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After missing Olympics, Sha’Carri Richardson remains in a lane of her own

Sha'Carri Richardson runs at the NYC Grand Prix this month. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — The noise belonged to a different place. A flock of young girls shrieked and sprinted to the finishing area just outside Icahn Stadium, a roped-off patch of grass underneath a white tent. They made the outskirts of a sparsely attended track meet this month sound like a Taylor Swift concert in miniature. They ignored a volunteer who pleaded with them to slow down. They wielded race bibs, track spikes and phone cases for autographs. They skipped and leaped and, as Sha’Carri Richardson emerged through a fence, murmured “ohmyGodit’sher.”

Richardson waved, still breathing hard from her victory in the 200 meters. She wore blond hair with pinkish streaks, red fishnet leggings over a rose-colored racing singlet, bejeweled fingernail extensions and gems affixed to her forehead. The shrieks grew louder as she walked toward the girls, one of whom asked how she felt about her race.

“I feel excited about it, baby,” Richardson replied.

Richardson captivated America for one week last summer, when she became a pop-up Olympic darling who suddenly and shockingly lost her Olympic chance. At 21, Richardson won the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., with transfixing style in the tradition of her idol, Florence Griffith Joyner; unapologetic swagger; and fierce speed that makes her the fourth-fastest woman in American history. Days later, her drug test returned positive for marijuana, which Richardson said she used to ease emotional turmoil after learning from a reporter during an interview that her biological mother had died.

Marijuana is a banned substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency code. The penalty wiped out Richardson’s berth in Tokyo and prompted widespread debate, which included a letter from House Oversight Committee representatives to WADA urging them to overturn their marijuana policies, about why the substance was banned in the first place.

This week, Richardson will return to Hayward Field with her first opportunity to make a U.S. team since last summer’s upheaval. When the U.S. championships begin Thursday, Richardson will be favored in the 100 meters and among the favorites to land on the podium in the 200. A top-three finish will advance her to July’s world championships, also in Eugene, which are being contested in North America for the first time. Owing to her absence at the Tokyo Olympics, the world championships would be the biggest event of Richardson’s young career.

The doping rules that cost Sha’Carri Richardson have a debated, political history

Richardson has maintained a low profile this year, at least offline, competing in just a handful of races and declining most media requests and sponsorship offers. It has been a strategic choice, an effort to tamp down what her agent, former Olympian Renaldo Nehemiah, called “Sha’Carri Mania.” Sudden fame rushed at Richardson last summer, and for a time it overwhelmed her.

“We had a lot of business interest,” Nehemiah said. “But business comes with a lot of obligations. We had to learn from last year.”

At the NYC Grand Prix, Richardson received by far the loudest ovation in the starting blocks. She finished second in the 100 meters in 10.85 seconds, her fastest time since the trials last summer and .02 seconds behind Aleia Hobbs, her close friend and former college teammate at LSU. She felt “fantastic” about the race, she said during a brief stop to talk to media in the mixed zone. She then won the 200 meters in 22.38.

As ever, Richardson’s style matched her speed. No one has ever shown up at a track meet and needed to ask, “Which one is Sha’Carri?” The fishnet suit was a new touch added to her trademark Technicolor hair, extended eyelashes and talon-like fingernails.

“Me always standing out,” Richardson said. “No matter my performance, no matter what media has to say, I was expressing myself and showing people that no matter how a company, people, the media may try to limit you, always stand on your truth. I express that through what I wear.”

At the NYC Grand Prix, a youth meet preceded the pro event, which explained the horde of girls who rushed to Richardson just outside the stadium. Richardson signed and posed for pictures. She kept saying she had to go, then would stay and sign or pose for more.

After Richardson finally left, four girls from the Prospect Park relay team, ages 9 and 10, broke off from the pack. One of them held a flower Richardson had given her from her victory bouquet, one yellow petal falling to the ground. Asked why they liked Richardson so much, they provided rapid-fire answers.

“She’s fast.”

“She’s pretty.”

“She’s kind.”

“She has amazing style.”

“She’s very cool and inspirational.”

“She has an amazing personality.”

“She kept on saying yes when everybody was calling her name.”

Larger than life

On her headphones as she warmed up in New York, Richardson played Drake’s “No Friends in the Industry.” A lot of athletes listen to Drake lyrics before a competition, but how many of them are Drake lyrics? The song includes the winking line: “And I’m like Sha’Carri / Smoke ‘em on and off the track.”

Olympic athletes in the United States process fame differently than peers in professional team sports. They remain mostly anonymous outside their niche realm aside from a few weeks every four years, when they become some of the most sought-after athletes in the world. They are incentivized to maximize their exposure, because one spike could solidify their financial futures. It happens to many in their early 20s. It can be unmooring.

“The whole entire thing is staying true to yourself and not letting so many forces weigh inside of that,” said Raven Saunders, who won the shot put silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. “Once you hit that stage, there’s so many people who want access to you, so many people that want things from you. You have to balance: What can you give from yourself, and what can’t you give? I find that a lot of us struggle with trying to give too much out.”

Richardson experienced a supercharged version of the phenomenon last year. At the trials, she dominated the 100 meters in prime time and raced into the stands to hug her grandmother, who had raised her in Dallas. In one on-track interview, Richardson declared, “I am that girl.” In another, Richardson revealed her biological mother had recently died.

She exuded a rare blend of confidence, vulnerability and athletic charisma. Nehemiah’s phone would not stop ringing with “people throwing stupid numbers of money at me,” he said. The suspension became national news and only enhanced her sudden fame.

“Sha’Carri Mania got out of control,” Nehemiah said.

After Richardson was forced to skip Tokyo, her return race at the Prefontaine Classic in late summer 2021 featured pervasive Nike commercials starring her — and when it came time to race, she finished last, in 11.14 seconds. “Count me out if you want to, talk all the [stuff] you want because I’m here to stay,” she said afterward. “I’m not done.” For a time, she used a photo of her giving a defiant, on-track interview with her rivals laughing behind her as her Twitter avatar.

In quieter moments, Nehemiah said, Richardson confided that she wished other sprinters received some of the attention directed at her. “She goes: ‘Yeah, Renaldo, yes, I know I’m good and all that. But they have the medals.’ ”

Keeping it real

As reticent as Richardson may have been in person, she often stoked controversy with an active and combative Twitter account. “The only reason why I’m even on social media is to see what she’s posting,” Nehemiah said, chuckling.

Richardson frequently tussles with random Twitter users, escalating spats that could be avoided altogether, which Nehemiah attributed to her “protective mechanism” and the generation to which she belongs.

“I feel badly for these young people, because it’s really hurt them,” Nehemiah said. “As much as it may hurt them, their identity, their self-esteem — everything — is tied up in how many likes you get, in how many reposts. I can’t put them down, because who knows? If we were born into it, we’d be the same way.”

Days before the New York meet, USA Track & Field’s account tweeted a photo of Richardson with a message hyping her showdown with Tokyo bronze medalist Gabby Thomas in the 200 at the NYC Grand Prix, a standard promotional device. In a since-deleted tweet, Richardson demanded that the USATF — her national governing body, of which she is a member — stop using her name and image for “clickbait.”

Nehemiah explained the tweet as the product youthful naivete. Richardson is still just 22, and she rose in the sport during the pandemic, preventing in-person meetings with some of the sport’s power brokers. On the eve of the NYC Grand Prix, Nehemiah stayed up with Richardson until 1 a.m. “giving her the ABCs of certain things,” such as the role of USATF in her career. Nehemiah said Richardson did not know who USATF CEO Max Siegel was.

Nehemiah wants to guide Richardson but not to take away from her authenticity, the trait that most connects her with fans who might otherwise not have interest in track and field. Hobbs, one of the fastest women in the country, hosted Richardson at LSU when Richardson made her official recruiting visit. “That’s always how she was,” Hobbs said. “She’s still the same.”

“Her fans who love that, she’s like a champion for them,” Nehemiah said. “She says it without making excuses. I’ve had people [tell me]: ‘I feel that way! And she just spoke for me.’ So that’s why these people gravitate. And then you have the others who are like, ‘How dare this female — a Black female of all things — be this brash and arrogant?’ Because that’s usually more acceptable for guys. Now you have the next iteration of Flo Jo with a voice, not just the flair, and they’re going: ‘Whoa! What is that?’ And it’s not an act.”

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