In a short career tightly packed with triumph and tumbles, Sha’Carri Richardson polarized like few athletes in track and field. Her supporters saw an authentic and electrifying performer. Her detractors chastised her as a sprinter too audacious for her limited global accomplishments. After Monday, her followers, fans and critics must agree on one thing: Richardson is the fastest woman in the world.
With the crowning race of a roller-coaster three years, Richardson sprinted past two surpassing Jamaican rivals and won the 100 meters at the world championships in Budapest. Richardson edged Shericka Jackson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and crossed the finish line in 10.65 seconds, the fastest race of her life, a world championships record and a time that just four women have ever topped.
Running in Lane 9 after narrowly reaching the final, Richardson zoomed out of the blocks. She was even with Jackson, who won silver at the 2022 world championships, at the midway point. With 30 meters left, she created a shred of daylight between her and Jackson, who from her inside lane could barely see Richardson inching past her. At the finish line, Richardson spread her arms wide, as if she might take off and fly away.
Once she came to a stop, she stared up at the clock and emitted yelps of stunned delight. Once the moment hit her, she screamed and hopped down the track, smiling and looking into the crowd.
Richardson wrapped an American flag around her shoulders and circled the track with Jackson and Fraser-Pryce. She had watched them pile up medals only from afar, unable to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 because of a suspension and unable to qualify for the 2022 world championships. Now, she was their equal.
Richardson is still just 23, but her career had played out in a series of sagas. She turned professional in 2019 after sudden improvement at LSU made her the collegiate record holder and launched into the world elite.
In 2021, her captivating performance at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., made her an instant star. On network television, with Americans stuck inside during the pandemic, Richardson charged to victory in the 100 meters with a flowing orange wig and talon-like fingernail extensions, style that evoked her idol, Florence Griffith Joyner. She announced on the track, “I am that girl.” She then climbed into the Hayward Field stands and hugged her grandmother, the woman who raised her. During the meet, she had revealed that she recently learned her biological mother had died.
Richardson was poised to be one of the biggest American stars of the Tokyo Games. Shortly after the trials ended, she tested positive for marijuana, which she said she had ingested while in Oregon for the trials to cope with the news of her mother’s passing. The penalty, which many viewed as too harsh for what in the United States is a widely legal recreational drug, kept her out of the Olympics.
Saddled with sudden fame and public controversy, Richardson struggled to find her footing. She finished last at her first race back. She aimed to return to prominence at the world championships in Eugene, but at the national championships, Richardson finished a heat in 11.31 seconds, failing to advance past the opening qualifying round.
Over the past few months, Richardson had shown steady signs of ascension. In April, she clocked a wind-aided 10.57 seconds. She won a Diamond League meet in May and kept winning every race she entered.
A month ago in a preliminary heat at the national championships, she ran 10.71 seconds, a personal best that made her the seventh-fastest woman ever. In the next day’s final, she wore one of her trademark wigs, this one fiery orange, at the start line. When her name was announced, Richardson removed the wig, revealing braids that stretched down her back, and tossed it to the track. She then blitzed the field in 10.82 seconds.
“I’m not back,” she said on the track. “I’m better.”
Richardson has retained the charisma that made her an unmistakable star. In Sunday’s opening qualifying round, Richardson dusted the field and theatrically wiped sweat off her brow as she crossed the finish line.
She had no such luxury in Monday’s semifinal, when just the top two runners in each heat automatically advanced. Richardson lurched off the blocks late, as if she hadn’t heard the starting gun. Her speed allowed her to catch and pass all but Jackson and Marie-Josée Ta Lou of Ivory Coast. She had to wait to see if she would qualify on time. After one more heat, her 10.84 pushed her through.
In the final, her strong start ensured her elite top-end speed would give her a chance to win. She ran faster than she ever had before. Richardson is not only better. She’s now the best in the world.