Series09 Dec 2017

That moment when… Francis first broke the 50-second barrier


Phyllis Francis after the 400m final at the 2016 US Olympic Trials (© Getty Images)

Phyllis Francis was crowned world 400m champion in London earlier this year, but looking back on her career she believes another key moment came at the 2016 US Olympic Trials when she achieved her maiden sub-50-second clocking over the one-lap distance.



"In late 2015 I made the big decision to leave my coach at the University of Oregon to switch to Vince Anderson out of Texas A&M. I felt like I needed a change. Vince was a very knowledgeable coach, so I packed my things and left.

“Moving to a new city and a new coach is never easy. I had to adjust. I had to figure out what to say and when was the right time to say it. Fortunately, coach Anderson is a phenomenal coach with excellent communication skills. I would tell him what I typically did during practice and rather than change everything, he made little tweaks here and there.

“It was only by mid-April (2016) I was doing all of his workouts. It was a smooth transition, although the biggest change was the technical work. I’d come from a strong endurance-type training at the University of Oregon and as a former middle-distance runner I wasn’t used to a sprint technique and my arm used to flop in front of me.


Phyllis Francis in Monaco


“Here I was, aged 22 at the time, trying to learn a sprint technique when most of my rivals already had an efficient sprint technique learned from a young age. My coach was very patient with me.

“I had not really done anything special during the indoor season and my form leading into the 2016 US Olympic Trials was not good, not bad, just okay.

“I went into the Trials focused on finishing in the top three, but in my semifinal I didn’t run how I was supposed to. I knew I needed to finish in the top four to qualify, but I was too relaxed. I was down in sixth place with 100 metres to go and I needed to put in a sprint to finish fourth and snag the last spot. My coach was pretty upset and reprimanded me after the race.

“I’m often in a state of high anxiety before most finals and never really sleep, but my coach put me at ease just before I went into the call room. He said, ‘I don’t mind if you run 53 or even 56 seconds, as long as you get out quickly’. His comment lifted a lot of the pressure from me.

“I was in lane two for the final, but I decided to run really hard for the first 100 metres and before I knew it – at 50 metres to go – I was right there with the field. As I crossed the line I could see a number of athletes in my peripheral vision and my first instinct was to think, ‘at least I am on the relay team’. Then when my name flashed up in second place behind Allyson Felix in a time of 49.96, I was so happy. I had not only made the US Olympic team for the 400m but also broken 50 seconds for the first time.

“It was such a satisfying feeling. It validated my decision to leave Oregon and train out of Texas.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF