By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007
OSAKA, Japan, Sept. 1 -- Anointed track and field's "glamorous queen" by a British newspaper, U.S. sprinter Sanya Richards said this summer she wanted to become the next Marion Jones. She eyed multiple Olympic gold medals, including in the 200 meters, a relatively new event for her and the specialty of her more unassuming U.S. teammate Allyson Felix.
Felix, the reigning 200 world champion and Olympic silver medal winner, didn't appreciate the overtime worked by Richards's active public-relations machine. Her agent described her as miffed. A minister's daughter who aspires to be a schoolteacher like her mother, Felix put it more delicately, saying she was motivated.
In the 200 final at the 11th IAAF World Track and Field Championships on Friday night, Felix used speed to make her case for being the real queen of the track. As Richards finished in fifth place, Felix defended her title -- and her turf -- with a crushing victory in 21.81 seconds, the fastest time run in the event in eight years. Her .53 of a second margin of victory over Jamaica's Veronica Campbell also was the largest in an Olympic or world championship 200 in 59 years.
"This one was really special," Felix said.
The victory in hand, Felix turned the tables and said she was considering turning her attention more fully to the 400, Richards's specialty, upping the ante on their growing rivalry and raising the possibility that both she and Richards would chase a 200-400 double at the 2008 Summer Games.
You thought Tonya vs. Nancy was compelling? Or Mo vs. Mike?
The race to Beijing is on between Felix and Richards.
"There's another sheriff in town, and her name is Allyson Felix," said her agent, Renaldo Nehemiah. "The two of them can bring the 400 to the forefront like has never been seen before."
As Richards, the American record holder in the 400, immersed herself in conquering the 200 this summer, Felix decided to experiment with the 400 and ended up with three victories on the international track circuit. She ran a personal best of 49.70 in Stockholm, then approached Nehemiah, he recalled, while on a transport bus after the race and declared, "I can beat her."
That was as close to trash-talking as Nehemiah had ever heard from Felix.
"She's come of age this summer, this year," he said. "She's been far more assertive about what she wants to accomplish."
Felix and Richards have little in common other than age and exceptional talent. Felix, who turns 22 in November, has won headlines for her speed since her days as a high school sensation in Los Angeles. Back then, teammates called her "chicken legs." She is friendly but never veers into self-promotion, perhaps uncomfortable with the concept or too focused on her training under Bob Kersee to try to develop something as intangible as her image.
A part-time model, Richards, 22, seems to attract cameras. A brilliant season last summer -- during which she built an 18-race winning streak in the 400 -- pushed her into prominence and Richards, who is represented by her mother, took advantage, even pitching a reality series to MTV that would feature her and her boyfriend Aaron Ross, a cornerback out of the University of Texas who was the New York Giants' first-round pick in April.
Nehemiah said the extraordinary attention on Richards affected Felix.
"When you are kind of getting overlooked and people are talking about everybody else and you're still the best in the world . . . it's both insulting and its motivating," he said.
Added Nehemiah: "You have to be careful what you wish for. You want to be on covers [of magazines], you want all these things, but you have to stay focused. I'm not saying Sanya's not focused, but at the same time, those things detract from what you do."
Richards, who expressed sharp disappointment immediately after the race, took exception to Nehemiah's comments when told of them later, saying she suspected she struggled in the 200 because of the multiple rounds and fatigue induced by Behcet's Syndrome, disease of the joints and blood vessels with which she was diagnosed this spring. At about that time, Richards incomprehensibly finished fourth in the 400 at the U.S. championships, preventing her from competing in her specialty here.
"I had a phenomenal season last year, and all the things I got were as a result of that," she said Saturday morning. "I definitely didn't take on more than I could handle. My training came first."
She called Felix a "great competitor" and said she hoped there were no "sour grapes" between her and Nehemiah or Felix. She also said she looked forward to attempting the 200-400 double next year, but would have to work out her health issues first.
"As long as I'm healthy, I know I will be ready to win an Olympic gold medal," she said.
By the time Felix and Richards arrived here, no female sprinter in the 100 or 200 had established herself as the woman to beat and U.S. officials weren't sure who would prove to be the fittest and fastest. Though American Lauryn Williams claimed the silver in the 100 final, the time was slow, leaving the door open for Felix or Richards to be the dominant sprinter among the U.S. women.
It was Felix, whose previous personal best was 22.11, who burst through.
"I've been at 22 seconds for as long as I can remember," she said. "To finally work so hard this year after a not-so-great last year, and to win the title at the same time is definitely special."