Even in the darkest moments of the 4×4, with 150m to go and the national team title the USC women had worked so hard for pretty much in the dust bin, there were four Trojans who had no doubt a lightning bolt was about to fall from the gray, wet sky to close Hayward Field with a sonic boom.
Anchor Kendall Ellis, outdueled a year ago in the final steps by Oregon’s Raevyn Rogers, knew it, even after she and Deanna Hill bobbled the final exchange. “The second I got the baton; the second I got the baton,” Ellis says, when asked when it first dawned on her she had a chance. “Before the race, Coach [Quincy] Watts told me, if there’s a 10m gap, you can close it. Even if it had been 20m [note: it was], it doesn’t matter, I’m going to get the team a win.”
Hill knew what was coming as soon as she finally got the baton to Ellis. “She got it, I saw where she was, I knew she had it,” Hill says.
Second leg Anna Cockrell thought the same. “I knew she had it, no doubt,” she says. “There was no doubt in my mind. Even though they bobbled the baton, I saw as soon as Kendall got it, there was no doubt in my mind we would win.”
And their head coach, Caryl Smith-Gilbert? Like everyone else who wasn’t running that race for USC, she had her doubts for several moments after Ellis’ improbable charge from waaaay back, most of that in the dying steps, that pulled her alongside Purdue’s Jahneya Mitchell at the tape.
From there, all Smith-Gilbert could do was look up at the board and see what the image revealed. What it revealed was Ellis’s closing 50.05, a 5th-to-1st carry that brought USC home victorious. Even 20 minutes later in the interview tent, Smith-Gilbert had that bemused look of a coach who realizes she has the nuttiest job in the world. “I didn’t know what time they were going to put on the board first, but man, it was good to see it’s you up there,” she says.
The breathtaking finish was all set up by some wild swings in the discus and 5000, all going on while the USC 4×4, such a disappointing 2nd a year ago, tried to get ready for their race.
Hill: “I’m not saying we were rooting for other teams or anything.”
Cockrell: “We had some people we wanted to win.”
Hill: “Some we’d rather not.”
Cockrell: “But at the end of the day we were thinking about the 4×4, controlling what we could control. Whatever was going to happen in the 5K was going to happen, what we knew was we had to win the 4×4 to put us in the best position.”
Then, in the last steps of the 5000, everything lined up for USC. They came into the 4×4 down 9 points, the only contending team with a baton and the final say. Says Hill, “They came up to me, ‘This is your chance, it all comes down to the 4×4.’ We make sure every meet, if there’s a team title, the 4×4 gets its job done. It’s what we’ve been working for all season; to finish off strong. So for it to be for the team title, it was a lot of motivation.”
Ellis, who was disappointed in herself with a runner-up finish in the 400, found the lightning bolt. Actually, she waited almost 300 meters to do it before that fabulous closing kick. “I wanted this for the team,” she says. “We’ve wanted this so badly all season. We wanted to be national champions, not just for the relay, but for the team. The 400 didn’t go how I wanted it to, this is my chance, I’m not going to let that determine how the rest of the meet goes. Go ahead and fight.”
Cockrell and Hill as one: “Fight on, fight on.”
“We close out the meet, we run the show,” Cockrell says. “We knew it would come down to this, this is what we’ve been preparing for all year. It made sense, this is what our coaches were preparing us for and we just executed. It wasn’t perfect, but we got it done. These two days have been a real statement for USC track & field. The men and the women, we closed out both days of this meet, we made our statement: the Trojans are here, we’re going to fight no matter what. These last two days at Hayward Field, the last two days at this version of Hayward Field, it was all about the Trojans. That’s what we wanted to do.”
Fight on. □