LONDON — Disappointment, tears and that oh-so-unsatisfying color — bronze — are all in the past for Sanya Richards-Ross.
On this trip to the Olympics, she closed the deal.
Four years after a late fade left her crying and wearing the Olympic bronze medal, Richards-Ross won the 400-meter gold she always thought she could.
“What I have learned is you don’t win the race until you win the race,” Richards-Ross said. “I knew I had to cross the finish line first to call myself the Olympic champion.”
She did it.
Nearly banging elbows with runners on both sides of her — and with the defending champion making up ground on the outside — Richards-Ross got stronger, not weaker, this time over the last 100 meters.
She surged to the finish, won by about a body’s length and punched her fist when she crossed the line in 49.55 seconds Sunday night to give the U.S. its first track and field gold medal of the London Olympics.
“I just kept saying, ‘You can do this, you can do this,’” Richards-Ross said. “I just dug really deep and I’m very happy.”
Defending champion Christine Ohuruogu of Britain finished second in 49.70 and American DeeDee Trotter, decked out in red, white and blue glitter on her face, won the bronze in 49.72.
This moment, though, belonged to Richards-Ross, whose parents relocated from her home country of Jamaica when she was 12, in part to advance what looked like a promising running career.
At the end, she wrapped herself in the American flag and went to the stands to embrace her husband, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Aaron Ross, who took time off from NFL training camp to travel to London.
“You finally did it, you finally did it, babe,” he told his wife. “Enjoy the moment.”
Imagine what the trophy case at their house must look like. Ross has two Super Bowl rings, the last one captured last season with the New York Giants. His wife now has an individual gold to go with two others she won in previous Olympic relays, with more possible in this year’s relays.
“We don’t compete,” Richards-Ross said. “His Super Bowl ring just gave me motivation.”
The world’s top runner at this distance for much of the last four years, Richards-Ross has nonetheless been waiting impatiently for another shot at the individual gold she thought she’d grab in 2008.
That time, the final 100 meters of her race was a disaster. Leading coming into the stretch, she fell back dramatically, and a few minutes later, Ohuruogu was clutching the gold and Richards-Ross was crying in the lower level of the Bird’s Nest.
Quite a different result this time around — and quite a different scene at the finish.
“The run was phenomenal,” Richards-Ross said. “It’s very, very challenging to get on the Olympic stage and give your best performance, to balance your emotions and physical. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders. I kept telling myself, ‘You are the champ. You are the champ.’ To go out there and actually accomplish it is really fantastic.”
She’s been through quite a lot over the past four or five years.
Health issues almost certainly contributed to the bronze medal in Beijing. Richards-Ross spent five years fighting an autoimmune disease called Behcet’s syndrome, but after a visit to a different doctor, she thinks she’s been misdiagnosed.
Fighting her illness — which causes fatigue, sores around her mouth and splochy skin — with a new treatment, the five-time U.S. champion arrived in London feeling as good as she has in years.
It showed in this race — the warm-up act for the men’s 100-meter final won by Usain Bolt. Shortly after Bolt’s celebration was over, Richards-Ross had the stage again for her medals ceremony. The U.S. national anthem played and Richards-Ross closed her eyes and sang the lyrics. Sweet music for a victory she’s been seeking for four years.
“She worked so hard,” Aaron Ross said. “All the emotions going through her mind, my mind, her family’s mind, everybody that’s seen the struggles. It just a great moment right now.”