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September 25, 2021

Sha’Carri Richardson and Her Now Uncertain Path to the Olympics

When Sha’Carri Richardson starts talking, the declarations are grand.

“I am it.”

“I am who I say I am.”

“Talent is talent. If you got it, you go fast.”

Her performances have been just as bold. Richardson, 21, could claim to be America’s fastest woman after winning the 100 meters at the U.S. track and field Olympic trials last month in Oregon, drawing attention for her speed, outspoken nature, and billowing orange hair in homage to her athletic hero. Her time of 10.86 seconds instantly made her a gold medal favorite at the Tokyo Olympics that begin this month, mostly because it was not even the fastest she has run this year.

Yet her place on the team is in jeopardy because of her marijuana use, putting her at the center of debate and discussion about the drug and the fairness of the rules of the sport as it searches for its next big track star in the United States.

U.S. anti-doping officials and Richardson confirmed Friday that she tested positive for marijuana at the trials, disqualifying her from her signature event.

Although many states and countries are loosening restrictions on marijuana, it is categorized as a performance-enhancing drug in track in some cases and its use is banned within 24 hours of an event. The primary reason for its prohibition is that it can be used to relax athletes before a competition, which can in turn enhance performance.

On the “Today” show on NBC Friday morning, Richardson apologized. She said she had used the drug to deal with the pressure of competing on the biggest stage of her career and to cope with the news that her biological mother had died, which she said she had learned from a reporter during an interview just days before her event on June 20.

“I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time,” Richardson said.

She is the latest American track and field star to have their Olympics jeopardized by a drug ruling — violations that have put American athletes and officials in an awkward position because they have spent years calling for harsher penalties against Russia for doping offenses.

Christian Coleman, the men’s world champion in the 100 meters, is serving an 18-month suspension for missing multiple drug tests. Shelby Houlihan, the American record-holder in the 1,500 meters, was suspended for four years last month after testing positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid.

On Friday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Swiss-based highest arbiter of such cases, upheld a five-year suspension for Brianna McNeal, the 2016 Olympic champion in the 100-meter hurdles, for tampering with paperwork related to her explanations for missing a drug test.

In their appeals, each of those athletes put forward expansive explanations that doping officials have not accepted. Houlihan claimed she tested positive after eating a pork burrito. McNeal told The New York Times she was recovering from an abortion procedure and did not hear an anti-doping official knocking at her front door. McNeal then altered the date on the paperwork she used to substantiate the procedure following the missed test.

Richardson indicated she would not appeal her suspension, which invalidated her win at the U.S. trials and lasts until July 30. She could still make the team as part of the 4 x 100 relay, which takes place after the suspension is up. Unlike in individual events, U.S. track officials do not solely rely on qualifying times to determine the relay teams.

Richardson, who pronounces her first name sha-KERRY, had already made a mark as she rose through track and had big expectations.

Her relatively small height, at 5 feet 1 inch, had already forced experts in the sport to rethink their obsession with tall sprinters.

“I always told her she was a small person with big feet,” said Lauren Cross, who coached Richardson at Carter High School in Dallas three years ago. She was speaking both literally and figuratively about her star pupil, who despite her diminutive stature, wears a size eight shoe.

She also has taken to making bold statements about what she expects from herself and has the talent to back them up.

“The attention comes with the big personality, and I have no problem with it,” Richardson said earlier this year. “It makes me work so I don’t end up looking crazy.”

Richardson blows dramatic kisses to the crowd and points at herself when a stadium announcer introduces her before a race.

“Sha’Carri just has got a lot of self-confidence, and the great sprinters have that,” said Dennis Shaver, who coached Richardson during her one season of college track at Louisiana State University. “You talk a certain talk, but then you back it up.”

Richardson came into the trials having run 10.72, the sixth-fastest time in history, at a meet in April. At the trials, she ran a wind-aided 10.64 in the semifinals, and won the final in 10.84, more than a tenth of a second faster than her closest competitor.

After, she announced that she had been grieving for her biological mother, who had died just days before.

After the race, she ran into the stands to embrace her grandmother Betty Harp, who raised Richardson along with Richardson’s aunt Shayaria. Richardson collapsed into her grandmother’s lap and buried her head in her chest.

“Without my grandmother, there would be no Sha’Carri Richardson, so my family’s my everything,” she said to the prime-time television audience. “My everything until the day I’m done.”

Running has tantalized Richardson since she stumbled upon some old track medals in her aunt’s closet when she was 9 years old. She tried basketball, dancing, and flag football, but kept coming back to those medals. She wanted some of her own.

Cross, the high school coach, who still speaks to Richardson every week, first saw her when she was in middle school running for a local club, Desoto Nitro. Richardson was already faster than everyone in her age group. She struggled with an injury during her first year in high school, but by her sophomore year, she was the fastest girl in Texas.

Richardson’s family had little money when she was growing up. On bus rides to meets, Cross would talk to Richardson about the future she could have — college, maybe a professional career — if she kept working hard and stayed focused. When college recruiters showed up, Richardson would unapologetically tell them how fast she was: faster than anyone else.

At LSU she cut her time in the 100 meters by a half-second in nine months. She won the NCAA championship, setting a 100-meter record for women under 20, and turned professional.

She became the latest top American sprinter to train with Dennis Mitchell, a three-time Olympic medalist who received a two-year ban for doping in 1998. Richardson said she chose Mitchell because he coaches her not as a running machine but as a person who has all the insecurities, fragility, and doubt of anybody else.

Mitchell declined to comment for this article. In her “Today” show appearance Friday, Richardson made sure to point out she was not suspended for steroid use.

“There will never be a steroid attached to the name of Sha’Carri Richardson,” she said.

Shaver said time in the weight room has allowed Richardson to compete against more mature women at such a young age. Sprinting is all about reaching maximum velocity quickly, requiring the power to explode out of the starting blocks and through the first 40 meters. That requires intense strength, which contributes to the efficiency of each step, an essential ingredient for any sprinter who does not possess the long strides of a tall sprinter.

This training and her dynamic stride frequency have left her rivals in the United States unable to keep up. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, who ran 10.62, the fastest time in the world this year, was considered the only one standing between Richardson and the Olympic gold medal.

Richardson said she knows her bravado and her appearance can turn some people off. People around the track have told her to cut her hair and her nails and get rid of her eyelashes, saying they slow her down.

Yet Richardson has said embracing who she is making her faster. And her words remained big as ever.

“This is the last time the Olympics don’t see Sha’Carri Richardson,” she said Friday. “And this the last time the U.S. doesn’t come home with the gold medal in the 100 meters.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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