Five-time Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross was two weeks out from attending her second Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 when she learned what would wind up to be life-changing news. She was pregnant. Instead of a feeling of joy when she learned the news, however, Richards-Ross immediately began to worry.
“Everything I ever wanted seemed to be within reach,” she writes in her new book “Chasing Grace” (via Essence). “The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me. In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all.”
And so the day before she was set to fly to China, the Jamaican-American sprinter opted for an abortion. She said she made the decision in conjunction with her now-husband, New York Giants player Aaron Ross, who was at training camp when the couple found out they were expecting.
“Over the phone, we didn’t go into details,” the 32-year-old writes about the conversation she and Ross had at the time about the procedure. “As if not saying it would alleviate some of the guilt and the shame.”
Richards-Ross was able to push the emotion and most of the physical pain away as she captured a gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay and a bronze in the 400-meter dash, but it partly caught up with her.
In that latter race, Richards-Ross led for 300 meters before falling behind two runners in the final 100 meters. Chalking it up to her hamstring at the time, the physical pain paled in comparison to her mental anguish.
“I made a decision that broke me, and one from which I would not immediately heal,” she writes in her book. “Abortion would now forever be a part of my life. A scarlet letter I never thought I’d wear.”
While discussing her story Tuesday, Richards-Ross told Sports Illustrated Now that her story is not that unique among women’s track and field athletes, which is one of the reasons she decided to write about her experience.
“The truth is it’s an issue that’s not really talked about, especially in sports,” she said. A lot of young women have experienced this, like, I literally don’t know another female track athlete who hasn’t had an abortion, and that’s sad.”
She added: “For me, I’m hoping that this will open up some discussions, especially in helping a lot of young women who are in my situation not experience what I did.”
Asked why Richards-Ross thought abortions were so prevalent among young female athletes, the 32-year-old chalked it up to competitive fears and lack of factual information.
“This is going to sound silly to some people, but in our community, people don’t want to take the pill because you put water weight on, and of course, as an athlete you want to be able to stay as fit and as healthy as possible,” she said. “And then people tell you that when you’re extremely fit you can’t get pregnant because our cycles are shorter, so there’s a lot of mis-education that happens to young women in college …”
While Richards-Ross, who would win two more gold medals as the Olympics in London, hopes her story helps others, she said it wasn’t an easy one to decide to tell after keeping her secret for nine years.
“I literally prayed about that [revealing the abortion] for almost two years because it is something that is really private, and a lot of women don’t talk about it,” Richards-Ross said the “Newsworth with Norsworthy” podcast on Tuesday. “When I found out I was pregnant before the Olympics, it was the toughest time of my life. … It wasn’t an easy story to share. Even, I think about, oh my god, I wonder how people are going to receive it. But, ultimately, I did it to glorify God and to tell people that you can come back from any decision, no matter how hard it is to make.”
Richards-Ross, who went on to marry Ross in 2010, retired from track and field last summer after she failed to make the U.S. squad ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. However, that may have been a blessing in disguise. Richards-Ross and her husband are expecting their first child later this year.
“Many parts of our lives have felt like a fairy tale, but this is our biggest blessing yet,” the couple told People magazine in February shortly after announcing the pregnancy. “We are so excited to start a family and can’t wait to begin this new adventure!”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Richards-Ross won a gold medal in the 4×100.