The 21-year-old was flanked by the entire podium of medalists from the Tokyo Olympics in this event, including the two best Jamaican sprinters ever, yet for those few seconds as she lined up, all of the pressure and noise that had accompanied Richardson’s return to the sport this week appeared to subside.
As the gun went off, Richardson intended to silence anyone else who may have doubted her place among the sport’s elite — but that would not come Saturday. Richardson faded early and finished last in the nine-woman field, watching as Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah won with a time of 10.54 seconds, the second-fastest mark ever recorded in the event. Thompson-Herah’s countrywomen, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, finished second and third respectively, as they did in Tokyo, while American Teahna Daniels finished fourth with a personal-best time of 10.83.
It was a stunning letdown for Richardson, who was also scheduled to run in the 200 meters but withdrew from that event. She had entered the meet with the sixth-fastest time ever in the 100, only to clock an 11.14 on an afternoon when she had an opportunity to open a new rivalry with her Jamaican counterparts. Even as they swept the podium in Tokyo, there was still the question that hovered over that event: What if Richardson would have been in the field in Tokyo?
On Saturday, that question was at least temporarily put to rest, and Richardson was left to defend her belief that she is among the best in her sport.
“Coming out today, it was a great return back to the sport. I wanted to be able to come and perform, having a month off, dealing with all I was dealing with,” she told the NBC broadcast after the race. “I’m not upset at myself at all. This is one race. I’m not done. You know what I’m capable of. Count me out if you want to, talk all the [stuff] you want because I’m here to stay. I’m not done.”
Saturday’s blockbuster was further proof that Thompson-Herah is the fastest in her sport. The 29-year-old had made history in the event in Tokyo, running a 10.61 to break the 33-year-old Olympic record of Florence Griffith Joyner. A few nights later, she won gold in the 200 meters — and was just 0.19 seconds off Griffith Joyner’s world record — to become the first woman to sweep the 100 and 200 in back-to-back Olympics.
She added a third gold medal when Jamaica won the 4x100-meter relay. She had not returned to her home country after the event, she said, choosing to set her sights on more opportunities to improve her times in 2021 — and she did just that with a personal best Saturday, blowing past Fraser-Pryce (10.73) and Jackson (10.76) to leave no doubt.
“To come back with a PB after the championships, that is amazing. I haven’t run that fast in five years,” Thompson-Herah said. “It means a lot to me … because my job is to inspire a generation. I have more races, so I don’t get too excited, too carried away. I have to continue doing the job.”
Both Thompson-Herah and Fraser-Pryce had been peppered with questions about Richardson’s absence in Tokyo, and they shared a stage with the American star during a news conference Friday in Eugene. Richardson looked confident as she arrived in sunglasses and listened to Thompson-Herah, Fraser-Pryce and Jackson talk about their Olympic glory before she addressed questions about her return.
She had told the “Today” show in an interview this week that she had felt some “bitterness” watching the Olympics as she was sidelined because of her suspension, but she had thrown herself into her training for the Prefontaine Classic over the past six weeks to provide a reminder of her status in the sport after a captivating performance at the U.S. trials in June.
“Lining up against these women,” she said Friday, nodding toward the trio from Jamaica, “two of the women sitting here are two of the fastest women to ever do this sport. So I’m honored just to be on this stage with them. But I’m not star-struck. When it’s time to get on the line, we all do the same thing.”
But she couldn’t do the same thing Saturday, even as her event garnered buzz from around the world. There was a star-studded lineup performing in Eugene — and there were a slew of memorable performances, including by Athing Mu, who followed her gold medal in Tokyo in the 800 with an American record of 1 minute 55.04 seconds to win the event Saturday. And there was Noah Lyles of Alexandria, who blew past the field with a meet record time of 19.52 to win the men’s 200, which was just a sliver shy of his personal best. But neither of those events had captured the hype of Richardson’s return. Nike aired a commercial featuring Richardson on NBC before she ran, and she winked at the camera before she lined up.
After she had finished and was forced to watch as Thompson-Herah and her teammates celebrated, Richardson was the first to give an interview. She still forced a smile and pointed at the camera, reminding everyone of the 10.72 time she recorded earlier this year, and she promised that she would be back.
“I’m the sixth-fastest woman in this game, ever. Can’t nobody ever take that away,” Richardson told NBC. “Congratulations to the winners. Congratulations to the people who won, but they’re not done seeing me yet. Period.”