Recently, one of track and field’s most decorated female athletes, Sanya Richards-Ross, completed her first-ever runDisney race, a 5K during the runDisney Wine & Dine Half-Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World. The four-time Olympic gold medalist is no stranger to crossing a finish line, but lacing up and running this race was a meaningful milestone for Ross, who retired from competitive running in 2016 with a foot injury.
As we look ahead to the upcoming runDisney Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend, when thousands of athletes of all skill and ability levels will head to the starting line, I sat down with Sanya to learn more about her running and fitness journey, and why her first runDisney race meant so much to her as a return to the sport. We also talked about her starring role on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, balancing work and motherhood, and supporting Black mothers through her passion project, MommiNation. I even picked up a few pro tips for runners — from her workout routine to her favorite running shoes.
On Returning to the Races
Sanya won four gold medals in the 400-meter and 4×400-meter relay at three Olympic Games between 2004 and 2012. After retiring from competitive running in 2016, Sanya says she has only recently returned to running and saw the runDisney 5k as a low-pressure way to return to the sport she loves — and to be a source of inspiration to others — including her 5-year-old son.
“This is an opportunity to get back out there, and just have fun,” Sanya said. “For me it’s just getting back to that passion of running and hopefully inspiring other people and my own family. As a mom, I want to inspire my son to move and to incorporate fitness into his life. So I think this is a great way to set an example for him too.”
Inspiring Other Runners: Why the Distance Doesn’t Matter
With memorable courses through Walt Disney World’s theme parks that include characters, music and entertainment, and elaborately themed medals and race shirts, it’s become increasingly popular within the runDisney community to run multiple or even all of the races during a race weekend, leaving athletes participating in a single event saying, “I’m just running the 5K, 10K, etc.” As I myself am guilty of talking this way about my own runDisney participation — “just” running the half-marathon each race weekend — I asked Sanya to share her words of encouragement to runners who only participate in a single event.
“I used to go on the track and run for under a minute and I would feel very accomplished by going out there and giving my absolute best, even in such a short distance,” Sanya said. “So I would encourage anyone wherever they are in their running journey to feel proud that they started and that they finished, no matter what the distance. And if it’s a goal to go further, then so be it. And if not, if 5K is where you sit for the rest of your running career, trust me, that is something to be very proud of. I’m certainly proud of myself for being here and I hope everyone that steps on that line feels the same way.”
On Setting Achievable Fitness Goals
Sanya isn’t the only highly decorated athlete in her household. Her husband, Aaron Ross, won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Now that both are retired, I asked Sanya what fitness success looks like for the couple.
“Life has definitely shifted for us, and I am still learning what this new normal is for me when it comes to health and wellness and fitness,” Sanya said. “At one point sports was everything for us and we set these huge lofty goals and we were very fortunate to meet those goals.”
Now, as a working mother, Sanya says she sets a manageable goal — at least 30 minutes of activity a day, five days a week.
“As a mom and a businesswoman, I understand the challenge of trying to get it all in. And so for me now, success is getting at least 30 minutes of movement in my life. I feel good about myself afterwards and I know I’m doing something positive towards my health and wellness.”
Sanya says her fitness routine always consists of some variation on treadmill running, outdoor walking, Pilates and strength training, which she often does with her husband. She also eats a healthy diet and drinks plenty of water.
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On Her Longtime Partnership with Nike — and Her Favorite Running Shoes
A longtime Nike brand ambassador, Sanya continues to consult with the brand on merchandise, regularly participates in events as host and emcee, and works with the charitable arm of the company.
“I love how intentional they are about giving back and supporting the community,” Sanya said, noting her contract with the company was recently extended another four years. “It’s been a great partnership and I’m so grateful that they have stuck with me beyond just my competitive career.”
When the conversation turned to Nike, I was sure to ask her every runner’s burning question — what are her favorite running shoes?
“I love running in the Air Pegasus,” she said. “Those have always been my favorite, especially because of my toe. They just have so much support and cushion. So if you’re a new runner looking for a really good comfortable shoe, the Air Pegasus, would be what I would recommend. I’ve used them throughout my entire career and it’s been my favorite running shoe when I wasn’t in Spikes, obviously my specialty shoe. And then I also like the Air Max Queen. I have almost every Air Max and just love them.”
On The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Sanya currently stars on the hit reality show, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and says after her first season, she’s been most impacted by the response from fans.
“What has been really significant for me is when I meet fans of the show, they get it,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Thank you so much for sharing your struggle with having a second child.’ ‘Thank you so much for showing your culture, showing us Jamaica.’ I love that people have welcomed me to the platform and appreciate what I bring to the table — I think we all bring something different to the table.”
In the midst of filming her second season, Sanya said she’s grateful for the time she’s had to develop more meaningful relationships with her co-stars. “Obviously when I began my first season, I didn’t know the women. I had just met Drew [Sidora] a few weeks prior and everyone else was completely new to me. Now it feels like I’m really a part of the group because I know them. We spent time together off camera, and so I think it’s going to make for a better season, a more meaningful season, and I’m having fun so far.”
On Founding MommiNation
In 2019, Sanya founded MommiNation, an online platform committed to providing a virtual support system and safe space for Black mom bloggers to share their experiences and to provide resources for Black moms.
Sanya calls MommiNation her passion project, borne out of the knowledge that a supportive community helped her be a successful athlete, leading her to want to create a similar network of support for Black moms. MommiNation’s motto: “If it takes a village to raise a child, we believe it takes a nation to support a mom!”
“I felt like I had the best mom role models around me, yet I still kind of struggled with motherhood and figuring out what was going to work for me, that balance with being home and wanting to work,” Sanya said. “As a Black mom, I just didn’t feel like there was anything out there that specifically supported and highlighted the Black mom journey.”
Since launching, the community has seen rapid growth both on the website and on social media.
“MommiNation is intentional, but not exclusive,” she said. “We’re intentional about providing resources specific to black moms, helping them have a better experience through motherhood.”
Sanya says she loves the way Mommination has been an extension of important parts of her own life, for example, through the Fit Mommi Challenge. “It really keeps me going and honestly inspires me on my motherhood journey every day.”
Reflecting on the runDisney Experience
“Whenever you can blend health and wellness and family time, for me, that just really checks all the boxes,” Sanya says of sharing the runDisney Wine & Dine race weekend with her son and parents. “And be able to inspire new runners and encourage runners that have been doing it for a very long time, I’m just super excited to have the experience.”
Feeling inspired? Still to come in the 2022-2023 runDisney race season: the 30th anniversary of the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend (Jan. 4-8), the 15th anniversary of the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend (Feb. 23-26), and the runDisney Springtime Surprise Weekend (April 13-16). Most events are sold out but there are still some events open during the Springtime Surprise Weekend.
Also on the horizon, runDisney will be headed back to the West Coast, with the return of runDisney events to the Disneyland Resort in 2024.
For training tips, read our guide to training for a race of any distance, with the help of official runDisney race consultant, Olympian Jeff Galloway.
How to Help:
Support Track & Field
To support the sport of track & field and up-and-coming athletes, Sanya says the best thing fans can do is simply watch, follow and support the sport. She recommends following USATF on social media, as well as favorite athletes, and encourages fans to attend meets wherever possible. You can also tune in to televised track meets where you’ll often find Sanya providing commentary.
“Fan support of American athletes is really important — not just in the Olympics,” she says. “Any time you can be there in the stands, tuning in when we’re on television and helping bring in those ratings — that helps bring more meets to the states for these young athletes.”
Support MommiNation Gives
MommiNation Gives is MommiNation’s nonprofit arm, dedicated to giving back and supporting moms in need, with the organization’s first fundraising initiative focused on raising money to support homeless moms in Atlanta.
“We’re starting with Atlanta right now, but we want to do more in the future too,” Sanya says. “We’re working with a great organization in Atlanta that supports young individuals whose parents are homeless through giving them a private school education for free — the Ansley School.”
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Brooke Geiger McDonald is the national content director for Make It Better Media Group. A Chicago native, she has worked for publications like O, The Oprah Magazine and SHAPE Magazine and her work has appeared in The Points Guy, Parents, TravelPulse, Attractions Magazine, MSN and more. Her favorite nonprofits to support include Give Kids the World Village and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram @brookegmcdonald and Twitter @BrookeGMcDonald.