the affluent oasis of Round Rock, Texas, 32km north of downtown Austin, Sanya Richards-Ross wakes to an autumnal morning seemingly without a care in the world.

The sky is a deep and rejuvenating blue. Her husband, Aaron Ross, a former cornerback for the New York Giants, is happily retired with two Super Bowl triumphs.

Their two-month-old son, Aaron II - they call him Dewcey - has just had a nursery built and is starting to show off his first smile.


Until recently, Richards-Ross was known primarily as the 400m champion at the 2012 London Olympics, an elegant and graceful athlete whose personal best has not been beaten by any woman in the world for 12 years.

But courtesy of her memoir, and one incendiary chapter in particular, she has become identified as a trailblazer of a quite different kind, having disclosed that at the zenith of her running career, she had an abortion.

In this age of compulsive social-media use, few intimate revelations have the capacity to shock any longer.

But Richards-Ross' story is one that has resonated far and wide. Abortion is a taboo so entrenched that when she discovered she was pregnant just weeks before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she and her partner had a telephone call where neither of them could bear to utter the word out loud.

"Both of us felt such an emptiness," she reflects.

"There was this long pause, like we didn't know what to say to each other. If we didn't say it, we thought, then maybe it didn't happen."

The trauma of abortion has become an unspeakable one, so sparse is the human testimony.

Research at New York University suggests that a third of women who have experienced one have kept it secret even from those with whom they would normally raise their most sensitive concerns.

Richards-Ross' intention is to throw light upon a subject wreathed in shadow.

Many of her contemporaries, she has suggested, resist going on the pill for fear of putting on water weight and have mistaken assumptions about how high fitness reduces the risk of unplanned pregnancy.

"I never, ever dreamed I would be in this position," she says. "I had been with Ross" - only strangers refer to him as Aaron - "for five years, and we had been really careful. At the time, I naively believed, because I was supremely fit, that I wouldn't fall pregnant.

"Towards the end of the season, you have just six per cent body fat. Your periods are short. Everything is so fine-tuned."

The procedure itself is described in her book fleetingly, but unflinchingly.

"All of the crying left me so numb that I barely remember the cold instruments as they brushed against my skin," she writes.

"It was quick, but it felt like an eternity. Abortion would now forever be a part of my life, a scarlet letter I never thought I'd wear."

Nine years on, she remembers, all too vividly.

"I was just mentally broken," she says. "At that point, it was more of a spiritual race than a physical one. It was incredibly hard for me, as I know it is for a lot of women. You feel this unworthiness, this shame."

Her eyes glisten momentarily.

"It still gets me, even now."

The day after her visit to the clinic, Richards-Ross boarded a 15-hour flight to Beijing.

Her mind was a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, as panic and guilt mingled with a perverse relief that she had at least reached some form of resolution.

"I hate to say it, because it sounds so brass, but there is relief in knowing that you can continue on the path you have set for yourself."

It was quick, but it felt like an eternity. Abortion would now forever be a part of my life, a scarlet letter I never thought I'd wear.



interlude of calm did not last. Come the 400m final, she tightened over the last strides to trail home third, as Britain's Christine Ohuruogu won gold.

The television cameras caught her slumping to the ground, as despair engulfed her.

On a bus back to the apartment she was renting with her mother and sister, Richards-Ross, exhausted by the accumulation of psychological pain, was assailed by a sense of loss so acute she could barely breathe.

"I was in turmoil, and I was alone," she says.

In this anguish, she found refuge only in faith.

A devout Christian, she recalls: "Somehow, at that moment, I felt warmth and closeness and love."

Her relationship still needed repairing from the ordeal, however. She and Ross had been inseparable since they met at the University of Texas, she as the rising track star and he as the pre-eminent defensive player for the Longhorns, a team so cherished in Austin that their stadium holds 100,000 fans.

But she alluded, amid her grieving, to a sense of abandonment.

"It's only the woman who deals with the physical ramifications," she says. "Eventually, we sat on those two chairs out front, and we cried. It was especially healing for me to know that he carried some of this hope and shame, too. He felt he was part of this sin. Forgiveness and healing takes time. But this was a big step in us letting it go."

Richards-Ross makes it clear that she is far from the only woman in athletics to have had an abortion. At least five of her closest colleagues, she explains, have gone through the same torment.

It was her hope that her confessional would help alleviate the pressure on those women suffering in silence, but she argues that the problem runs deeper.

"A part of me wishes that more women would stand up and say, 'She's not alone.' I want to be able to say to young women, 'Here are the facts', so that they can make a better decision.

"If people knew the real numbers on abortion in this sport, then I think there would be more urgency to help women in colleges, to improve the standard of sex education.

"It's just not present here in the US. We're educating ourselves. There isn't an expert coming to talk to us. I would have to talk to my Texas team-mates, Nichole Denby or Raasin McIntosh. That is not the way a woman should learn about her choices."

Anybody who watched the reality television series about Richard-Ross' life in 2013, entitled Sanya's Glam and Gold, might have concluded from its focus on fashion and glamorous photo-shoots she was confident to the point of brazen.

But through the public acknowledgement of her abortion, a palpable vulnerability has emerged.

"I definitely still feel it," she says.

"When I talk about it, I go back to that place. I called Marion Jones out for her pursuit of perfection, but I call myself out for it, too. I wanted to be this perfect person but I fell short."

She brings out her baby son, who is blissfully oblivious to such talk.

"This has by far been the best experience of my life," she says of parenthood. "In an area where I felt I had failed and fumbled, I was still allowed to have a child."

- Telegraph Group Ltd