EUGENE — Had her parents got their initial wish, Phyllis Francis would have been the next Serena Williams.
Alas, she told USA TODAY Sports with a laugh, she got started too late to become a tennis star.
It worked out reasonably well for Francis though — she’s an Olympic track athlete with a gold medal in the 4×400 relay, a world championship gold in her individual event, and a potential future star in her sport.
After spending the last few weeks crisscrossing the globe at a variety of meets, from Jamaica to Eugene, Ore., to Stockholm, Francis is expected to compete in the 200 meters Saturday at the USA track and field national championships in Des Moines. This season marks the “off” year of the Olympic quadrennial; as there are no Olympic or world championships, the USATF championships serve as the biggest meet for American athletes this year.
Missing at this year’s nationals is Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. woman in Olympic track and field history, and Francis’ teammate on the 4×400. Felix, who will turn 33 in November, is in the twilight of her career but remains the most recognizable track and field athlete in the country. Francis is less known but at just 26, feels she’s entering her prime.
Francis believes it will be virtually impossible for any one person to replace Felix, who has collected a staggering 24 Olympic and World medals in her career, and is likely to add to that total in the coming seasons. Asked if she feels pressure to at least partially fill the void that will eventually be left by Felix, Francis paused.
“It’s funny you mention that,” Francis told USA TODAY Sports two days before she was set to run in Eugene, Ore. at the Nike Prefontaine Classic. “Yes and no. Allyson is a phenomenal athlete. I don’t think anybody can fill her shoes, really. Everybody has their own path. I’d like to fill my shoes and run to my potential.”
Said Francis’s coach, Vince Anderson: “I don’t know if Phyllis will ever have the public appeal, because Allyson has been the face of the sport. Phyllis is equally delightful though, and if given the opportunity to get in front of a camera, people will gravitate toward her, too. On the track, I think she can partially fill the void, because Phyllis can be a fixture at the 400 for a long time.”
Until recently that might have seemed crazy to Francis, a former standout at the University of Oregon.
There are days, she said, where she has to remind herself that she’s no longer a novice. Three years into her professional career, Francis still gets anxious when she steps to the starting line. At Rio, she said she often got a “whoa is this is the Olympics” feeling, which overwhelmed her.
Though she finished a disappointing fifth in 2016, Francis upset Felix last August at the world championships, using a tremendous kick to surge ahead and finish in 49.92 seconds, a personal best. That she medaled and had a personal best in rainy, dreary conditions should surprise no one: Francis loves the rain, which is part of why she traveled from Queens, N.Y. to attend UO back when she made her college selection.
“We had all been waiting for her to do that,” Anderson said. “I think the best version of Phyllis that we’ve all seen led to us anticipating when she would win her first major title. She executed that race perfectly, made all the right moves. It was a great time to assert herself.”
At the Pre Classic last month — arguably the best track meet in the world that is not the Olympics or world championships — Francis and Felix were supposed to square off again, but Felix withdrew from the meet. In Eugene, Francis finished second (50.81) behind Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas, the defending Olympic champion in the 400. It was Francis’ first outdoor race of the 2018 season.
“I’m not too stoked about my time,” Francis said afterward, adding that she’s constantly focusing on improving her start.
As she continues to find her footing as a professional athlete — a job that looks much more glamorous on TV than in real life, she conceded — Francis is also trying to make sure she doesn’t define herself only through sport.
“I don’t do well just sitting at my house waiting for my next trip or workout,” she said, so she tries to spend her free timing dancing, cooking, singing karaoke or golfing with friends. She’s started to prioritize venturing out of her hotel every time she travels for a competition because she felt like “the world was just passing me by” when she stayed holed up in her room. (Her favorite cities so far are Berlin and Padua, Italy.)
And yet Francis understands that if she’s to become the next face of American track and field, it will come from being dominant — and potentially well-rounded — on the track, not because of what she does off it.
Felix’s shadow looms large partially because she’s a threat in multiple events. Francis, who ran mid-distance at Oregon, has toyed with the idea of adding more to her plate. She has no desire to go back to mid-distance, joking that when she trained for that and regularly ran 20-25 miles a week, “I was just trying to survive.” Anderson is OK with Francis “dabbling” in the sprints, at least for now.
But Francis has been thinking outside the box, too.
“I’ve thought, what about the javelin or the long jump or even the 100,” Francis said. She acknowledged she’s far from world class in any of those other events.
“I threw a javelin in mid-May. A friend who’s a heptathlete had me throw it and it did not go far,” she laughed. “I was like, ‘Alright, I need some work.’ But maybe I can get it done in two years.”
Miller-Uibo, who specializes in the 400 and 200 and is married to a decathlete, laughed when she heard about this—then offered encouragement.
“I say go after it,” Miller-Uibo said. “We get stuck in the mode of, ‘I do the 400, so I need to stick to the 400 for the rest of my career.’ I think it’s ok to experiment.”
One event Francis doesn’t plan to explore: Tennis. But only because she needs a coach to teach her the sport from scratch.
But maybe, she proposed, she could befriend Serena Williams, her original icon, by the 2020 Olympics, and ask the gold medalist for tips. That, she said, would be “super cool.”
Her parents would probably like it, too.