Sanya Richards, who started running competitively at age 7, seemed on the fast track to the Olympics until a mystery illness last year left her exhausted and debilitated by painful body lesions and mouth ulcers. Suddenly the Jamaica native—who now lives in Austin, Texas—began losing races in her specialty event (the 400-meter dash) after going undefeated in 2006, and her bid for the Olympics appeared in jeopardy. Last July Richards, 23, was diagnosed with Behçet’s disease, a chronic autoimmune condition with no known cause or cure. But now—back up to speed and symptom-free thanks to medication and stress management—Richards, who won gold in Athens in the 4×400-meter relay, is a U.S. favorite as she heads to Beijing.
My lucky charm is … my bullet necklace. My mom gave it to me when I was in the seventh grade and told me I was faster than a speeding bullet.
My style philosophy is … you can be a girly-girl and be really, really intense on the track. I’m like this diva track girl. Everything has to match—even my spikes have to be the same color as my uniform.
On the track you won’t find me without … makeup. Eyeliner and mascara, sometimes eye shadow, and I always have on my lipstick. If I were going to a day job, I’d want to look nice, so I think it’s important. And also my engagement ring—I’d be so devastated if I lost it.
My fiancé [N.Y. Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, 25] … keeps me even. I’m more of a control freak, and he’s always like, ‘Don’t worry about it, just relax.’ He definitely mellows me out.
My wedding will be … in 2010. Our schedules are just so hectic! I’m thinking of a big Texas wedding.
Kids are in my future … definitely. They’re already getting scholarship offers! The guy at Texas [her and Ross’s alma mater] is like, “Don’t send your kids anywhere else.”
My greatest obstacle has been … Behçet’s. Before my diagnosis the lesions on my skin were excruciating. It was like someone had burned me; I couldn’t squat or bend my legs. One time the mouth ulcers were so bad I couldn’t swallow. I felt like I couldn’t count on my body anymore, even though I was putting in all this hard work. It was a rough, rough time.
The silver lining was … it ignited a new fire in me. There were times [when I was ill] that I wanted to go to practice and I couldn’t. Now my workouts can be hard as hell and I have a smile on my face.
When I’m stressed out, I … take lots of bubble baths. Ross and I also try and go to a spa every so often. He’ll get a pedicure while I get a mani-pedi.
My guilty pleasure is … Skittles. If I see them I’m like, “Back away from the Skittles!”
To get that washboard tummy, I … do 1,000 abs—crunches, bicycles, obliques—at least five times a week. I don’t eat red meat or fried foods.
What will push me to the finish line in Beijing is … my faith, my family, my competitive spirit—and wanting to be the best that I can be.