Before the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Sha’Carri Richardson dyed her flowing hair orange, so it looked this weekend as if she sprinted with flames coming out the back of her head. At her previous meet, when she had become the sixth-fastest woman ever, she picked blue. The decision on which color usually just comes to her before a race. Before the biggest meet of her life, she let her girlfriend choose.
“She said it just spoke to her, the fact that it was just so loud and vibrant,” Richardson said. “That’s who I am. She just wanted me to be able to make a statement — let’s continue to show the world I’m a force to be reckoned with.”
Start reckoning with Richardson now. Start learning how to pronounce her name — it’s sha-KERRY — and start learning her personality because she will be happy to show it. Get used to her Technicolor hair and perfect stride, her elegant eyelashes and her bold proclamations, her blazing times and her unapologetic attitude, brash and bubbly at the same time.
America’s latest sprinting star arrived in full Saturday night at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and she is neither going anywhere or changing for anybody. Richardson, a 21-year-old from Dallas, made her first Olympic team with a dominant performance in the 100 meters, dusting the field in 10.86 seconds and declaring to the world her intention to win America’s first gold medal in the event since 1996 later this summer in Tokyo.
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Richardson came out of the blocks behind most of the field, and second-place finisher Javianne Oliver challenged through the first half of the race. And then Richardson did what Richardson always does: She blasted ahead of the field, including third-place finisher Teahna Daniels. As she hissed across the line, Richardson spread her arms and smiled wide.
At 21, three years after heading off to college at LSU, Richardson had become the fastest woman in the United States. Undaunted by her youth, Richardson made clear in performance and words she has no interest in waiting in line.
“I use my age as, honestly, an intimidating factor,” Richardson said. “If you’ve been doing this and I step on the scene, I’m letting you know I respect you for putting on for our sport. But at the end of the day, when we get on this line, what you’ve been doing, you have to do that against me.”
Richardson trotted about half a victory lap, then ran up concrete steps into the stands and hugged her grandmother. “My grandmother is my heart,” Richardson said. “My grandmother is my superwoman.”
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In an on-track interview with NBC, Richardson revealed her biological mother had died last week. Richardson declined to go into further detail, calling it “still a very, very, very sensitive and confusing topic to me.” She added that she loved her mother and knew that her mother loved her.
“I definitely pay her respect every time I step on the track,” Richardson said.
Richardson possesses the kind of athletic charisma you cannot look away from. Ato Boldon, a gold medalist and NBC’s track and field analyst, said coaches should show their runners Richardson’s form. Richardson runs with fierce power and yet bounces off the track, floating between strides as if her lane is governed by a weaker gravitational field.
She is nearly as magnetic off the track. Asked what a broader American fan should know about her, Richardson used the words “authenticity” and “transparency.” Among track adherents, she inspires devotion and disdain. “The hate, I have to transform it into motivation,” Richardson said. “Very easily, I could show them the 214, the Dallas in me. I choose to just remember that they’re on the outside looking in.”
She rarely bobs past a camera without taking the opportunity to wink, smile, snarl, point, flash a peace sign or blow a kiss. Last week, Richardson declared on Twitter: “My presence in this track game making history happen, no need for a thank you.” For good measure, she added two fire emoji.
“That’s my little M&M,” said Justin Gatlin, one of her training partners. “She’s very hard on the outside but a real soft teddy bear on the inside. She shows me I still need to keep that fire no matter what.”
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On Friday night, Richardson ran the fastest time of any qualifying heat even as her left shoe came untied on her final few strides. She crossed in 10.84 seconds, stretching her arms above her head.
In Saturday’s semifinal, Richardson came out of the blocks behind the field. She caught up quickly, and by 50 meters she was pulling away. At 30 meters, she pointed at the clock, a move akin to high-stepping into the end zone. When she crossed, it showed 10.64 seconds — it was wind-aided, but even with a slow start and a midrace celebration, Richardson had run the eighth-fastest time ever in any conditions.
“I want the world to know I’m that girl,” Richardson said to NBC on the track.
During Richardson’s youth in South Dallas, her grandmother showed her an old plaque full of track and field medals that Richardson’s mother had won. “Dang,” Richardson remembers thinking. “I want one of those.” She won plenty of them, and the sport carried her to college.
When she chose LSU, Richardson expected it would take two years, minimum, before she could turn pro. In the last race of her college career, Richardson smashed the NCAA record by running the 100 in 10.75 seconds, a time she had not expected. Shoe companies came calling. Holding the pen to sign her professional contract in her hand, she was still making up her mind. She had always dreamed of taking care of her family. She signed.
Richardson made her presence known through both performance and personality. She dyed her long hair bright colors, sported extended eyelashes and long fingernails. Richardson credits herself for her style, with a crucial inspiration from legendary sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner.
“I feel I have an influence from the greatest of them all: Flo Jo,” Richardson said in a 2019 interview. “When she ran track, her stepping on the track, she brought a whole different scenery to the energy, to the atmosphere of track and field. And she didn’t let that stop her.”
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As she rose in track, Richardson frequently heard or read negative comments about her hair, nails and eyelashes. On social media, her mentions include frequent calls for her to talk less and reminders that she has yet to bag a major championship. She refused to change. When Richardson studied Griffith Joyner’s career, she saw similar disparagements directed at her idol. They provided Richardson a kind of armor.
“She was the greatest of them all,” Richardson said in the 2019 interview. “People talked about her. I put God before everything. Jesus was perfect, and people talked about him. People are going to say what they’re going to say. So do what you’re going to do because people are going to talk. Do what you want to do because, at the end of the day, people are going to talk. So make sure while they’re talking, give them something to talk about. And so that’s what I do.”
Her place in Tokyo secure, Richardson can turn her attention to a potential budding rivalry with one of the sport’s all-time greats. Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price, a 34-year-old, two-time gold medalist in the 100, set a new personal best this month at 10.63 seconds, the only time in the world this year faster than Richardson’s.
Gatlin watches Richardson run every day, and it has made him believe she could break 10.6 seconds. If true, that would put Richardson within range of one of track’s most venerated records, the 10.49 seconds Griffith Joyner ran at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
“She can definitely shock the world,” Gatlin said.
Richardson, then, had already sent notice. The world should start reckoning with her.
The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.
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