THEIR STORIES all begin with failure, and this is true of so many Olympians—whether as fact, contrived motivational force or marketing strategy—that the paradigm drifts toward cliché. Eyes roll. Why does the top step of the medal stand always represent a climb from the depths of despair? These three? They are among the most successful and decorated athletes in recent U.S. track and field history, with collectively more medals (17) in the last four world championships than entire handfuls of countries. Their failures would qualify as roaring success for most others.
Two of the three are lifelong Californians, Allyson Felix, 26, a onetime prodigy, and Carmelita Jeter, 32, a late bloomer. They train nine miles apart in greater Los Angeles. Felix invites scrutiny and disarms it with a smile; Jeter has come to mistrust scrutiny and parries it with bravado. The third is a Jamaican-Floridian-Texan, married to an NFL player and fellow Longhorn. Sanya Richards-Ross, 27, is the most glamorous of the three, as measured by presence and bearing. In the Olympic year she is wearing golden hair.
Felix is so slender that she might be a middle distance runner; Jeter so muscled that she might be a power lifter. Felix sprints like water flowing down a mountainside, Jeter like popcorn bursting from a pot. These will be Felix's third Olympics, Jeter's first. Richards-Ross is a hybrid of the two, smooth and powerful, a function of running a specialty—400 meters—that is longer and more strategically complex than the others'. This will be her third Olympics as well.
They share this: None has won an individual Olympic gold. And their London pursuit of that goal indeed begins in the well of disappointment four years ago.
ON AUGUST 19, 2008, Richards-Ross, who moved from Jamaica to Florida at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen at 17, curled into the starting blocks for the 400 in Beijing. She was just 23 and running in her second Olympic final, but her career had already been a riot of peaks and valleys: A U.S. junior record (49.89 seconds) and a sixth in the Athens Olympics at age 19 in 2004, a silver at the '05 worlds in Helsinki, a U.S. record (48.70) in '06; but then, in '07, a fourth place at nationals, weakened by a strange illness she is still battling. But she had run well enough in '08 that a gold medal was within reach. Instead, she faded to third in the final 60 meters. "I still remember those last meters," she says. "I remember exactly what they felt like."
Two nights later Felix tried to stop the Jamaican sprint onslaught that had begun with Usain Bolt and extended to women's 100-meter winner Shelly-Ann Fraser. Felix had taken a silver in the 200 at the 2004 Olympics at age 18 and two world titles since in the same event. She expected to win. She did not. Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica held her off in the stretch. "The feeling was, I can't catch her, I'm not going to catch her," Felix says. "Even now, thinking about it, I hate the emotions I feel." In the belly of the Bird's Nest stadium, Felix cried on her mother's shoulder.
Jeter watched it all from home. A year earlier she had completed a climb from decent high school runner to Division II college All-America to world medalist, with a 100-meter bronze in Osaka. But at the '08 Olympic trials she failed to make the 100 final and finished sixth in the 200. "I felt like, Oh, I won this medal, I'm good now," says Jeter. "I wasn't hungry. I didn't work hard. I didn't deserve to go."
RICHARDS-ROSS CAME nearly all the way back in 2009, winning her first world title, at 400 meters, in Berlin. But even then she was still fighting for an accurate diagnosis (and cure) for what she had been told was Behcet's, an autoimmune disease that produced dark patches on her skin, joint pain and fatigue.
Still wrestling with that illness—and newly married to then New York Giants (now Jacksonville Jaguars) cornerback Aaron Ross—at the start of 2010, Richards-Ross strained her left quadriceps that April and aggravated it at nationals 10 weeks later. At that same meet she took a bad fall on some aluminum bleachers. "She looked like somebody in a cartoon," says her longtime coach, Clyde Hart. "Her feet went straight up over her head, and she landed on her tailbone. Her quad was already hurt, and that hurt her tailbone and her ankle." Richards-Ross didn't race again in '10.
In 2011 she ran 10 finals and won only one. "Her training was unbelievable," Hart says, "but she had lost her confidence."