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"I jump into a sand pit for a living"

Jonathan Edwards, World record triple-jumper

Chasing grace

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Sanya Richards-Ross, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2017. ISBN 978-0-310-34940

The book, which is structured around the four Ps which sum up Sayna’s strategy for running – push, pace, position poise – tells the story of a great career, drawing as the subtitle - what the quarter mile has taught me about God and life - suggests lessons for life from her athletics. It is a career which in her own words has included exhilarating highs and excruciating lows.

She gets bright to the point in the preface, writing: “My existence was all about my performance. Each loss came with the feeling of unhealthy and unwanted shame. Running, I had to figure out, is just what I do: it is not who I am”. Later she develops this idea saying that buying into the winning at all costs mentality and believing winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing, had tended to make her diminish the character of her peers instead of motivating herself.

She deals with a number of interesting life issues:

• The choice between representing Jamaica (where she was born) or the United States

(where she grew up) and the fall-out from the decision;

• Standing up to a bullying college coach;

• Marrying an NFL player and dealing with the expectations of an NFL wife while

balancing his career with hers;

• The role of her coach, Clyde Hart;

• The purpose of life: “What has God put me on the earth to accomplish?”

As a Christian, she reflects on how Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself, applies to opponents in a competitive race, adding “confidence required balance, and it’s a razor-thin line where pride meets humility. Before many of my races these two seem to face off”.

Wearing compression arm sleeves were at one stage a trademark. The book reveals the real reason: She was suffering from Behçet’s disease and the sleeves were to cover arm lesions. But she takes a positive from that negative situation, where she “detested that my body was betraying me” and not living up to society’s expectations of what a strong athletic female should look like. The lesson from this experience was: “Behçet’s forced me to face my own perceptions of beauty, to be uncomfortable and become more compassionate to individuals who deal with body image. This experience changed me. I was more compassionate and understanding of what many women felt every day”.

When the book was first published, most of the publicity arose from her revelation that she had had an abortion prior to the 2008 Olympics and her assertion: “most of the women I knew in my sport have had at least one abortion”. That reaction is a shame as that is one line in a 200 page book. She says of her abortion: “I had really screwed up this time and I knew it… I had just done the one thing I never thought I’d do”. Dealing with it resulted in a strengthening of her faith in God.

Her analysis of major races is fascinating. She came second in the 2005 World Championships – pretty good for a 20 year old – but came away thinking that she had lost because she had allowed an opponent to set her race plan. The lesson learned was: “they can’t beat me if I run my best race”, which became a mantra for every race throughout her career.

Her account of the 2008 Olympic final does not mention Christine Ohuruogu. Sanya lost the race; Christine did not win it! At first reading this seems surprising but actually it reflects the mantra mentioned above. From her perspective, she lost because she failed to run her best race. In press conferences she has been very generous about Christine.

Having won 7 Olympic or World relay gold medals she is not surprisingly a fan of relays: “Relays, to me, are the most elegant and most graceful events to observe in the sport of track and field. Those four runners blend very unique talents to compete in Unison, a successful relay is not only a harmony of speed but also a rhythm of reaction”.

The final chapter, written as a juxtaposition of 2012 and 2016 – Olympics triumph and US trials disappointment, is very powerful. While some readers may find the book too religious for them, her Christian faith is who she is. The book gives a rare insight into the life, feelings and motivations of one of the greatest athletes of our time.

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