By Jonathan Gault
August 9, 2017
LONDON — In a World Championships that has continually refused to follow the script, 25-year-old American Phyllis Francis sprung the biggest upset of all in the women’s 400 final on Wednesday night, shocking the two pre-race favorites, Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Allyson Felix. Both Miller-Uibo and Felix faltered badly in the home straight, clearing the way for the unheralded Francis to claim the gold medal in a personal best of 49.92 seconds.
Nothing about this race was normal. Start with the conditions — 50s and rainy — which left the Bahamian Miller-Uibo and Felix, a Southern California girl, out of their element but made Francis, who spent four years in college in Eugene, Oregon, feel right at home.
“I actually like this kind of weather, believe it or not,” Francis said.
While the weather was odd for a World Championship final, it was even stranger to see Miller-Uibo and Felix rigging up big-time just before the finish line. Those two, both fantastically talented athletes with smiles that can light up a room, made this race must-watch theater, a natural sequel to their epic duel in last year’s Olympic final. And with 75 meters to run tonight, the rivals were in the exact same spot as a year ago in Rio, Miller-Uibo a few meters up with Felix closing hard to her left.
But a sequel isn’t interesting if all it does is rehash the original. And Miller-Uibo vs. Felix II had a final act that nobody saw coming. It began with Felix, who instead of pulling away from the pack in pursuit of Miller-Uibo was actually losing ground to the women on either side of her — Francis to her right and 19-year-old Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain to her left. With less than half a straightaway in front of her, Felix was in serious danger of not medalling at all.
Only an even bigger blowup from Miller-Uibo managed to keep Felix on the podium. Watch last year’s Olympic final closely and you’ll see that Miller-Uibo’s famous dive was not some brilliant strategy (like a hitter running to first base, it’s always faster to run through the line) but rather a byproduct of fatigue, which caused Miller to lean far earlier than she should have. Tonight, that fatigue struck even earlier, and with just under 40 meters to run, Miller-Uibo went from coasting to the gold medal to barely being able to run in the span of a few seconds. Exactly what caused the total breakdown in Miller-Uibo’s form, from flawless sprinter to hopeless hobbler, is unclear — she did not stop in the mixed zone to address the issue, and none of her rivals had an explanation either. But given that Miller-Uibo was slowing significantly even before she began to pull up lame and the guess here is that her fatigue contributed to any injury she may have sustained.
Phyllis Francis encountered no such problems. As the stars of her event combusted on either side of her, Francis paid no attention, focusing only on the white line in front of her. So blind was Francis to the carnage unfolding around her that after crossing the line, she did not even know her place. Francis heard her coach and friend yelling at her, “You did it!” from the stands.
But it took Francis a couple of seconds to figure out exactly what “it” was. Only when she saw them losing their minds jumping up and down did she figure out she was the world champion.
“I was like, Oh snap, this must be really serious right now,” Francis said.
In horrible conditions, Francis had run a personal best of 49.92, and while it would not have been fast enough for gold in any of the previous 15 editions of this championship, it was all she needed tonight. Salwa Eid Naser, after entering the meet with a modest 50.88 personal best, took an equally unexpected silver by running 50.06, her third national record in four days, while Felix held on for a disappointing bronze in 50.08. Miller-Uibo staggered across the line fourth in 50.49.
It wasn’t Rio, and it didn’t have to be. For as much as fun as another showdown between Miller-Uibo and Felix would have been, the beauty of live sports is that anything can happen, and tonight, anything did.
Coming into the race, even Francis knew that she was supposed to be a supporting actor. Francis was only second at the U.S. champs in June and did not believe she could win in London with Miller-Uibo and Felix entering in such fine form.
“I was thinking top-three,” Francis said.
But setting a modest target also allowed Francis an advantage: she did not have to worry about trying to keep up with Miller-Uibo and Felix.
“What I tend to do sometimes is run other athletes’ races. So this race I decided to do my own race, so it turned out really well.”
Felix ran her race too, and with 100 to go was right where she wanted to be. But when she reached for the gear that carried her to the world title in Beijing two years ago, she found nothing and had to rely on Miller-Uibo stumbling home just to sneak the bronze.
“It’s disappointing,” Felix said. “For me, I have to pick up the pieces and move on with the rest of the races I have.”
Felix has always preferred the 200 to the 400, and despite that world title in Beijing, Felix still feels she has unfinished business in the longer event. The 400 has delivered plenty of heartbreak to Felix over the years, from coming .03 short of a world title in her first crack at the event in 2011 to losing out on Olympic gold last summer to Miller-Uibo’s lean to tonight’s disappointment. But at 31, Felix is convinced more glory awaits her and will stick with it moving forward.
“That’s the plan,” Felix said. “I feel like there’s still more left to do.”
Francis first made a name for herself at the NCAA indoor championships in 2014, a meet which established both Francis’ prodigious talent (a 50.46 American record in the 400) and her clutch bona fides (delivering an epic anchor leg to clinch the team title for Oregon with a finish-line lean). Three years later, on a wet day in London befitting an Oregon Duck, Francis delivered her greatest performance.
|1||4331||Phyllis FRANCIS||USA||49.92 PB||0.196|
|2||3707||Salwa Eid NASER||BRN||50.06 NR||0.203|
|6||4037||Stephenie Ann MCPHERSON||JAM||50.86||0.162|
Phyllis Francis interview
Allyson Felix interview
Salwa Eid Naser interview
Kabange Mupopo of Zambia