This is part two of our feature on Kendall Ellis, by Stuart Weir. Stuart has this wonderful way of providing insights into the athletes that we see racing, and then, we want to know more….
12 Questions to Kendall Ellis
In part two of the interview Kendall reflects on her professional career and two World Championships
1. What were your hopes and expectations going into the USA Champs in 2017?
People always say the goal is to win or to get top three and make the U.S. team but I was a junior in college and that really wasn’t my focus. I still wasn’t really sure how good I could be at the professional level. I wasn’t quite sure about myself as an athlete. Coach and I talked about it, the goal was just to make the team for relay, aiming for top six in the trials. But then we did sit down before each round and say “run this round as if you’re trying to win”. We thought if I kept shooting for first then I would definitely get to the final. And then we approached the final in the same way, trying to win it. When I finished third, it was “oh my goodness coach, we didn’t just make the relay team, we’re going for the open 400 now. This is serious now”. That hadn’t been my mindset going in.
2. What was your experience of London 2017?
It was horrible! London was great and it was my first experience of being on a senior team. I was on the team with people like Allyson Felix and I was thinking, “this is a dream come true”. But as far as the actual running went, it was horrible. I lacked so much confidence going into the meet. I was the only collegiate athlete from USC to make the team so I had been training by myself all summer, which was a difficult position for me to be in. So when I got the London and the confidence just wasn’t there. I was panicking in the infield. I was super-emotional, my energy was draining away about what could happen. I ran the slowest time I had run in two years and didn’t even get through the first round. It was just such an embarrassing experience. It was by far my most embarrassing moment on the track – not because I didn’t make the next round but because of the way that I handled myself. If I could just have run the way I ran in the trials or the way I had run in my collegiate season, everything would be fine. And I just never want to experience that feeling again. It took me a bit of time to bounce back from it because it was such an embarrassing experience for me.
3. You got a relay medal.
Yes, I came away with a medal but I don’t really count relay medals as I only ran the prelim. We’re shooting for an individual medal!
4. What about the US trials 2019 when you were second behind Shakima?
2019 was my first year as a professional but it took me a very long time to sign a professional contract. That surprises most people and it surprised me too. From leaving college in June, I didn’t sign until January the following year. So all through fall training was very difficult as I was trying to work out when I would have an income. And then when I started competing, my rookie season didn’t go that well. I was in Diamond Leagues and competing in high profile track meets but I wasn’t running well. Practice wasn’t going well and I wasn’t hitting times. I don’t know why but it just wasn’t coming together for me.
So going into the trials, I was very nervous because I had not run well. I’m not sure I’d even run a 50. So I knew that if I was going to make the US team I was going to have to do things that I hadn’t done all season. But Coach Watts – he’s an incredible coach and I give him all the credit, all the time – sat me down before trials and said: “just listen to me and do what I tell you to do in each round! And you will make the team”. And I was like: “OK. My way hasn’t been working and I trust him! If he thinks I can make the team, then I can make the team because he does not lie to me”. So round by round I turned off my brain and did exactly what he told me. I ran three season’s bests back to back and it got me through the rounds. In the final, I remember coming down the home stretch thinking “I can win this race”. Shakima won but for me the execution was there and the confidence was there. Coach – and I – would say that the 2019 trials is my best ever series of races. He’s never seen me listen so well and execute everything to a T. That was a turning point for me.
5. Doha World Championships, Semi-Final third in 51.58. What is your assessment?
It was better than London. Track wise I would give it that much credit. But it also showed me that I have a way to go. I made it through the first round but not to the final. We’re making progress but we’re not yet where we need to be, because we need to be in the final and then on the podium. So it was another stepping stone. I was hoping it would be a stepping stone to the Olympics this year but now next year.
6. Did you watch 2019 World Championship 400 final?
The final showed me that track and field is approaching a new level, in the women’s 400m on the global stage. They’re approaching new territory and you either get on board or you get left behind. There’s no option. If you going to win a medal at the highest level you’re probably going to have to run 48 or in some cases get down to 47. It was a wakeup call for me because I have certain goals that I want to achieve and to achieve them you have no choice but to run these times. Running those times is not any more something you just have on your vision board; it’s something you have to do. And you have to listen to coach and do exactly what he’s telling you if you’re going to make teams from this point.
7. Doha relay prelim team – Beard, Felix, Ellis and Okolo would probably have been good enough to win the final. Were you surprised that all four of you were left out for the final?
I agree that we could have won. And I wasn’t really surprised [we were left out] because I know how relay teams work. At the end of the day whatever four they select, the job will get done because the talent in American women’s 400 is so deep – including 400 hurdles. And if I want to be part of it, I have to do what I’m supposed to do in the open 400 – get to the final. So I have nothing to complain about. I see the relay as a reward – something you want to be part of, but you have to earn it.
8. The US trials can be the hardest race of the year.
Absolutely. I agree. In a sense of the US trials are the Olympics because if you going to get selected, you’re probably going to have to run 49. Yet in other countries people can qualify for the Olympics running 51. It’s crazy and incredibly competitive in almost every event. It shows how deep we are and you sure that extra sense of pride in making the team. Because even making the team shows you one of the best in the world, not just in the US.
9. Your 200 PR 22.71 – that would have got you 6th in Doha final!
I didn’t know that!
10. Have you 200m ambitions?
The 200m is a fun race for me. I don’t get stressed about it and I’m excited when I get to do it. We haven’t discussed it much this year but I would like to dabble in it. And I don’t have any plans to try to double at worlds or Olympics but I would like to get in some more competitive 200m races because I know my speed needs to get up. Once I get my start better, coach might let me take the 200m more seriously. Once I learned how to use blocks properly!
11. One could argue that if you can run 22.71 without taking it seriously, there could be a bit more to come.
That’s true. It’s a discussion to be had. Once I’ve mastered my main event we can then start trying other things. But if I can come home with a medal in the 400m I might stick with that.
12. In 2018 you ran six 4 by 100s. Why?
I ran the 4 by 1 my senior year in college. They needed someone to step in and they asked me to do it and I said “OK”. Actually I didn’t say “OK” there was a lot of resistance first! I did not want to do it. The 4 by 1 makes me really nervous because it is really fast and the hand-offs have to be perfect. I said, “I’m just a quarter-miler. I have run the 400m and the 4 by 400 for you but the 4 by 1 is super-fast sprint territory. But they asked me to do it and I ended up doing it and we got third at the nationals. So it was a good experience. Coach told me to look at it as a warm-up for the 400! And it would give me a feel of the track. I tried to see it that way but I was still super nervous. I was also thinking that I didn’t want to use up my energy as I was trying to win the 400m. But at the end of the day it was what the team needed and what was asked of me. But it was a good experience and I liked getting to pretend that I was a sprinter for a year. While I was in the sprint squad for a year I’m not in any of the pictures as I had to go off and warm up for the 400m during awards!
Interview June 2020