Sha’Carri Richardson is back and a world champion
With 100-meter dash victory at the World Athletics Championships, Richardson starts a new chapter
After cruising to a first-place finish in the semifinals of the women’s 100-meter dash at the World Athletics Championships on Sunday, a race in which she emphatically wiped her brow before crossing the finish line, Sha’Carri Richardson was asked by a reporter what expectations she had for herself as the world anticipated her return to competitive track and field.
The U.S. sprinter, staring ahead stone-faced rather than facing the reporter, briefly paused as she considered the question. But only for a moment, before launching into one of those monologues that are part getting this off my chest, part you have no idea what you’re about to see next.
“I’m not worried about the world anymore,” Richardson said Sunday in Budapest, Hungary. “I’ve seen the world be my friend. I’ve seen the world turn on me. At the end of the day, I’ve always been with me. God has always been with me.
“So being on this scale now, it’s my time. It’s always been my time, but now it’s my time to actually do it for myself, and the people that felt like me, and the people that look like me, and the people that know their truth about themselves as well. I represent those people.”
During one month in the summer of 2021, Richardson went from relative obscurity to so famous that the rapper Drake would eventually drop her name in song to a level of notoriety seen only from heels in pro wrestling. But after her stunning first-place finish in the finals of the 100-meter race at the world championships on Monday, Richardson has started a new chapter of her nascent career, one that is perhaps less colorful than the woman we met two years ago, but just as authentic as ever.
And while Richardson’s first international win can finally put behind her the chapter in her life that caused her so much joy and pain, that chapter explains the journey this Technicolor, thundering sprinter has taken to being a favorite at next summer’s Paris Games.
Born and raised in Dallas, Richardson is as “child prodigy” as it gets in track and field. She discovered the sport at age 9 after finding her aunt’s old track medals hanging in the house. By age 16, Richardson was an AAU Junior Olympics champion in the 100-meter dash in 2016. The next year she won the 100 and placed third in the 200 meter at the 2017 USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships, followed by another gold in the women’s 400 relay at that year’s Pan American U20 Athletics Championships. She won five individual Texas state championships during her high school career; Richardson was such a star that officials took photos and sought autographs at the state meet in 2018.
The success didn’t stop when Richardson arrived at LSU in 2018. In her first collegiate indoor meet, she ran the fastest 60-meter dash in the country at the time. By the end of the season in 2019, in which she won The Bowerman Award for most outstanding female athlete, Richardson swept the 100 (setting the NCAA record at 10.75, even while prematurely celebrating as she crossed the finish line) and 200 at the outdoor SEC championships. She also anchored the first-place 400-meter relay team.
She spent one year at LSU before turning pro, taking one more step toward the goal she made in 2017 while a junior in high school: competing in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
At 21 years old, she had virtually no time to grow up, make young people mistakes, and learn from them before being thrust into global celebrity with a time of 10.86 seconds at the 2021 Olympic trials, where she captured first place in the 100-meter dash, guaranteeing her a spot on Team USA.
Richardson was already brash, eccentric, colorful, confident, charismatic, and the consummate showwoman. So of course she was prone to saying things such as “I am that girl” or tweeting, “My presence in this track game making history happen, no need for a thank you.” But Richardson understood that all of the talking served a purpose.
“The attention comes with the big personality, and I have no problem with it,” Richardson told the New York Times in early 2021. “It makes me work so I don’t end up looking crazy.”
But she was also a 21-year-old with a social media habit. She could be naive, thin-skinned, passionate, vindictive, embarrassed. She tested positive for marijuana less than two weeks after the trials, which Richardson attributed to learning of her biological mother’s death a week before the Olympic trials. The positive test disqualified her from going to Tokyo, and she didn’t take that news well.
She got into back-and-forths with nameless Twitter accounts. She beefed with the female Jamaican sprinters. She somehow started a beef with Olympic champion Allyson Felix, the closest we have to a darling in American track and field. While later watching the Tokyo Games from home in the U.S., Richardson tweeted “missing me yet?” after Team USA was temporarily disqualified in the mixed relay race.
Richardson’s biggest mistake was liking a racist, anti-Jamaican post on Twitter that was aimed at Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who had defeated Richardson at a post-Olympics race in Oregon. There’s no excuse for encouraging anti-Black sentiments on the internet, but if someone’s going to make that error, it would be the grieving 21-year-old whose entire life purpose was upended by a technicality.
Grief and anger manifests in different ways for everyone, and some of the times it can be ugly and uncomfortable. Mental health isn’t a perfectly tied bow. NBA players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan opening up about their anxiety and depression is easier to digest because we couldn’t see their actual pain on display. Part of the outsize attention they received was from how well they hid it.
But Richardson’s mental health was on full display for the world to see, warts and all.
Richardson’s mother, who dealt with addiction and her own mental health problems, abandoned her and her sister when they were young. Missing that mother-daughter bond devastated Richardson, taking her to what she’s called a “dark place.” She wondered what was wrong with her to make her mom not want to want her. That abandonment made Richardson believe that no one wanted her at all. She attempted suicide while a junior in high school.
But in her mother’s absence came her grandmother, Betty Harp, and the aunt who first trained her, Shayaria Richardson.
Eventually running became an out from everything Richardson was experiencing. It became a form of escape, of therapy. When she’d walk on the track, it became her sanctuary, a place she could leave the anger behind.
“Having those people in my life, it just really showed me that it’s love out there,” Richardson said of her grandmother and aunt in the 2020 short-form documentary Prodigy. “It’s what made me who I am today.”
But, unfortunately, in this country, you have to earn grace. Empathy isn’t a birthright, especially for people who look like Richardson. What the world saw was a cocky Black woman who, in the form of the disqualification, was getting her comeuppance. It didn’t matter that Richardson lost the one woman whose love and affection she sought the most yet never received. It didn’t matter that she, like countless others in this country, resorted to substance use to mask the pain she was feeling. It didn’t matter that Richardson was in a physically abusive relationship. It didn’t even matter that she had wanted this one thing — going to the Olympics — and it was ripped from her over some weed.
And less than a month after suffering the embarrassment of being banned from the Tokyo Games, Richardson had to face the world — and the Jamaicans — at the Prefontaine Classic held in August 2021.
In the face of all those pressures, Richardson wilted in the spotlight. In a month’s time, Richardson went from posting the top time of the year in the 100-meter race (10.71) to finishing in last place with an abysmal 11.14 seconds at the Prefontaine Classic. Her singsongy post-race interview made matters worse.
“I’m not done. You know what I’m capable of. Count me out if you want to,” she said to NBC after the race. “I’m here to stay. I’m not done. I’m the sixth-fastest woman in this game ever and can’t nobody ever take that from me.”
In the interview, you can sense the desperation in Richardson’s face. You can hear the trepidation in her voice. It’s hard to fathom that she believed anything coming out of her mouth. It was reminiscent of how she looked weeks before during an early-morning interview with Today following her failed drug test: She nervously stood for the interview, rocking back and forth, giving off a sense of discomfort. Earlier this month, Richardson tweeted that she was “forced to do this interview.”
After the Prefontaine Classic, Richardson mostly stayed out of the headlines. The break from the spotlight has paid off.
After an up (winning gold and silver medals at the USATF New York Grand Prix) and down (failing to qualify for the world championships) in 2022, Richardson has paved a path to success for the entire 2023 season.
She ran a wind-assisted 10.57 seconds in the 100 meters at the Continental Tour in April, the fourth-best performance by a woman in all conditions. Three months later in July, she ran the fastest female time of the year in the semifinals of the U.S. championships (10.71), followed up with a 10.82 win in the finals, highlighted by Richardson ripping off her trademark colorful wig ahead of the race. A week after the U.S. championships, at the Silesia Diamond League meeting in Poland, she ran a 10.76 to take first place in the 100 meters, topping Shericka Jackson of Jamaica, who has the legal top time (10.65) in the event this year. Richardson also has three gold medals in the 200 meters this season.
“Now, I stand here with you again and I’m ready, mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said at the U.S. championships. “I’m here to say, ‘I’m not back, I’m better.’ “
Her look is more subdued than what it was two years ago. The long nails like those of champion sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner are still on display, but gone are the colorful wigs, extensive piercings and long eyelashes, which Richardson has said she had been advised to get rid of.
But don’t misconstrue that as Richardson going for a more corporate look: She’s still very Dallas, with long, colorful braids and the tattoos. Richardson is more mature … but she’s still talking that talk: that brow wipe will undoubtedly become a signature moment.
After a slow start in the semifinals at the world championships, she remained composed and finished third in the 100 (10.84) to make the final as a qualifier. Running out of the ninth lane in the final against Fraser-Pryce and Jackson, Richardson came from out of nowhere to take gold in 10.65 seconds.
This isn’t the first time Richardson has had to mount a comeback. After missing her entire freshman season in high school with a pulled sciatic nerve, Richardson left her sophomore year with a state championship gold medal in the 100. After a disappointing eighth-place finish in the 100 at the 2019 U.S. championships, running a 11.72 compared with the record-breaking 10.75 in the NCAA championships a month before, Richardson returned to take gold in the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials, which were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
After nearly two years away from the spotlight in 2021, Richardson seems focused on finally making it to the Olympics. And all it took was getting back to the basics of leaving all the unimportant stuff at the door.
“With all the noise and the gunshot and the people’s steps right next to you … it’s like none of that exists,” Richardson said in Prodigy two years ago. “Once you in your blocks, everything disappears and it’s just you and the track and doing what you love.
“[Track] takes me to this place where I’m just in peace.”