LONDON – Like a heroine in the anime movies she likes to watch, Phyllis Francis ran through the rain, past the favorites and onto the top step of the podium Wednesday night at the IAAF World Championships.
While Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas lost her stride and defending world champion Allyson Felix of Team USA faltered down the stretch, Francis came on strong to take the women’s 400-meter title.
“I think I was more relieved that I was finished,” Francis said, “but then I was super-excited when I saw my friends in the stands, and they said, ‘You won!’ I’m like ‘holy smokes, I did it!”
Francis was in fourth place coming around the turn in a cold, steady rain with water glistening on the track.
She said she thought: “Don’t panic, don’t freak out, don’t get too excited. Put your arms down, put your legs down and keep going. Just be patient. Trust in yourself. You know, I’m meant to be here. I’m strong enough. I’ve been training. I’ve been putting in the work. You’ve got this.”
And she did have it.
Francis ran a personal best of 49.92 seconds while Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain needed a national record of 50.06 seconds to edge Felix, who won the bronze in 50.08 seconds. Miller-Uibo, who had been leading at the turn before she stumbled on the straightaway, finished fourth in 50.49.
“Everything is so surreal right now,” said Francis, 25, who was fifth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and seventh at the 2015 worlds.
“I just believed in myself and the crowd is just fantastic,” she said of the sodden spectators in London Stadium.
Francis won a gold medal in the 4x400-meter in Rio and silver at the 2015 worlds in the relay.
She lined up in Lane 6, with Felix to her left and Miller-Uibo to her right.
"They’re such phenomenal competitors,” Francis said. “I was just telling myself, ‘Just stay up with them and you deserve to be there.’ We’re all finalists and whatever happens happens.”
Felix wanted this one badly.
Before stepping onto the track Wednesday, she tweeted, “Never been hungrier. Tonight I'm thankful for another opportunity to lay it all on the line. To give it everything I have. To fight.”
Although she didn’t have enough in the tank to win, Felix tied for the world championships record with 14 medals, joining Usain Bolt and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica. She competed in her first world championships when she was just 17 in 2003, placing sixth in her 200-meter quarterfinal. She then won the 200 three straight times from 2005 to 2009 and the 400 two years ago.
“I felt in good position coming home,” Felix said. “I just tried to make a move and it wasn’t there. My legs were just heavy. I just didn’t have it coming home.”
She has a chance to break the record for medals won if she runs on one or both relays this weekend.
At age 31, Felix is racing against athletes who grew up idolizing her, like 19-year-old Naser.
“I was not chasing Felix,” Naser said. “I was pushing myself till the very end and I did not even see what was going on in the last meters. Felix is my role model, I am following her on Instagram.”
This is the second straight disappointment for Felix in a major championship. In Rio, Miller-Uibo dove across the finish line to deprive Felix of the 400-meter gold medal.
"The 400 continues to motivate me,” Felix said. “I'm still trying to put the pieces together."
All of the pieces fell into place for Francis, an NCAA champion for the University of Oregon.
“I feel like every athlete has those little doubts, ‘What ifs?’” she said. “I kind of put that on the back burner. I told myself go out there and give it all you’ve got. Don't give up."
However, Francis didn’t come into the race thinking she could win
“I was thinking top three,” Francis said. “Coming in first, it kind of surprised me, just like, ‘Wow, look what you’re capable of doing.’”
She said she has sometimes found herself running other peoples’ races, but this time made sure to run her own.
“So it turned out really well,” she said.
It certainly did.
While Felix, who lives in Southern California, said everything seemed wet, Francis said this was her kind of weather, “a hard shower/sprinkle.”
“I went to Oregon; it rains there all the time,” said the Queens, New York, native. “This is like nothing.”
But defeating Miller-Uibo and Felix was definitely something.
“It’s a huge stepping stone to something that’s great in the future for my career,” Francis said. “It’s a great motivator and confidence booster as well, telling me that the training’s there and my coach isn’t lying to me!”
Asked if she could be “extraordinary” like Felix, she didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, that’s the goal,” Francis said. “I feel like that’s everybody’s goal, so I’m looking forward to that.”
She kept the 400-meter title in U.S. hands while becoming only the fourth champion from Team USA, along with Jearl Miles (1993), Sanya Richards-Ross (2009) and Felix two years ago.
Felix said Francis has “really come into her own.”
“When you have these big match-ups, you never want to underestimate anyone in the race,” Felix said. “I’m just happy for her. She’s been good all season. It’s nice for her to come out on top.”