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Olympic athlete: "I literally don't know another female track athlete who hasn't had an abortion"

7 June 2017

"I made a decision that broke me, and one from which I would not immediately heal". Image: (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

A former Olympic athlete has spoken out about the pain of her own abortion, and said that it's a big issue in women's athletics.

Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross has revealed in a new book that she had an abortion right before competing in the 2008 Olympics. The day after the procedure, she flew to Beijing, where she and her team won gold for the 4×400 meter relay, and she gained a bronze medal in the 400 meter dash.

Depths of despair

Now, in her book Chasing Grace: What the Quarter Mile Has Taught Me about God and Life, she has written about the devastating impact the abortion had on her: "I made a decision that broke me, and one from which I would not immediately heal," she said. "Abortion would now forever be a part of my life. A scarlet letter I never thought I'd wear." She went on, "I was a champion — and not just an ordinary one, but a world-class, record-breaking champion. From the heights of that reality I fell into a depth of despair."

Sanya also writes about the pressures she felt as a female athlete. "Everything I ever wanted seemed to be within reach," she writes. "The culmination of a lifetime of work was right before me. In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all. The debate of when life begins swirled through my head, and the veil of a child out of wedlock at the prime of my career seemed unbearable. What would my sponsors, my family, my church, and my fans think of me?"

Impact on the father

The decision also had a long term effect on her relationship with her fiance, now husband, NFL player Aaron Ross. Because of their different training schedules, they made the decision to abort their child over the phone. "We didn't go into details," Richards-Ross said. "As if not saying it would alleviate some of the guilt and the shame."

Nor was Ross able to be there for the abortion itself, which surely contributed to the feeling that he didn't support her. "I always harbored some resentment toward Ross. It was our mess-up, but I felt abandoned in the decision," she writes. "It was like by not saying anything, neither agreeing nor opposing, he kept his conscience clear, but it wasn’t fair. We were in it together."

It wasn't until years later that they spoke openly about the abortion, and Ross told her that he felt burdened, too. "He believed that our child in 2008 was a blessing we had rejected by always wanting to be in control," she said. Abortion can often have a devastating impact on men, leading to depression and, in extreme cases, suicide. 

Athletics and abortion

One of the most shocking elements in Richards-Ross' biography is the scale of abortion in athletics. "The truth is it's an issue that's not really talked about, especially in sports," she said. "A lot of young women have experienced this, like, I literally don't know another female track athlete who hasn't had an abortion, and that's sad."

Four years ago, British ex-400m hurdler Tasha Danvers revealed she almost had an abortion months before the 2004 Olympics, which she missed due to pregnancy. Danvers was branded "stupid" for getting pregnant by former fellow hurdler Alan Pascoe, but she returned from becoming a mother to win Commonwealth silver and Beijing bronze. It was recently revealed that tennis superstar Serena Williams was in the early stages of pregnancy when she won the Australian Open.


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