“IT’S FUNNY,” Phyllis Francis says of finishing 5th in last fall’s World Championships 400. “After I finished the race, I was down about my place. When it came up, I was like, ‘Aw, darn it.’ But then when I saw the time, I was like, ‘Oh wow!’”
The defending champion in the 1-lapper had missed making the podium by 0.14 but she broke her PR—the 49.92 she had set in winning London gold—with a 49.61 that moved her to No. 10 on the all-time U.S. list.
“It was a mixture of emotions,” she explains. “A little down about my place, but also happy with my time. You know, it’s a learning experience and it’s something I can take with me and carry over to next year and into my training. Every loss I take as, ‘What can I do better?’” The 28-year-old Oregon alum doesn’t harbor any regrets about the way she ran the race, saying, “If anything, I felt like I executed it the way I was supposed to execute it.”
“I thought I was OK until the last month,” she says while crocheting a hat—a new pandemic skill she’s picked up. “Because the season was pushed back a couple of months it was really difficult to figure out when I was supposed to peak and what to work on. There were certain races where I was expecting to run a certain time. My coach and I were actually right on track with what we were supposed to do. You just have to practice patience when it comes to training and trust the process.
“I would say that what was really difficult for me was trusting the process and just trusting in myself, my coach and my team, with what they’re saying, and that when the time comes I would actually run what I’m supposed to run.”
After the season, Francis and her coach, longtime Texas A&M speed mentor Vince Anderson, parted ways amicably. “After a while, you just need a change,” Francis explains. “Something to generate new muscle memory, because you’re so used to doing the same thing over and over again. It’s good to challenge your body again. I wanted to try something new.”
Anderson says that Francis will be a sure contender going into the Olympic year. “She’s an amazing athlete and an even better human being. If she is focused and healthy she will always be a threat. She’s a very well-rounded, well-grounded worldly person, which helps. You have to have physical skill to run the 400 but I’ve found that athletes with worldly perspectives are better able to handle the ebbs and flows of pressure that go with high-level competition.”
Over the winter Francis moved east, leaving College Station for Philadelphia. That put her much closer to family—she went to high school at Brooklyn’s McAuley High—and right in the midst of coach Derek Thompson’s training cadre, which includes halfmile aces Ajee’ Wilson and Charlene Lipsey, among others.
The plan was to skip the indoor season, but Francis hadn’t planned to skip outdoors also, so ’20 went off the rails: “It’s been a huge eye opener, with all that’s going on with the protesting and the pandemic. “When the pandemic first hit, I thought that maybe they were going to push the Olympics back another month or something like that. Once I saw it, because I’m training in Philly [one of the hardest-hit U.S. cities], once I saw the severity of how many people were getting infected, I put all my thoughts on what I wanted on hold.”
She doesn’t fret about the delayed Games, saying, “I was a little down for a day or two, but after that, I just told myself, ‘Health is wealth.’ As long as everybody is OK, we can have a safe Olympics. That’s all that matters.”
Trainingwise, Francis has returned to the basics, as Thompson, like every coach, has had to adapt to pandemic conditions. “I was running, doing workouts how I used to do in high school. You just run. Tracks are closed and some parks were even closed. We were just running and lifting random stuff.”
Competition this year? “I’m still working,” she says. “So if there is a belated season, then I’m definitely going to compete.”
Becoming one of the planet’s top 400-meter sprinters wasn’t what anybody envisioned when Francis started out: “I would give the credit to my parents. One day they said, ‘Oh, let’s try you in sports.’ We tried soccer; I hated it. I was running over 10 minutes back and forth and getting kicked at and a ball thrown at me.
“And they were like, ‘Alright, how about we try track?’ And I was like, ‘Cool, I only have to run for 2 minutes. This isn’t so bad.’ I would take that over running 20 minutes straight nonstop being kicked at.”
Francis was pegged as having great potential in the 800, and she didn’t disappoint. She ran 2:04.83 as a prep soph and picked up a couple of National Scholastic Indoor titles. That got her to Oregon. She started out as a halfmiler in Eugene but Duck coach Robert Johnson soon picked up on her speed.
He said, ‘I’m thinking of putting you in the 4×4, but you’ve gotta run this B team. If you can hit’—I think it was 56.9—‘If you can split that, then I’ll put you on the 4×4.’ So I think I hit like 57-flat or something, but he was like, ‘Alright, I’ll just put you in.’ And ever since then, I was like, ‘Wow, one lap! This is great!’ And he’s like, ‘I think you have some talent in that. Let’s start working on it.’”
That first year, she hit 52.93 for 2nd at the USATF Juniors, then won Pan-Am Junior bronze. She captured the Pac-12 title the next year, along with a runner-up finish in the 200 at 23.03. Overall, she won 6 Pac-12 titles for Oregon and was a 13-time All-America. She capped her Duck career with the ‘14 NCAA Indoor title in an American Record 50.46.
Since then, Francis has made all the key teams, placing 7th in the ’15 Worlds, 5th in the ’16 Olympics (gold in relay) and then, of course, winning the individual gold in ’17. As a kid, she had never imagined the sport would take her this far.
“There was a period of my career where I was just losing all the time,” she explains. “It was so bad. My younger sister, Claudia [who later ran on an NCAA-winning 4×4 for Florida], she was actually beating me in races and people thought she was the oldest. I didn’t start doing well until high school a little bit.”
Francis has a solid collection of global medallions: 4 World, 1 Olympic. “They’re all special to me because of all of the hard work, sacrifice and accomplishments I went through. I worked really hard to earn my medals, so to pick and choose which one stands out to me is really difficult. I have favorites. I’ll say one of them is 2017.”
Francis says she’s not done and would like to get “a few more PRs and some more medals.” The plan is to keep going, “Until my body decides it’s time to let me know, ‘Hey, it’s time for you to stop.’”