramar, Florida, on April 08. A month later she got on the legal list with a 10.76 win at the Doha Diamond League. Suddenly, the 23-year-old Dallas native was back to being the woman to beat in the 100.

However, defeating Richardson proved difficult for her pursuers. At Nationals, she ripped through the first 2 rounds in 10.71 and 10.75. In the final, despite a weak start — often her Achilles heel — she tore the rest of the race with a fury, taking the lead with 40 to go and crossing the line looking more angry than jubilant. It would be her first berth on a global team.

She told NBC’s Lewis Johnson, “I’m ready, mentally physically and emotionally.”

Richardson made the team in the 200 as well. She came to Eugene with the season-best of 22.07 she set in Nairobi’s altitude. Quickly she put herself among the contenders with her windy 21.61 first round, a mark bettered in any conditions only by Florence Griffith-Joyner among Americans. In the final, she produced a PR 21.94 from lane 5, but was defeated by Gabby Thomas’s fast-finishing 21.60.

Between then and Budapest, she only raced twice. First came a 10.76 win at the Skolimowska Memorial in Poland. Then, at the Gyulai Memorial in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, she fell to Julien Alfred, the latter running her first professional race. The difference appeared to be Alfred’s lightning start, but observers wondered if Richardson would be ready to face the world a month later.

Observers kept on wondering after the first two rounds in Budapest. A 10.92 heat victory seemed on track. In Richardson’s semi, however, her 10.84 left her behind the 10.79s of both Jamaican star Shericka Jackson and Côte d’Ivoire’s Marie-Josée Ta Lou.

On the line for the final, Richardson appeared determined and focused. Stuck in lane 9, she was generally ignored by the live commentators during the course of the race. Their eyes focused on the center of the track, where Jackson overcame the beautiful start of 5-time champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and began to pull away for what seemed like certain victory, only to have Richardson blow past in the final strides. This time, Richardson’s reaction was all joy; there’s a certain gratifying redemption that comes with winning a gold medal in 10.65, the fastest time of her life. It would put her at =No. 5 on the all-time world list.

Two days later, Richardson showed for the 200 heats, a 22.16 win advancing her to the semis. There, she finished behind Jackson, 22.00–22.20. That put her in lane 9 for the final, seemingly a perfect placement given the widest turn, not to mention the good vibes she might have had from riding the same lane to victory in the 100.

However, Richardson found herself in the back of the pack after the turn, and her late-race drive took her to the bronze and a PR 21.92 behind Jackson and Thomas.

Next came the relay, which Richardson would anchor in the final. The U.S. ran in lane 6, a star-studded Jamaican team in 7. Tamari Davis and TeeTee Terry held even with the Jamaicans. Gabby Thomas burned the turn to hand Richardson the lead. On the final stretch, she at first lost some ground to the hard-charging Jackson, but then drove away for the win in a world-leading 41.03; it was the No. 4 performance ever.

Only two more races featured on Richardson’s schedule. At the Weltklasse in Zürich, she streaked to victory in 10.88. Then 2½ weeks later she ran her final race at the /DL Final. That one didn’t go her way — a lackluster start put Richardson behind Jackson, and the Jamaican never relented, taking the win in 10.70, as Richardson finished 4th in 10.80, behind Ta Lou (10.75) and comebacking Olympic gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah (10.79).

Afterwards, Richardson still beamed. “I feel amazing about my performance. I placed 4th today, but all of the women that placed before me are literally legends, that gives them their upmost respect. There’s no BS.

“Every time we line up, we have to bring our A-game every time. So I love racing against those women, they bring the best in me. I feel like, you know, they come with their A-game, so we have no choice but to put our best foot forward. I’m looking forward to competing with these ladies at their fullest health, their fullest happiness, next year for the Olympics.”

She added, “I’m having so much more fun and I want people to understand it is not related to just winning. I’m having fun because I am better within my spirit, within my mind, within my community that I created for myself, and so that’s the happiness that you guys see. The wins are just a bonus, of course, but that shows that when you’re holding yourself what you will attract within your reality.”

Richardson addressed the changes that have led to her returning to being a major force in the sport: “I have a greater love in my life, I have a better faith, I have my community that loves me so dearly, and I’m actually able to give that love back to them now. And I’ve fallen back in love with my sport. For a while, I saw this sport more as a job than the love that I knew I had for it.”

She continues to train with Dennis Mitchell in Florida, and now has another training partner in Jamaican teen Alana Reid, who ran 10.92 last season. For his part in her resurgence, Mitchell was honored by USATF as its coach of the year. In his acceptance speech he said, “You cannot wait to go and be happy. You have to be happy on your way there.”

It’s a philosophy that Richardson has embraced. In giving advice to Dallas youth after the school district named one of its tracks after her, she said, “Continue to be yourself, have fun, and know that it’s more than yourself, and that’s why you should always keep the main thing the main thing. Always focus, always understand where you came from is what got you there, so you don’t have to change up anything. Just continue to be you, continue to have your great mindset and continue to have fun. The moment it stops being fun is the moment you should stop doing it.”

Looking ahead to the Olympic year, Richardson remains committed to running the 200 in addition to the 100. “I want to be a competitor, not one of those athletes who just runs the 100. I’m a 1-2 runner and I want you guys to see this, and I want to bring that out, so I’m excited about next year.”

Paris, she warns, won’t be the end of her journey: “I understand that I am here to hold it down and keep pushing forward. We’re not stopping at world champion. We cannot stop at world champion, but it is a nice beginning.”