Sanya Richards-Ross celebrates after winning the 400 meters at the U.S.… (John G. Mabanglo / EPA )
EUGENE, Ore. -- Rarely does Sanya Richards-Ross picture herself climbing atop the medal stand after winning the 400-meter gold medal at the Olympics.
Instead, she visualizes the final steps she must take to get there, driven by memories of having victory slip from her grasp at Beijing in 2008 when she faded to third down the stretch while weakened by an ailment she believes was misdiagnosed.
"Every time I think about going back to the Olympics, I think about finishing stronger and getting to the finish line first and that's been my motivation the past four years," she said. "That's been the imagery that I think of. Then the podium comes in sometimes, but it's more crossing the finish line comes first.
"In Beijing, I was in the lead until the last 40 or 50 meters, and so I see correcting that part. I see that finish, that last 100, a lot more. And the way I feel now, I feel much stronger coming home, so I just envision having that same strength and being able to cross the finish line stronger and in front."
Energized after a doctor told her she had a skin disease that could be easily treated and not a blood-vessel inflammation called Behcet's disease that required potent prescriptions, she has made a habit of finishing in front after some up-and-down years.
Richards-Ross, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in South Florida, set the American 400 record of 48.70 seconds in 2006. She was part of gold-medal Olympic 1,600-meter relays in 2004 and 2008 and won the 2009 world outdoor title but was injured in 2010 and finished seventh at last year's world meet.
She earned her first world indoor 400 title in March and on Sunday at the U.S. Olympic trials lowered her world-leading outdoor time to 49.28 seconds to win a berth at the London Games. That launched her on a whirlwind of paperwork, uniform fittings, Olympic etiquette classes and happy reflection.
"It's becoming more and more real every day," she said
She's now poised to pursue a berth in the 200, starting with Thursday's preliminary round at Hayward Field. She has two huge factors in her favor: She ran a world-best time of 22.09 on June 9 and she has no pressure because her 400 spot is secured.
"That makes it a little bit lighter," she said. "I still want to be very focused. I'm taking the race very seriously. I want to execute very well and I want to be one of the top three to make the team."
The superb field includes seven of the top eight finishers in the 100 and NCAA champion Kimberlyn Duncan of Louisiana State, whose 22.19 time three weeks ago ranks second in the world this year. Richards-Ross should be right in there with them.
"She's as strong as I've ever seen her," said U.S. women's Olympic coach Amy Deem, who has known her for more than a dozen years. "She's strong. She's confident. And a scary, healthy Sanya Richards is not a person you want to mess with on the track. I think she's got it all right now and I think she's going to do really good things."
Richards-Ross said she's stronger because she's training better, and she's training better because of the new explanation and treatment for the lesions and mouth sores she periodically endures.
She had always questioned the Behcet's diagnosis, and in talking to other sufferers found few whose symptoms completely matched hers. But she dutifully took the drugs her doctors prescribed despite experiencing worrisome side effects.
"The medications were a bit harsh and I could tell they were taking a toll on me as far as fatigue and I was even having some depression on them, which was tough," she said. "But now I'm on over-the-counter medications and I'm not struggling with it nearly as much."
She still wears the colorful sleeves she initially put on to cover her arm lesions — but now because she likes them, not because she needs them. Her elegant look, which graces Nike posters here and promotions she does for Citibank to benefit USA Track and Field's youth-oriented "Win With Integrity" program, also features bright nail polish and a braid woven into her face-framing bob. "I like to match and look fashionable," she said.
But her decision to train in Waco, Texas, with renowned coach Clyde Hart has forced her to leave some key style decisions to her husband, NFL cornerback Aaron Ross.
Soon after he won his second Super Bowl title with the New York Giants, he signed a free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars and bought the couple a home there. She has seen it only on the videos he sends her, but she trusts his decorating instincts.
"He's a football player, but he's the neatest guy. You would never know that he's a hard-core athlete," she said. "He's not going to pick out flowers, but he does have really good ideas on how he wants the place to look, so he's been doing a fantastic job."
One accessory she could add is a gold medal in the 400. That would go with anything.