Sanya Richards-Ross is an Olympic medalist, an executive producer and an entrepreneur—but her successes haven’t exactly been handed to her on a silver (or in her case, gold) platter.
After Richards-Ross took home a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics for the 4x400m relay, she was favored to take home the top honor for the 400m race in 2008—but she walked away with a bronze medal. She won two gold medals in London—both individually and as part of the relay team—only to get surgery on her right toe the following fall.
The runner has said will be her last Olympic games, and she’s as strong a contender as ever: On Saturday, she helped the U.S. secure first place at the Penn Relays in the 4x400m event.
Prior to this victory, at the Nike+ Live event in New York City in March, Motto asked Richards-Ross how she deals with disappointment and what advice she has for other women who are thinking of making a career change.
Motto: How do you stay mentally strong when you’re under pressure?
Richards-Ross: There are a few things that I rely on to stay mentally strong, and the first is my faith. I’m a Christian, and I believe everything happens for a reason. So whenever I’m mentally fatigued or mentally down, I just stop and pray and just kind of get myself centered. A lot of times I get mentally fatigued because I’m all over the place, and so I try to find my center. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is I’ve worked with a sports psychologist now for a few years, and he has helped me to really be able to get to, we call it emotionally neutral, which is not getting too worked up or not getting too high or too low when situations come that you can’t control. And that’s helped me a lot to always think, “O.K., is this something I can control? If not, then just take it one day at a time. Don’t get ahead of myself.” Because a lot of times, we get anxious about stuff that hasn’t even happened. And then it’s not that bad when it actually happens. So he’s helped me to strategize on that with mental stability.
Also, when I think about mental preparation, we do a lot of visualization. I imagine myself at the Olympics, at the trials. I imagine myself having that good feeling, I’ve run a good race, of winning. Those things help me, as well.
I love that phrase that you use—emotional neutral. Do you have an example of a time when you made a conscious effort to return to an emotional neutral?
I’ve struggled with a toe injury for many years now, and after 2012, I had surgery on my foot. I remember after having the first surgery, it wasn’t successful and I wasn’t competing well. I wasn’t able to push off my toe. It was just really bad. And I went to another doctor, and I remember him telling me that he didn’t think I’d be able to run again on the foot. I got really emotional. I thought about what my doctor had told me, and I was like, “I can take what he says and turn that into a downward spiral, or I can say, ‘No, I’m not going to get emotionally worked up.’” And I was able to go on and have a second surgery and have a great season in 2014. So I remember vividly that moment as one of the times I really was able to control my emotions and not get too low because someone said I wasn’t able to run anymore—but to just kind of accept what his diagnosis was and find someone who believed in me and who could help. So that was a time that comes to mind.
I know you’ve dealt with several injuries. What helped you stay positive and persevere in the face of setbacks?
Setbacks have kind of defined my career. In 2008, I was expecting to win [the 400m event], and I got the bronze. And it was really tough for me. And then I’ve had this toe injury; my entire body is healthy and it’s just one big toe. It’s so frustrating, but for me, I’ve kind of paralleled my struggle with my toe with life in general. And I feel like a lot of times we have that small nagging thing that’s holding us back. And so I just want to conquer it. Like I said, my faith is what always keeps me motivated. I have an amazing family. My husband was an elite athlete; he played for the New York Giants. He really understands what it takes to be a great athlete. My mom and dad, who manage my career and support me 100%, they’ve really lifted me up and helped me to say, “You can do this again. You’ve been the best in the world and you can do this again.” So their motivation helps me a lot, too.
You’ve said that this is going to be your last Olympics, so how are you approaching this one differently than the others?
I think every Olympics I’ve been to, there’s been something different about them. In 2012, I wanted to avenge that loss [in 2008], and I wanted to prove to myself I could win this race. And this year, now it being my last, I kind of think of it like my last rep in practice. And I feel like I’ve always given my best on my last one. No matter how hard my workouts are, I’m always able to dig deep and find something extra. So that’s kind of how I’ve been looking at this season: Every workout, I give 110% because I know this will be my last one and I just don’t want to have any regrets. But I do feel this kind of peace and calm around my Olympics and my training, and I just feel like I’ve had an amazing career. This is just kind of the icing on the cake for me, so it’s just been a great year of reflection and appreciation.
It must have been tough to decide this was your last Olympics and that it was time to move on. What advice would you have for others about how to know when it’s the time to make a shift like that?
That’s a really good question, and I’m actually writing a book now and I tackle that question about transitioning through our lives and constantly readjusting and reevaluating where we are. And a lot of times it’s about taking that leap of faith. Because it’s never the perfect time. We can always make an excuse as to why we’re comfortable where we are or why this is working for me, but I think it’s about just not being afraid to try something new. If you have new passions and you feel like the situation you’re in right now is not ideal, it’s no longer feeding your passion or your joy, it’s about just stepping out on faith and betting on yourself. I always think it’s important to evaluate success at your level, too. It doesn’t matter what people say or what people think. When you make a change, you have to accept your goals and be happy with your wins and your victories, no matter how small they are. I think if you can do that, then you can be fearless in moving on and making that transition.
This interview has been edited and condensed.