Phyllis Francis of USA after taking gold over 400m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty)
The headlines after the IAAF World Championships London 2017 women’s 400m focused in tone more on two of the women who finished behind Phyllis Francis than the actual winner herself.
“Phyllis Francis Shocks Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Allyson Felix In World 400 Win,” trumpeted the popular US-based website www.flotrack.org. “Francis Shocks Biggies,” shouted the headline above the race report in Track and Field News.
Even the British mainstream media, widening their gaze from domestic attractions at the world championships, had something similar to say. “Phyllis Francis takes shock gold as Shaunae Miller-Uibo stumbles,” was The Independent’s headline the day after the race.
The word ‘shock’ seemed to be on everyone’s mind, and their fingers as they typed.
However, rather than concentrating on the fact that joint-favourites Felix and Miller-Uibo didn’t win, subliminally diminishing the success of Francis, true credit should be given to the gold medallist who ran the race of her life at the right moment.
Francis produced a personal best of 49.92 to cross the line first in London, and did so in pouring rain and chilly temperatures, hardly ideal conditions for anybody with ambitions of running a personal best and under 50 seconds.
The 25-year-old from New York who is now based with a training group in Texas, timed her race to perfection. Felix and Miller-Uibo were battling for pole position off the final bend but Francis had held something in reserve and finished over the 100 metres the strongest, even taking into account Miller-Uibo’s stumble.
Signs of the time
Nevertheless, the signs that Francis was ready to challenge for at least a medal, and maybe the top place on the podium, were there if you looked closely enough and didn’t require powers of divination just a moderately attentive eye for statistics and trends.
Francis had improved her personal best every year since she was a junior in 2011 but this summer, prior to London, had yet to beat her then best of 49.94 set when finishing second at the 2016 US Olympic Trials.
Nevertheless, she was clearly in good form having run 49.96 at the US Championships the month before arriving in London and Francis also knew how to peak when it counts, having done well in her previous individual major championship outings, finishing seventh at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and then improving to fifth at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In addition, although it only became quite so apparent after the race, the inclement conditions played in her favour.
“I went to (the University of) Oregon and it rains there all the time. This is nothing. I actually like this kind of weather, believe or not,” she joked later.
Consequently, it was certainly to be expected that she would rise to the occasion again. The question was, how far?
It didn’t take long to find out on the evening of Wednesday 9 August.
After her triumph, Francis was gracious enough not to round on those people who wrote her off in the myriad of pre-championship prediction contests and eschewed any post-race reaction that verged on saying, “I Told You So!”
"It is amazing. I am so excited. It is such an amazing feeling. Being world champion sounds pretty cool. I just knew what I was capable of doing so I stuck to my race model,” she exclaimed joyously in the immediate aftermath of the race.
"Allyson and Shaunae are amazing finishers, we are all that talented, but when I went down the home straight, I just believed in myself and stayed patient.
“I told myself, 'Don't freak out. Be patient and trust in yourself. I'm meant to be here. I'm strong enough. I've been training and putting in the work. You got this’.
"At the finish line I was surprised, I thought I was second or third but then they told me, 'You are first!’
“It happened so fast. I told myself, ‘Top three. Whatever happens in the last 50 metres happens.’ I was focusing on my form and I didn't even know I won until one of my friends started screaming, 'You won!' and I was like, 'holy smokes!'
“I knew the medal was gold because they were jumping up and down and I thought, 'Oh, this must be really serious right now!' My coach (Vince Anderson) and a friend from high school came all the way out here. I saw them because they told me where they were sitting before I set my blocks up.
Jumping for joy
“When I looked over toward them, they were like, 'You did it! You did it!' They were jumping up and down.
“I didn't think I could actually win the race coming into it but I thought I could be top three, but I try not to put too much expectation on myself because I tend to overthink that.
“What I tend to do to myself is run other athletes' races so this time I decided to do my own race and it turned out really well.”
Francis later in the championships followed up her individual triumph with a 4x400m gold medal, running a blazing anchor leg to bring the USA home in a world-leading 3:19.02, crossing the line almost six seconds clear of their nearest rivals.
At least, as far as Francis was concerned, she got her rightful credit for that run and no members of the international media called that feat a shock.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF