Sanya Richards (right) on the 200m podium at the 2002 World Junior Championships. The race was won by Vernisha James (centre) with Anniesha McLaughlin (left) in second. (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News

World Junior Champs is route to becoming professional - says Sanya Richards

Few athletes have quite made the seismic impact on global athletics as Sanya Richards in the past few years. The charismatic US 400m record holder is among athletics royalty, having snared the 2006 IAAF Female World Athlete of the Year and a share of the IAAF Golden League jackpot for each of the past two seasons.

Being part of a team

Yet for all her unquestioned success as a senior athlete she admits few competitions have moulded and influenced her career quite like the World Junior Championships, the 12th IAAF version of which takes place next month (Jul 8-13) in Bydgoszcz, Poland. 

Richards was a raw, but gifted 200m/400m sprinter when she tasted the IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica six years ago aged 17.

A red hot favourite for 400m gold the championships were always likely to prove an emotional homecoming. Richards was born in Jamaica but left to live in the USA aged 12 and after becoming an American citizen in May 2002 the World Junior Championships was to be her first competition for the USA.

“It was a big irony that the first meet I would compete in as an American was going to be held in Jamaica,” Richards told the IAAF website. “It was obviously great for me that I had tonnes of family and friends that were still there (living in Jamaica).

“Overall the experience was amazing and I felt like most of the crowd were 100 per cent behind me. To me the World Juniors made me want to be a professional athlete. I thoroughly enjoyed competing, being part of a team and competing with athletes from all over the world. The atmosphere was one of the best I’ve ever competed in.”

Learning experience

Another great quirk of fate is that despite her subsequent success as a senior, Richards did not meet her own high expectations in the Jamaican capital. She had to settle for the 400m silver medal in 51.49 behind her compatriot Monique Henderson (51.10) and bronze in the 200m, a race won by Vernicha James of Great Britain.

More disappointment was to follow. She sprained her ankle in the preliminary rounds of the 4x400m and was forced to abandon all attempts to strike gold in both relays.

“I was a bit disappointed,” she admitted. “I was definitely heavy favourite to win the 400m. I showed my inexperience the day before my 400m final by setting a PR in the 200m and I didn’t run as well in the 400m final as I should have. It was a tough meet for me in that sense. But I was still proud to make the team and come back with two medals. Tonnes of athletes on the team didn’t even make it to the finals or take any medals. But at the moment it was a bit of a disappointing meet for me.”

Yet, as is often the case, athletes learn more from their defeats than their victories and this was certainly the case with Richards’ World Junior Championships memories.

“Sometimes it is experience that decides champions,” she explained. “I feel it is now okay in the first round of the 200m just to make it through. We also had a lot of media hype surrounding that meet. We were supposedly going to break the 4x400m World record and the 4x100m because we had Allyson Felix on the team, Lashinda Demus.

"We supposedly had the best team ever assembled. I think we kind of let the hype all get to us. I learned to become more insulated at major championships and stay focused on the goal as opposed to getting caught up in what happened around us.”

Advise for today's juniors

So what advice would Richards give those athletes competing in Bydgoszcz next month?

“First of all just enjoy the experience,” Richards insisted. “Take in all the days you train and compete in and enjoy it. But, most importantly, stay disciplined while you are there. I remember tonnes of athletes didn’t go to practise (at the 2002 World Juniors), wanted to hang out and go into the city. I would say even if you want to take in the sights make that secondary to the racing and winning the medals.

“It (the World Juniors) was the event which made me want to be a professional athlete. It was my first year on the team and I was nominated team captain and flag bearer. I felt there was so much love and encouragement. You rarely get that in track and field because it is an individual sport but to be part of the US team really inspired me to make future teams, to take the sport seriously and move on to the next level.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF