Feature | Athletics

Sha'Carri Richardson: On the fast track to fame

There's more than meets the eye to the American sprinter who has not been afraid to speak out on her road to stardom, despite a troubled childhood and mental health struggles.

By Andrew Binner ·

When Sha’Carri Richardson smashed the 100m and 200m junior world records in the space of 45 minutes last year, she became known as the ‘fastest girl in Texas’.

With incredible sprinting talent and colourful hair and nails, comparisons with three-time Olympic gold medallist and fellow flamboyant dresser Florence Griffith Joyner were inevitable.

Having already shown great fortitude and inner strength to steer her to the verge of great things in athletics, she is keen to make her voice heard on issues ranging from mental health to racial equality.

And the 20-year-old is being tipped to light up next year's Tokyo Olympic Games in every sense.

In this year limited by coronavirus, Richardson is unbeaten over 100m and showing why she has attracted such hype.

Her 10.95s in August in Montverde, Florida is the third fastest legal time in the world in 2020 although she also ran 10.83s that day with a wind reading of 2.1m/s, just above the 2m/s limit.

The only two women quicker than her this season are the last two Olympic 100m gold medallists - reigning world champion Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce with 10.86s, and Rio 2016 sensation Elaine Thompson-Herah with 10.88s.

At the same meeting, Richardson also improved her 200m personal best to 22.00s with only Rio 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo (21.98s) running faster this term.

She admitted she was feeling the effects of a long campaign when disappointing at last's July USA Championships, failing to make the team for the World Championships in Doha.

But her times this season have marked her out as a genuine contender for gold at next year's Olympic Games.

"Everyone wants to be an Olympian. That's definitely my bigger goal down the line." - Sha'Carri Richardson speaking after the 2019 USA Championships

Sha'Carri Richardson competing at the 2019 USA Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa

From early suffering to world records

Born in Dallas, Richardson had a far from stable childhood.

She was abandoned by her mother and tried to take her own life at high school.

Athletics provided the American with a much needed outlet. The youngster was inspired by seeing the medals won by her aunt, school sprint star Shayaria Richardson, at her grandmother's house.

Having won age-group state titles, she took the 100m at the 2016 US Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Olympics in Houston.

The following year, she claimed victory at the USA Track & Field (USATF) Junior Championships before helping USA win 4x100m relay gold at the Pan American U20 Championships.

Unsurprisingly, Richardson’s talent had not gone unnoticed by college scouts, and she agreed to join Louisiana State University in 2018.

Despite only competing for one season in the LSU colours, her impact was seismic.

At the 2019 NCAA Track and Field Championships, the freshman clocked a sizzling 10.75s to break Dawn Sowell's 30-year old NCAA 100m record, and the U-20 world record.

That run placed Richardson joint-ninth on the all-time list, and she would have gone even faster but for the Usain Bolt-style celebration before the line.

But her work was far from done.

Less than an hour after her 100m heroics, Richardson ran in the 200m final.

Although she was beaten on the dip by winner Anglerne Annelus, who went on to finish fourth at last year's World Championships in Doha, she managed to set another U20 world record.

Her time of 22.17s was one-hundredth of a second inside the previous mark set in 2003 by Allyson Felix, the most decorated track athlete in Olympic history with nine medals including six golds.

Sha'Carri Richardson of LSU (centre) wins the 100m in 10.75s at the 2019 NCAA Track & Field Championships in Austin, Texas

Seeking discomfort and turning pro

With the NCAA's prestigious The Bowerman award for best track and field athlete in the bag, Richardson announced that she would forgo the rest of her college eligibility and move to Florida in order to take up a professional contract.

Alongside 2019 world pole vault silver medallist Mondo Duplantis, the pair became LSU’s first track and field athletes in history to leave after their freshman years.

“At first I was conflicted about the decision, due to the fact that I felt like I was leaving a place that grew to be very dear to me,” she told TeamUSA.org.

“I knew that to get to the next level I had to make myself uncomfortable, meaning push myself to a limit I hadn’t pushed myself to before." - Sha'Carri Richardson

And go to the next level she did.

Richardson's international debut at the 2019 Eugene Diamond League (held in Stanford) saw her finish fourth in the 100m behind Marie-Josee Ta Lou and ahead of Olympic gold medallists Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce and Tori Bowie.

Despite that setback at the USA Championships, her performances earned her a nomination for World Athletics' Female Rising Star award.

“Training here with [coach] Dennis Mitchell has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” she continued.

“I love that he’s a coach that’s going to make sure you’re the athlete you tell him you want to be, on and off the track. I’m glad I came. It’s a great environment for training.”

Sha'Carri Richardson (extreme left) finishes fourth behind Marie-Josee Ta Lou (centre) at the 2019 Prefontaine Classic

Labels and mental health struggles

When Richardson sprung to prominence at last year's NCAA Championships, she attracted as much attention for her appearance as for her sprinting prowess.

That prompted a defiant response on her Instagram, which included referring to Griffith Joyner as "the greatest woman to ever enter the game".

Richardson told TeamUSA.org "I love to express myself" when it comes to the long nails and dyed hair she has sported since high school.

On her hair, she says, "The colour is based off how I want to feel. Like the red puts me in a very dominating mood. And sometimes I feel that can be overwhelming, so when I need to calm down I have black hair. The black calms me, and makes me blend in instead of being extra.

"The blonde is for when I’m going home to Texas. Or I’ll wear it when I am away from home and wanting to feel like home."

Richardson also has a number of tattoos, with the one of a dragon on her left shoulder the favourite.

"It stands for good luck, fortune and authority," she told LetsRun.com before her Diamond League debut in Stanford.

"The dragon is also misunderstood and seen as like a bad thing… but the meaning behind it is actually a good thing. I feel like me and the dragon are the same, we’re misunderstood." - Sha’Carri Richardson

The sprinter has also been open about her struggles with depression, and how she ensures her mental health is sound.

She said, "I have a therapist, and during the pandemic we’ve been doing Zoom calls, or text messages if I need to talk. He comes up with little tactics, or different advice that helps me.

"I would want them [people] to know that we go through things, too. We are human, just like they are. We just happen to run a little faster and be a little stronger. But at the end of the day we all want to be heard and understood."

Her message echoes that of world 200m champion Noah Lyles, who recently opened up about his own mental health struggles.

In an Instagram Live interview with Olympic Channel, the American spoke about how the pressure of pleasing sponsors, a lack of rest, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the events that resulted in the Black Lives Matter movement led him to take anti-depressants.

Exclusive! Noah Lyles reveals: "I was breaking on the inside."

Noah Lyles has opened up about his trying times ahead of being crowned 200m...

The BLM movement has also had a profound impact on Richardson who shares Lyles' passion for highlighting societal issues.

"It is important for me to speak out because I am a proud black woman. Before I am a proud black athlete, or anything else, I am black. And that is something that is very dear to me. And it is something that inspires me to be great in life because of it."

She added, in the interview with Team USA, "Being black in America to me is a curse, but it is also a blessing. Because being black in America we strive even though we have been suppressed for centuries, somehow we’ve still been able to overcome and thrive. But in this day and age we will not stand for the things that our ancestors did"

“Whatever you can do, whatever voice you have, use it to see change. Even a kind act could make a difference and could trigger change. Every day could be a way to impact the movement in a positive way." - Sha’Carri Richardson

Tokyo Olympic Games

If Richardson performs to her best, the former LSU star will be confident of winning a place on the Team USA roster for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The postponement of the Games means an extra year of international experience, which may well help Richardson and fellow rising star Athing Mu ahead of the ultra-competitive US Olympic Trials.

Richardson said, "Right before COVID hit I was feeling the best I have ever felt - better than at nationals last year. I was ready to go and perform. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster but I am back in the groove feeling like, 'Okay, this is still the goal at the end of the day.'

“My coach reiterates it to me every day, of what still needs to get done, so I am making sure every day counts and every day is a step towards Tokyo. When that day comes I will be prepared."

Richardson’s achievements on the track to date, even before considering her hard beginning in life, are nothing short of spectacular.

Whether she makes Tokyo next year or not, the United States may have found not only a new Flo-Jo, but an athlete capable of becoming someone to inspire the next generation.