ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It took a camera blink and every last ounce of breath, but Oregon senior Phyllis Francis got it done.
Her closing kick powered the Ducks past Texas in the final event of the 2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Track and Field Championship, allowing her to nip Texas junior Ashley Spencer at the wire of the 4x400 relay.
“To win both, that’s a hard thing to do,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson said. “And for the women to be five-time-straight national champions, how do you do that?”
Give the baton to Phyllis.
As they did a year ago, the Ducks had to win the meet’s final event to win a title. The top-ranked 4x400 teams – No. 1 Texas, No. 2 Florida and No. 3 Oregon – faced off with a potential championship on the line. All three schools trailed Georgia, which held the overall standings lead prior to the 4x400, but hadn’t qualified for the event.
Oregon’s relay team – senior Chizoba Okodogbe, senior Laura Roesler, freshman Christian Brennan and Francis – ran in that order. When Francis met Brennan at the line, she took the handoff approximately two strides behind Spencer.
She didn’t catch her until they exited the final turn together. Then it was a sprint for the finish, with both runners crossing it simultaneously. Or, that’s how it looked. Francis’ last kick not only gave Oregon the event and meet victory, but also a new collegiate indoor record for the 4x400 – 3:27.40. Texas clocked in at 3:27.42.
“I knew we were going to get the handoffs in the mix,” Francis said. “So what Coach told me to do is to wait on my competitor’s shoulder. And then throw it all on the table, just go for the win. And it ended up working out very well. I thought I lost it there, but I did very good. Texas really did give us a run for our money.”
“I was in the middle of the straightway so I didn’t know for a minute there,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did we really leave it that late?’ But hey, she got them at the end.”
And, it wasn’t even Francis’ first record-setter of the day. Earlier Saturday, she won the women’s 400 with a new collegiate indoor record of 50.46 seconds.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “Words can not describe how happy I am for my performance, my teammates’ performance, the Oregon track and field coaches and staff, how hard we work to get to this point. I’m very happy and I know they’re very pleased too.”
She knew they were pleased because she could hear them, especially Roesler, who, like Francis, had scored an individual event championship earlier Saturday, in the 800. It was Roesler who ran onto the track to hug her teammate once video flashed confirmation of the Ducks’ victory and the 4x400 record.
“It was so close.” Francis said. “I thought we came in second for a moment there. My teammates were chanting “Go Ducks!” And Laura was screaming. So I knew that we won. I was ecstatic.”
For Johnson, Francis’ Albuquerque performance was pure validation.
“This is something that we’ve been preaching to Phyllis since she was a sophomore, that she’s a special kid,” Johnson said. “And it’s great that she’s finally starting to realize that. And I think the turning point was Christmas break. We call her Christmas-Break-Phyllis because before, she had some ups and she had some downs.
“Some days she trains well, some days she doesn’t train at all. But over Christmas break, she just had an epiphany and the light bulb came on and she’s been spot-on ever since.”
“My coach always talks about it, says, ‘Yeah, we will,’” Francis said of positive reinforcement. “But when you see the competitors out there, it can be a little intimidating. But when I saw my team cheering us on, we just pushed it to the next limit.”