Commencement Address-Sanya Richards-Ross

2013 Commencement Address

Sanya Richards-Ross
The University of Texas at Austin
May 18, 2013

Sanya Richards Ross
Sanya Richards-Ross

Wow! Wow! Good evening.

First I must say good evening to President Powers. Thank you for that incredible introduction. I also have to mention how great you are. Every chance I get to interact with President Powers, I see why he is president of this amazing university. You're just charismatic, smart, kind, humble and I really appreciate the honor to share with the UT graduating class tonight.

To all our distinguished guests, faculty, family and friends, I know this day is super special to all of you.

But to the most important people here tonight, the reason we are all gathered: The Graduates of The University of Texas’ Class of 2013. It’s your day!

You did it. You came to the 40 acres. Set your goals and you’ve achieved them!

The countless hours in the library. Group projects where you felt like you did all the work. Fighting the urge to go to Sixth Street or dropping out and becoming a local bartender in the music capital after your first SXSW.

No ... it wasn’t easy! None of us know exactly what everyone here went through but tonight it doesn’t matter. Tonight is all about this moment. It's all about you! The hard work, the focus, the perseverance paid off.

You all should be so proud.

For me, tonight is reminiscent of when I crossed the finish line first in London. I was so happy. I opened my arms wide, threw my head back and yelled, “YES!”

So tonight I think its only fitting that we share in this moment together and you too should throw our arms out, toss our heads back and yell, “YES!”


I’m so thrilled to be here sharing this moment with all of you.

When I got the call from President Powers my first thought was, man, I’d never been called to the principal’s office in middle or high school and now I was receiving a call from the President of the University of Texas! This could either be really good or really bad.

When I heard his request and that I was the student’s pick for the 2013 Commencement speech, I was flattered, humbled and excited, and then I hung up the phone and I realized, wait a minute, I’m going to be giving the keynote speech to some of the world’s greatest minds. Because we all know this is where they always come from.

And I got a little nervous. What would I say? How would I inspire and motivate a group of individuals that are probably already both? But just like every challenge in my life I’m super excited for this tremendous opportunity.

So although tonight is all about you, we have to admit it’s a little about me, too. Athletes always trying to steal the spotlight. But seriously, I’d love to share my story today in hopes that my struggles and my success will encourage all you.

I was born in Kingston Jamaica and started running when I was seven. Track and field and soccer are the two most popular sports so if you were athletic you did one or the other. Like me, I’m sure there are a few of you here tonight that got an early start at your passion.

At nine my grade school teacher made us all write, what we’d be when we got older. And at nine, I wrote: An Olympic Champion!

My family migrated to the United States when I was 12 and although I dreaded the move as a child, now as an adult I am so grateful that my parents had the foresight and courage to make a move that they believed would benefit our entire family.

Although growing up in Jamaica we are mostly unaware of American universities, ironically I always had an affinity towards The University of Texas. I’m not sure if I subconsciously saw the horns or if greatness just attracts greatness, but it’s honestly the only university that existed in my world.

However I digress. I had great success in track and field in Jamaica and it continued when I migrated to south Florida. I dominated in high school and led St. Thomas Aquinas to four consecutive state championship titles.

My senior year however was a pivotal point in my life. After always winning quite easily, I suffered my first injury my junior year and didn’t compete as well as I was used to.

It was a long summer and I remember most vividly one day riding home with my Dad from practice. He turned the music down and asked me, “Do you want to be the best?”

With a slight attitude I thought: “what a silly question!” OF COURSE, I wanted to be the best.

But his words left a lasting impression on my psyche. It was the first time I internalized that there was a difference between going through the motions, just doing something well and intentionally doing something great.

Being great would take deliberate focus and sacrifice. Being great meant not just using my talent but investing in it and cultivating it day in and day out. Being great would take ALL of me! My undivided attention, my will, my desire, my drive, my fortitude!

So going into my senior year I started doing 1,000 sit-ups every day; I ran the stadium stairs before or after practice; I studied film of the great athletes in my event; I rededicated myself to the sport. I wanted to be a champion, so I lived, breathed and slept track.

Aristotle’s saying is so true: “We are what we repeatedly do. Therefore excellence is not an act, it’s a habit!”

My hard work paid off immediately. I went on to have one of the greatest seasons in high school history. I broke the national records in the 200- and 400-meter sprints indoors, and the national record in the 400-meter outdoor. I was undefeated and named the Gatorade 2002 Prep Athlete of the Year.

It was a great year and my first tangible taste of hard work paying off. Simultaneously, while pushing myself to new limits on the track, that drive for excellence flowed off the track into the classroom. I maintained a 4.0 GPA and was a member of the National Honor society.

You see a perk to striving to be the best in one area, is that the desire to be great often spills over into other areas of your life.

As the number one track recruit out of high school I was fortunate to visit many top universities but the minute I walked onto the 40 Acres I knew this was the place for me.

My years here at UT were amazing. Like many of you I’m sure this ranks as one of the best decisions of your life.

Where else can you find one of the best business schools in the country? Meet 50,000 new friends? Cheer on a National Champion football team? And have the mascot with the most swag?

Teachers and faculty that are dedicated to raising the bar and an institution that refuses to settle for anything less than the best.

In our weight room it says: The winning tradition of the Texas Longhorns will not be entrusted to the weak or the timid.

I would dare say that, that isn’t just a slogan used to motivate athletes but a slogan that truly represents the spirit of all Longhorns.

The pride of the burnt orange is REAL. Yes, I guess other schools are pretty cool too, but nothing compares to the REAL UT. Burnt orange is our black; it goes with everything. We bleed burnt orange and we’re proud!

This campus, the people, the city. What a great place to spend four years. Well, for most of you, some of us like it so much we take our time!

While competing for UT, in just two years I made my first Olympic team. I was 18 and one of the best 400-meter runners in the world. It was a dream come true and I was headed to Athens in 2004 with Team USA.

I finished sixth in the 400 meters but won gold on the 4x400-meter relay. I knew if I focused on track full time I could be the absolute best, so I chose to forgo my final two years of eligibility and chase my dream full time.

I became a professional track and field athlete.

I would leave college life and face the real world. I was then, where many of you are today. Although I was thoroughly prepared by my experiences here, it would be these years that would challenge my ideals, test my faith mold my character.

These years would begin to define who I was to become and where I was headed.

My professional career stared off better than I could have ever imagined. In 2005 I lost only two races on the season and was the number one ranked 400-meter runner. After one season I was already the best in the world. The next season I would top that.
I was undefeated, set a new American record, ranked No. 1 in my event and won the USA Track and Field Jesse Owens and the IAAF World Female athlete of the year awards.

For those of you that aren’t familiar with the USATF and IAAF, which I’m assuming is most of you, let’s just say, I was the all that — a bag of chips, some purple skittles, and a coke!

However there are pros and cons to starting your career off so well. You’re expectations become warped. You become either obsessed with perfection, burdened by your own success, or arrogant enough to believe that it will always be that way.

I was a little of each.

I believed I would stay at the top of the sport for as long as I wanted to and more medals and records were inevitable.

Well, life has a way of keeping us humble.

In 2007 I started my training with even greater goals. I was going to lower my American record, I would win world athlete of the year again, I would start to run more 200’s and dominate there as well.

But I was faced with one of the greatest obstacles of my life. From what seemed like out of nowhere I started having severe mouth ulcers, painful skin lesions, intense joint pains and extreme fatigue.

Here I was, one of the greatest female athletes in the world, who had never had any health issues and now I was having strange symptoms that doctors all over the country were having difficulty diagnosing.

I’d see seven different doctors before I was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease called Behcet's.

It was an unforeseen blow. Something I would never have anticipated. The one thing I needed most to be my best, the thing I needed to push to the limit and be able to count on was failing me. My body was attacking itself.

Fortunately, I’m so blessed to have a great group of people around me, with the core being my family. When I was low or disappointed they pulled me up. They didn’t allow me to give up or think the worst.

It’s important on your journey to greatness that you encircle yourselves with like-minded, supportive people. People who believe in your vision and will stand beside you as you fight for it. It wont always be easy and it becomes impossible to do it alone when things are challenging or obstacles seem insurmountable. In those moments you'll need unwavering family and friends.

It’s easy to give in when things aren’t perfect but it builds character when you determine to fight.

There were days I can remember going to practice and having ulcers so severe I couldn’t speak. My dad would give me his notepad so I could write messages to my coach. I’d run with a cup in my mouth to alleviate the pain of my teeth cutting against my ulcers.

It was trying to say the least, but I believed in what I was doing and it would take a whole lot more than skin lesions and ulcers to stop me from doing what I loved to do.

I had a full season that year. I didn’t win the U.S. national championships but I was still the No. 1 ranked 400-meter runner for the 2007 track season.

Not giving in paid off. It wasn't by best season but it was a good season and I had a greater appreciation for my talent. I realized being able to run was my place of peace and my source of strength.

With my health mostly under control it was time to win my first individual Olympic gold medal. I was training harder than ever. Doing everything right.

I started the season off strong, winning every race and headed into the 2008 Beijing Olympic games as the hands down favorite for gold. It was only right. I was number one ranked for three consecutive seasons. I had only lost four races in four years. This was my time.

The night before the race I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned all night wrestling with a multitude of emotions. I had dreamt of this since I was nine and I was finally at the precipice of my big moment.

On race day I was so nervous. I had beaten everyone in the field on numerous occasions but on this day I couldn’t find my usual confidence and peace.

I started out strong and came off the final bend with a huge lead.
I could see the finish line.

Victory was surely mine.

Then, in a flash, I remember looking down at the Olympic rings and everything starting to fall apart. I felt a cramp in my hamstring and the finish line seemed to move further and further away.

This wasn’t my dream. This was a nightmare.

I remember feeling powerless as it felt like everyone rushed past me before the end of the race.

I finished third.

The ONE race I wanted to win all my life was the only race I’d lose for the season.

I was devastated.

Yes I had won the bronze but it didn’t feel much like a victory in the moment. It felt like an epic failure and a huge missed opportunity.

Why was this happening? What could I have done differently? It was the lowest point in my career. I couldn’t understand then why it happened but from this vantage point I’m so grateful it did.

You see, in order to achieve greatness, you will experience failure. It’s the bitter ingredient in the recipe for success.

Without trying and failing you never really get the opportunity to stand in the face of your disappointment, your insecurities, your arrogance, your pride and say I’m stronger. When things are great we rarely stop and take a moment to truly evaluate what we're learning or how we're growing. Failure then becomes imperative to true prosperity.

Mary Kay Ash says it like this:

“When you reach an obstacle, turn it into an opportunity. You have the choice. You can overcome and be a winner, or you can allow it to overcome you and be a loser. The choice is yours and yours alone. Refuse to throw in the towel. Go that extra mile that failure refuses to travel. It is far better to be exhausted from success than to be rested from failure.”

Failing is temporary, it’s giving up that’s permanent. How badly do you really want it? Will health issues or failure on the grandest scale stop you? Will you persevere?

I believe that every desire we have to do something great is placed in our spirits by God. It’s there for a reason, and it’s in our chasing that dream that we become the people we only dream of.

The next season I decided I would do things differently. I would continue to work hard, I would still set lofty goals but I wouldn’t allow my desire to be the best, to become a burden.

If I was going to continue traveling the world doing what I loved to do I was going to enjoy the experience. I was going to start channeling my early days and run solely for the joy of pushing myself to my ultimate limit.

Track and Field is such a great sport. It’s so pure. Even though you compete against seven other women, you have to compete in your lane, execute your race, and give your best. There is no one to blame, no one to block for you and no one to give you the perfect alley-oop. it’s just you.

In 2009 I had my best season. I won my first world outdoor title, was undefeated, and won the Jesse Owens and IAAF world female athlete of the year awards again. I had learned so much from my 2008 experience and I was all the better for it.

I believed I was on the right track and all I had to do was parlay this for another three years and I would be the Olympic champ.

But, once again, I’d face challenges.

In 2010 I pulled my quad muscle. It was early in the year, I did everything I could to get back on the track but was unsuccessful.

I was forced to end my season early.

I had just gotten married a few months prior, so I quickly found my silver lining. Another reason I knew going to UT was the best decision of my life was because I found my soul mate here.

I met Aaron Ross, a member of the UT 2005 national championship and Jim Thorpe award winner, my freshman year and we have been inseparable ever since. He’s a great guy, been the most supportive husband I could have ever hoped for, and he’s a Longhorn so we won’t have any fights in our household on where our future little Ross’ will go to school. Always planning ahead.

After taking some time off I just knew I’d be stronger for the 2011 season. Well, I was sadly mistaken.

In case you haven't noticed, the ride to success is a roller-coaster! It proved to be the worst season of my career. I had physically recovered but wasn’t prepared for the mental residue that an injury and being sidelined for a season left behind. I finished seventh at the world outdoor championships that year and ended my season disappointed and doubtful.

I had worked hard that year but I just couldn’t get it right.

Many times in life things seem their worst right before they become their best. Sometimes our pot of gold is one dig away but we become weary and quit digging just shy of our reward.

Going into the next season I was more determined than ever. I had survived the four grueling and unpredictable years between Olympic games, the years an athlete must endure working to maintain their fitness, preparedness, and status as one of the best, and this time I was not going to be denied.

I knew in my heart I was the best and I was going to give my all to win the medal I had dreamt of all my life.

That season I started training with the boys to challenge myself to new heights. I regularly visited a sports psychologist to be mentally prepared for the opportunity, and focused on the one weakness in my race, determined to make it my strength. I wouldn’t let my desire to please my sponsors, the expectations of others, or the murmurs of naysayers that I was not a “big meet competitor” get to me.

No. Not this time.

This time I would ignore the noise in the market and set my eyes squarely on my ultimate goal.

The season started off well. I competed indoors and won my first world indoor title. My training was better than ever and I thought I would go outdoors and immediately dominate.

Well, I didn’t. I lost my first race. Not the picture-perfect start I had anticipated.

These were the same women I’d need to defeat to win the gold in London and I became a little concerned that I hadn’t fully gotten over my previous season woes. But I refused to let doubt or fear consume me.

The very next race I pulled it together, I won big, and never looked back.

I went into the Olympic final as the heavy favorite once again.

This time with all the disappointments and failures behind me I was ready for the moment.

I didn’t round the final turn in front but this time. I didn’t look down at those awe-inspiring Olympic rings. I didn’t get distracted by the crowd, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event, slowed by self-doubt.

This time I kept my eyes on the prize. This time I dug deep and ran into my destiny.

It was magical. Winning individual Olympic gold in the 400 meters was everything I had dreamt of and more. It was one of the greatest experiences in my life.

It’s a feeling I pray that every single one of you in this graduating class will allow yourself to have.

By setting lofty goals and going after them with every fiber of your being. Not allowing obstacles, failures or disappointment to stop you. It's then you too will throw your arms out and toss your head back and you will need no prompting from anyone, it will come from within!

The funny thing about having success is that you realize that anything is possible if you commit to hard work and perseverance. You realize that the world is truly your oyster.

I know that we’ve all heard this before but it is so true. It’s critical that we all determine to be the best not only for ourselves but for each other.

One of my favorite quotes, one that I’ve tweaked a little, I'd probably get in a little trouble in English class for this, but one that I live by says:

“Who are you not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and successful? The better question is, who are you not to be? There is nothing enlightening about shrinking yourself so that others wont feel inadequate around you. As you let your light shine, as you pursue your goals with passion and love, unconsciously you give others permission to do the same. As you are liberated from your own fear, so does your presence automatically liberate others."

This brings me back to this moment as I stand here in front of all of you in somewhat uncharted territory for me.

Yes I’ve put in my 10,000 hours on the track but nowhere close to that in public speaking to deserve this tremendous honor.

One of the things I failed to mention to you is that when I received the call from President Powers, I contemplated getting a speechwriter. I love speaking and have given quite a few motivational and keynote speeches in the past but nothing quite like this.

Fear and self-doubt reared their ugly heads, I was unsure of myself. Was I really ready? I needed a speechwriter! I even phoned my agent and asked him to research the best ones, preferably President Obama’s … SERIOUSLY.

And then I realized that this was the very essence of what I wanted to leave with all of you today.

Every opportunity you are given isn’t by chance, it’s for a reason and you are equipped with everything you need to do it well

The truth is whether you succeed or fail, it’s designed to make you better and prepare you for what life will throw at you next.

Yes, President Obama’s speech writer probably would have prepared a better speech, but I would have missed out on this amazing, life changing opportunity to share my story, from my perspective, as only I can tell it.

There are millions of people on this Earth but there is only one you.

What this world needs is your vision, your creativity, your character, your fearlessness, and your passion.

No you won’t always feel ready for every opportunity and no you won’t always win. But life is always preparing us for what God has next.

Today after graduating from the greatest university in the world I challenge you too to write your own speech.

Don’t allow fear or doubt to make you miss out on your greatest opportunities.

As I’ve made this promise to myself to embrace failures and life’s obstacles as I open myself up to the endless possibilities, growth and successes.

I challenge every single one of you today to make the same promise.

Chart your own path. Live your own dreams. Write your own speech!