Sanya Richards-Ross: My Abortion Broke Me; God Redeemed Me
Sanya Richards-Ross won Olympic Gold medals in 2004, 2008, and 2012 and was considered the best 400-meter female runner for over a decade. Her latest book, Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me about God and Life (Zondervan), explores her spiritual journey through both victories and failures—losing and winning races, facing disappointments in relationships on and off the track, enduring the pain of Behçet’s disease, and making the decision to have an abortion just before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
“When I was in my valley, in my pit,” says Richards-Ross, “and I felt so far out of God’s grace and had so much guilt and so many negative emotions—which the devil uses to trick us—I realized that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It’s so different from track, where you are chasing for one spot. But God just wants us to yearn for him, and that for me is the biggest lesson I learned. I’m just so glad I ran into grace.”
Richards-Ross spoke recently with CT.
While I was reading your book, I thought a lot about the places in the Bible where the Christian life is compared to a race. Sometimes I struggle with the tension between accepting God’s grace and also working hard to run to the finish line. Does your experience as a runner give you a way to understand this dynamic between grace and work?
That totally encompasses how I landed on the title of my book, Chasing Grace. As the book evolved, I did realize that I have always been chasing—I chase after records, I chase after my goals, I chase after my dreams. The word chasing has always been very important and resonated deep within me. But the best thing we have on the journey is that God’s grace is ever-present. You don’t have to chase it—God gives it to us freely.
One of the things you were so brave to write about was your decision to have an abortion shortly before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Having not shared that story in public before, why did you decide to share it now?
First of all, it took me ten years to have the courage to share it. I prayed about that for probably two years and prayed about how God would use that story to help other people. For me, it was that moment in the streets of Beijing [after my abortion and after coming in third in the 400 meter race] when I really felt God wrap his arms around me. That experience changed my life. I would have been disingenuous to my spiritual journey if I didn’t share that moment.
I understand that the abortion story has led in the news, but it’s really about every single one of us, when we do something that we feel we would never do. I was really prayerful about it and felt like honesty would foster healing—not only for myself but also for other women. And men. My husband was broken from [the decision], too.
I certainly appreciated your courage, and I’m sure there are many people who feel that way. Can you speak a little bit to how your faith informed your healing process beginning in Beijing and continuing until today?
It’s important to say that it is a process. In that moment on the street in Beijing, God offered me his forgiveness, but it took me many years to forgive myself. It wasn’t like, “Okay, cool, I’m healed, I’m recovered, I feel great about this journey.” It took a long, long time, to understand that I am not the sum total of my decisions and choices but I am a child of God. I am capable of any sin. And God loves me in spite of my sinful nature. That has helped me to heal.
One thing I appreciated about your book was how willing you were to share about the moments of failure and doubt and how things seemed to be falling apart even in the midst of some of your victories. Can you talk a little bit about how God was with you in both defeat and victory?
I always learned more from my moments of failure and weakness and defeat than I ever did from the victories. The victories were always just a reward for the hard work and kept me wanting to do greater things, but they weren’t necessarily moments that built my character. It takes more courage to step on the track and be vulnerable when you’re victorious or when you’re defeated. Those moments were the ones that shaped me. After [learning about Marion Jones’s use of illegal substances], I thought, I don’t care if I ever win Olympic Gold. I just always want to be sure that what people see of me on the track is true.
If you were talking to a young Christian woman who has her sights set on gold, or if you were talking to your 16-year-old self, what advice would you give?
I do believe my running and speed came from God. They were a talent I was blessed to have, so every time I stepped on to the track, I tried my best to use my talents for him. It frustrates me when people say, “God doesn’t care whether you win or lose.” We don’t get to pick and choose what God cares about. If something is important to us, he cares. There are lessons for us to learn when we win and when we lose.
Also I would tell someone to “chase your dreams with all of your heart and work hard, but just don’t forget your spiritual journey on the way.”
You write about your diagnosis of Behçet’s disease and facing insecurity about your physical appearance for the first time. Can you describe your experience and also what you learned from feeling self-conscious about your body?
That was a tough time for me. I had severe mouth ulcers to the point that I couldn’t even talk. I had skin lesions where it would look like someone had burnt me with an iron. When my body started to attack itself, and I didn’t want people to see my arms, and I needed to cover a scar on my leg, it taught me that true beauty is something that comes from within. There were times when my spirits were high and people said, “You look so pretty,” and it was because I was happy. If I was unhappy, I wouldn’t radiate that same beauty.
You started each chapter of Chasing Grace with a beautiful verse from the Bible, so I’m wondering if you have a particular verse or biblical character that offers you a source of strength or inspiration?
The Book of Job. When I think about Job and the challenges he faced throughout his life… He never lost his faith. He’s someone I really admire. I always used to recite Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” before every race. Verses from the Bible are in my heart, and they are the rhythm of my life.