PERSPECTIVE: Sha’Carri Richardson’s comeback involves more than her feet

When Sha’Carri Richardson streaked past former Jamaican Olympic gold medalists Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sherricka Jackson to win the gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 2023 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, this week, she had every reason to revel.

It wasn’t just the shaky semifinal in which she was on the verge of elimination, but also Richardson’s struggles with her mental health and the drama of being unfairly kicked off the U.S. Olympic team in 2021 for marijuana usage. That blow came after Richardson finished first in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic trials. There also was the painful experience of hearing about her mother’s death from a reporter and the refusal of USA Track and Field to consider her grief.

Sha'Carri Richardson poses after winning the gold medal in the Women's 100-meter final during the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. Photo credit: Matthias Schrader, The Associated Press
Sha’Carri Richardson poses after winning the gold medal in the Women’s 100-meter final during the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. Photo credit: Matthias Schrader, The Associated Press

Richardson, who attempted to end her own life as a high school junior, transformed her pain into 10.65 seconds of brilliance in the 100-meter dash and a well-deserved world Championship.

“I would say this journey for me since I first became a professional is just knowing that no matter what happens … you never lose sight of yourself,” Richardson said during her post-race press conference. “You’re going to have good days. You’re going to have bad days. You are going to have better days. You’re going to have worse days. But you live to see tomorrow. Every day the sun doesn’t shine but that’s why I love tomorrow.”

It was in those dark days after Richardson was removed from the Olympic team in 2021 during which she received some of the harshest criticism for her marijuana usage that ultimately led to her moment earlier this week.

Oddly enough, some of the vilification she received came from the Black Americancommunity under the guise of respectability politics.

The biggest criticism came on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some of the posts saying Richardson knew the rules and rules are rules, she was weak—she wasn’t being a strong Black woman. I heard some of the sentiment on my weekly radio show in Philadelphia. More than a few “old heads” criticized Richardson, who was only 21 at the time, for not being mentally tough enough.

Historically, one of the hallmarks of the Black experience in America is that we have to be strong in the face of an overtly racist American society, even with all the physical and psychological trauma that we have faced.

According to Ruth White, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, “Much of the pushback against seeking treatment stems from ideas along the lines of: We have survived so much adversity and now someone is going to say that there’s something wrong with us.”

After the athlete finished last in the 100-meter dash at the Steve Prefontaine Classic a month after the Tokyo Olympics, a defiant and emotional Richardson, still reeling from the loss of her mother and her suspension from the Olympics, vowed that she would be back on top.

“This is one race. I’m not done,” Richardson said. “You know what I’m capable of. Count me out if you want to. Talk all the s—- you want, ‘cause I’m here to stay. I’m not done.”

Given what has happened in the last few days, Richardson turned out to be quite prophetic. But at the time, not only was Richardson blasted for losing that race that included runners who she beat this week in Budapest, but in that above quote, she uttered profanity.

Richardson was criticized in an article in Forbes magazine by well-respected sports columnist Terence Moore for not only uttering that profanity but also blowing millions of dollars in endorsements. Moore said Richardson should have been as classy as the late Olympic champion Florence Griffith-Joyner and kept her mouth shut.

The lack of empathy for Richardson’s emotional state at that time was astounding. Yes, she said a bad word on national television. But here’s the thing, money and the notion that Black respectability politics are supposed to make everything right for Richardson is absolutely absurd, considering that she lost a mother who had abandoned her when she was young.

As she predicted, Richardson was going to have her day in the sun.

After missing the 2022 World Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, Richardson has come back with a vengeance in 2023. She has consistently run the fastest 100-meter dash times in the world. In seven 100-meter dashes, she ran under 11 seconds. She won the Miramar International in April with a wind-aided time of 10.57. Running in a Diamond League event in Doha, Qatar, Richardson defeated World Champions Shericka Jackson of Jamaica and Britain’s Dina Asher- Smith.

At the U.S. Championships, Richardson said, “I’m not back, I’m better.” 

She refused to be defined by the negativity being thrown at her.

“I will say never give up,” Richardson said.  Never allow media, never allow outsiders, never allow anything but yourself and your faith to define who you are. I would say always fight.”

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