After Star NCAA Turn, Sha'Carri Richardson Unsure On Pro Status

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As the 100m finalists got into the blocks on the opposite side of the track, USC sophomore Chanel Brissett, fresh off a runner-up finish in the 100m hurdles, emerged from the mixed zone to catch one of the most anticipated races of the finale to the 2019 Division I NCAA Outdoor Championships.

Less than 11 seconds later, Brissett scooped her jaw off the track, shook her head in part awe and part disbelief, and then mumbled to herself, “Oh yeah, she’s definitely going pro,” as she walked off the track.

That was the collective impression left this evening by LSU freshman Sha’Carri Richardson, who stormed to victory in the 100m in an astonishing 10.75 seconds and, just less than an hour later, finished runner-up by one-hundredth of a second in the 200m in 22.17.

Richardson’s 100m time broke the school, meet and NCAA records of 10.78 set in 1989 by Dawn Sowell and the world junior record of 10.88 set in 1977 by Marlies Göhr of East Germany. Her 200m time also established a world junior record, besting the mark of 22.18 set in 2004 by Allyson Felix. Both marks are pending ratification.

It was a performance that came ahead of schedule for the 19-year-old, ranked the top sprint recruit and No. 2 overall recruit in the country by MileSplit coming out of Dallas Carter, and one that certainly will fast-track conversations about her future with two world championships sandwiching the Tokyo Olympic Games over the next three years.

“I felt like she could win. Did I see those kind of times coming? You never want to predict that,” LSU coach Dennis Shaver said. “She’s trained well. She’s been healthy. We’ve been working a lot over the last month on her start and acceleration. I felt like if she could just execute well under this kind of pressure along with being a freshman at the NCAA Championship, yeah, I thought she’d run fast. Did I think she would break the collegiate record? No.”

There were signs Richardson was building toward something special. LSU approached the title chase as a five-day meet spanning both the NCAA East Preliminary Round two weeks ago and the prelims and finals here in Austin. She won her 100m quarterfinal in Jacksonville in 10.99, and finished runner-up in her 200m heat in 22.74 to advance easily. On Thursday night, she won her semifinal heats in 10.99 and 22.37, respectively, becoming the first U20 runner in history to go sub-11 in the 100m and sub-22.4 in the 200m on the same day.

But Richardson didn’t get ahead of herself, and adhered to the process.

“Coming into the 100m, basically my mindset was to execute my race the way I have been taught, the way I know that I can,” she said. “I never gave myself a time because I say if you give yourself a (time) goal you limit yourself, if you expect greatness out of yourself you will deliver everything that you think you can achieve and even more.”

A tight defeat to USC in the opening 4x100m relay (42.21 to 42.29) gave Richardson, who anchored for LSU, an extra bit of motivation headed into the 100m final. When the gun went off, she exploded out of the blocks—her reaction time of 0.142 was second only to the 0.129 run by last-place finisher Ka’Tia Seymour of Florida State—and continued to pile on to her advantage. With 10 meters to go, she threw her arms up and celebrated her victory as the crowd gasped, then roared when the clock stopped at 10.75, the fifth-fastest time in U.S. history and ninth-fastest all-time.

When asked if she saw a 10.75 coming, Richardson said, “Not at all,” adding about her celebration, “It was just a homey feeling to me to express myself.”

“We knew that if she could have a good start there wasn’t anybody in this field that could beat her,” Shaver said. “As soon as that 100-meters was over, boom. 200m. You got to be focused because it’s a little different race.”

Indeed, the turnaround was a tight 45 minutes. As the athletes walked to the start, Richardson’s gaze was all business and she was the only runner in the field with legs glistening with sweat like a thoroughbred. She got out well and came off the curve a step behind USC junior Anglerne Annelus, a deficit she quickly made up. As both runners approached the finish line, Richardson held the slightest of leads, but Annelus dipped her head at the last possible moment to earn a repeat championship while Richardson took down another world junior record.

“Going into the 200m, my mindset was this is my last race of the day, my last race of my first season college wise. I just needed to give it my all and execute the way that I can,” Richardson said. “I did not think that I was going to do (break Felix’s record). Hearing the announcer say that afterward, I was like, ‘Did I really do that?’ It’s really exciting to know that I did that.”

By that point the speculation regarding Richardson’s future was already abuzz. 

This meet typically reveals the athletes who will serve as the fresh faces and marketing muscle for shoe companies and television networks at this important juncture in the four-year Olympic cycle. And in track and field, no event sells bigger than the sprints.

By virtue of her accomplishments, Richardson could very well be the next face of U.S. women’s sprinting.

When asked when Richardson should consider going pro, four-time Olympic medalist and NBC sprints analyst Ato Boldon said, “Immediately. She will never be more valuable than she is right now.”

When asked about her future plans, Richardson deflected and indicated that a decision would be, “coming soon.” According to Shaver, Richardson may not compete at the USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines next month or the World Championships in Doha, Qatar this fall.

“The whole focus has been, when we recruited her, was you come to LSU and we will try to get you prepared for the Olympic Games,” he said. “The World Championships this year, being when they are and where they are was never really something that we were planning for and probably still isn’t something we planned for. 

“I see her running USA Juniors in Florida mainly because USA Trials aren’t for another eight weeks. If it were a different year, where the Trials were coming up in a week or two and then the World Championships were in early August then I think that would be the route we would go. With the calendar being set up the way it is this year, I don’t think that would be the way to go. I am not saying it’s not going to happen, but it’s not something that we have discussed. She’s still a junior, so Pan-Am Games. She needs to start building her resume, and I think that would be a good way to start.”

Shaver admitted he didn’t expect to be fielding questions about Richardson’s pro potential already, and said he sees that as a “real positive because that means you’ve done a great job.”

“Nobody would have expected it to come this early,” Shaver said. “We didn’t know her that well. We knew she was a great competitor. We didn’t know how coachable she was, how hard a worker she was, how focused she was, how she would handle pressure at this level. She proved to everybody that she could line up in the Olympic Games tomorrow and be very confident about her ability to run against those people.”

At the same time, you could sense Shaver is already trying to pitch the benefits of staying in Baton Rouge to his third straight NCAA 100m champion.

“We have Aleia Hobbs down there training with us, and I think Aleia would tell anybody that staying in college and developing and getting used to things makes that transition a lot easier,” Shaver said.

But Hobbs needed every bit of her four years at LSU to recover from injuries and knee surgery early in her career to rise to the championship form she exhibited last season, and her 100m PR (10.85) and 200m PR (22.93) are still both slower than Richardson's.

In the coming weeks, Richardson and her family will need to make an important decision, one that has the potential to come with five to six zeros behind it.  But true to the form that got her here, she is sticking to the process.

“I am just focusing on critiquing my races and working to keep getting my time down,” she said. “That is the only thing that I am worried about right now.”

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