“My name is Sha- Kerree.” The coldness in Sha’Carri Richardson’s tone could probably have frozen the water in the glass placed in front of her.
She’d just corrected what someone would later say was the 1000th journalist to have mispronounced her name. It must have happened fairly often since the Wikipedia entry against her name has a pronunciation guide in the very first sentence.
It didn’t matter whether the unfortunate individual had a thick middle eastern accent or that he had asked a remarkably harmless question – asking her to speak about the legendary Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce whom she had just bested.
Indeed, it didn’t matter that Richardson had just won 100m gold in her maiden World Championships, set a new championship record, and even managed to celebrate before crossing the finish line.
With all that one might presume, Sha’Carri could perhaps afford to be a bit magnanimous in the press conference hall at Budapest’s National Stadium.
Indeed, gold in Budapest seemed to have completed a redemption arc for the frequently exhilarating, sometimes grating but never boring 23-year-old. No one has ever disputed the American’s talent – or star power given she has 2.4 million followers on Instagram.
And she initially appeared to have justified those expectations a couple of years ago, when the heavily tattooed, brightly braided, elongated technicolour nails wearing phenom won the 2021 USA track and field trials.
Outrageous glamour and speed
With her heady mix of outrageous glamour and speed (and no doubt those nails) she was promptly dubbed the second coming of Florence Griffith Joyner. With her hard luck childhood, and colourful personal life – she announced that her girlfriend picked her hair colour – Richardson looked set to be appointed the next favourite American sprinter.
Right after that she failed a test for smoking pot, and ended up missing the Olympics she was one of the prime contenders for winning. She returned to competition the following year and after an injury lost in the USA trials.
At the 2023 World Championships, she was nearly booted from competition after the second-slowest start amongst 24 athletes in the semifinals and had to wait to see if she was even included in the final. She’d sneaked in, only managing to start in the ninth lane.
Then when it mattered the most, she’d stepped up and stomped the rest of the field, celebrating even before she crossed the finish line in a championship record 10.65 seconds, beating last year’s gold and silver medallists, Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce and c to the tape.
Sha’Carri slams critics
In most cases, that’s where the fairytale finish would end. That’s when you smile and wave and celebrate your win. But not if you are Sha’Carri Richardson. As journalists soon realised they had to tiptoe around potential minefields, Sha’carri seemed intent on triggering every one of them.
When someone asked her to explain what she had done in 2023 to overcome the obviously poor season she endured last year when she failed to make the USA team, rolled her eyes and shot back.
“Obviously I didn’t make the team last year. You didn’t need to say it. I managed to stay grounded by blocking all the haters and the media like yourself,” she snapped back even as Shericka Jackson and Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce raised their eyebrows and found a spot high up on the wall to stare at.
When someone else asked how she managed to bring back her focus after the difficult semifinal, Sha’carri ignored the opportunity for the easy layup to talk about cliches on mental fortitude and instead noted sarcastically how it didn’t take a genius to realise she had a bad semifinal.
The answers invited both loud gasps of dismay and bursts of laughter from those in the room. Indeed there are two very different reactions Sha’Carri routinely seems to draw out. Those who have been covering the sport for a while and have memories of more pleasant interactions with the extremely funny and quick-witted Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce aren’t very taken by the Americans. “You want to like her and be happy for her success, but it’s hard to,” one veteran says.
Then there are others – uniformly a younger set, often from backgrounds that give them more empathy for Sha’Carri and the journey she’s been through. One question devolved into an over-a-minute-long impromptu sermon on how Sha’Carri had been anointed by God with her speed.
When that drew titters from the gathering, Sha’Carri stood up, pointed to the heavens, thanked the questioner for her words and mentioned how important it was for someone of her ethnic background to speak up in that group of journalists.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be too much middle ground with Sha’Carri. The years in the wilderness, far from mellowing her only seem to have made her more abrasive to the haters as she describes them. She’s not putting on an act. She isn’t trying to be controversial for the cameras. This is who she is. “People see me as an athlete but also as a person,” she said.
Whatever your opinion of her off the field, one thing is for certain. On the track it doesn’t really matter, does it?
And that’s what even those who won’t consider themselves her fans, will have to admit. “In all these years, she’s not changed at all. But she’s definitely got faster,” one nonplussed journalist admitted.
Indeed whatever your opinion on Sha’Carri Richardson, there’s no doubt that she’s great where it matters. In a sport that’s longed for stars since the retirement of Usain Bolt, it’s very likely that Sha’Carri has what it takes to be that.
Before the final some fans hung up a poster with a painting of a lightning sign behind Richardson and that’s indeed how she ran. If there were worries about how she would deal with her near exit in the semifinal – and all the drama that would bring with it – Richardson ended it.
She wasn’t in the centre of the frame as she likes. And she was the third slowest off the blocks but even that was good enough for her. Deep into the race when it seemed that it was a Jamaican fight for gold, Sha’Carri came barrelling down the corner of the screen to take the win.
And that’s what really matters about Sha’Carri.
She might have the hair, nails, colours, tattoos, bluster and all the rest of it that makes her possibly the most polarising figure in women’s track and field. But what Sha’Carri Richardson almost certainly has is the heart of a champion. More people probably need to get that right next time around.
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