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Richards, who is engaged to New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross, would recognize much of Felix's life. Each Monday her father drives her the 100 miles from Austin to Waco, where she trains for three days with Hart. The other days she trains in Austin. Richards's mother, Sharon, serves as her track agent.
As Richards sits for an interview near the track at Texas, her arms and legs are spotted with dark patches that look like oil slicks. They are the remnants of skin lesions caused by Behcet's, an immune system disease that was diagnosed in Richards last spring. Behcet's causes not only surface lesions but also painful mouth ulcers, and Richards fought the illness for the entire 2007 season.
Friends recall watching her train with bandages wrapped around her arms and thighs to soothe the sores. "There were times when the mouth ulcers were so bad that they grew outside her mouth," says Sharon. One day Hart instructed Sanya to run a workout with a paper cup clenched in her teeth so that her lips didn't become stuck together. She lived on chicken broth. "Try to run eight repeat 200s in practice on broth," she says. When she couldn't talk, she wrote Hart messages on a pad. The disease flared up at the most inopportune times—most notably before the U.S. nationals, where a weakened Richards finished fourth in the 400 and missed the worlds team in her best event (though she ran on the winning 4×400 relay).
"There were times when I felt really fit, but I didn't have the strength base I had in past years because I missed so much training," says Richards, whose 2007 best of 49.27 was still the fastest time in the world that year. "I was just praying the illness would go away."
Doctors prescribed several medications through the spring and summer. "None of them helped much," says Richards. Last fall she found a Behcet's specialist in New York City who prescribed medication that has kept her symptoms in check since a bout on New Year's Eve. "I did go out," says Richards, laughing. "Train hard, party hard."
More seriously, 2007 sobered Richards. "I learned a lesson," she says. "I didn't win when it counted." Accordingly, she has chosen not to risk excessive fatigue by doubling in the 100 (her personal best, run last fall, is 10.97, which would be competitive). "I want so badly to get that 400-meter gold medal," she says. Richards plans to run the 100 in Europe before the Games to increase her chances of being selected for the Olympic 4×100-meter relay.
There, and in the longer relay as well, she would share a baton with Felix. Enjoy it. They will come no closer to meeting on the track with medals at stake.