4 secrets of greatness from 4-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross

Olympic gold medalist: Failing made me a better athlete

In the world of elite sprinting, much like the world at large, excellence allows little room for error.

Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross ran 400 meters in 49.55 seconds in the 2012 London Olympic games, finishing 15/100 of a second before the second-place runner to earn the gold medal.

That gold was particularly sweet for the Jamaican-born sprinter. Four years earlier in Beijing, she had been the gold-medal favorite but ended up placing third due to a devastating leg cramp.

"London was me running into my destiny," Richards-Ross told CNBC. "It was a dream I had since I was 9 years old to be an Olympic champion."

The individual gold Richards-Ross achieved in 2012 is one of four gold medals she counts to her name, alongside golds from the women's 4 by 400 meter relays in Athens in 2004, in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012. She also has a bronze medal from the individual 400-meter sprint in Beijing.

The 31-year-old athlete had hoped to defend her title in Rio this year, but several injuries forced her to drop out in the qualifying rounds. Instead, Richards-Ross will go to Rio as an announcer and commentator with NBC (CNBC's parent company).

While her professional sprinting career is over, Richards-Ross is also an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Her businesses include faux-fur line Foofi & Bella, the salon The Hair Clinic and the luxury livery fleet she owns with her husband, Ross Elite Chauffeur Service.

The elite athlete turned entrepreneur shares her top secrets for success:

Success requires hard choices.

Sanya Richards-Ross of the United States celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's 400m final on day nine of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 5, 2012, in London.
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To be sure, dedicating yourself to becoming an expert requires time and focus. That can mean forgoing other activities.

That's certainly true when it comes to being an Olympic athlete. Whether training, lifting weights, resting, undergoing physical therapy or eating well, Richards-Ross says that being an elite athlete is a full-time job. That also means not going out at night or to the movies like her peers. But she doesn't like to think of what she doesn't get to do.

"I don't like to use the word 'sacrifice,'" says Richards-Ross. "When you use the word 'sacrifice,' it means you are giving something up. But for me, I feel like every choice I make helps me to get closer to my goals."

"I am making a choice to do a thousand sit-ups every day, which I know is going to benefit me," she says. "To me it is about making a great choice and living my dreams and doing what I feel like I was born to do."

Failure can be a powerful motivator.

Heading into the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, Richards-Ross was the runaway favorite to take gold in the 400-meter sprint. She had won every race that season and was the top-ranked 400-meter runner for the past five years. Then, in the tail end of the race, she cramped up. She came in third.

"It took me a long time to say I won the bronze, because for me it felt like an epic failure and such a massive loss. But it was during that time that I realized just how strong I was," says Richards-Ross.

She came home from China and focused even more intensely on her training with renewed vigor: "I really credit my victory in 2012 because of my loss in 2008. It taught me a lot. My thing is always to never give up, because I do feel that our treasure, our gold, is just around the corner if we are persistent and faithful and hardworking. So it made 2012 that much sweeter for me."

Trust your own path.

Sanya Richards-Ross of the United States competes in the Women's 4x400 Metres Relay heats during day eight of the 15th IAAF World Athletics Championships Beijing 2015 at Beijing National Stadium on August 29, 2015 in Beijing, China.
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On the climb to the top, there will be any number of experts who want to tell you how you should do what you are doing, why they know better and what you can learn from their experience. Richards-Ross says that being influenced too easily, however, can be detrimental.

In 2005, the night before the world championship — a race Richards-Ross says she should have won — she was talking to an athlete she admired, who gave her advice on how she ought to adjust her racing strategy.

"Even someone who has maybe done what you have done and had great experiences, they are not walking in your shoes and they don't know what it's going to take for you to be great," she says. "And so it taught me to trust my path and to trust the people in my corner who see me every single day."

Cultivate patience.

When you are working hard, it can be tempting to want to see results quickly. But Richards-Ross has learned, both in her time as an elite athlete and as an entrepreneur, that achieving success takes patience and commitment.

"Whenever you are starting something new, it's like a baby. You have to be patient, you have to nurture it, set goals — and you have to have realistic goals," she says.

She's gotten in trouble, both in business and on the track, by setting unrealistic goals, lurching toward them and falling flat. "When I have gotten ahead of myself, I haven't had the same kind of success that I have had when I am slow and steady and patient in my training."

Slow and steady wins the race every time, she says.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.