Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Kendall Ellis’ win at Olympic Trials a product of perseverance

EUGENE, Oregon — Kendall Ellis had plenty to reflect on after winning the Olympic Trials 400m.

The personal best times she ran in Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final — her first in six years. The agony of placing fourth at the Tokyo Olympic Trials three years ago, missing that individual Olympic team by seven hundredths but still making the relay pool.

But a moment to cherish came after Ellis crossed the finish line in 49.46 seconds at Hayward Field on Sunday. She soon hugged 1992 Olympic 400m gold medalist Quincy Watts, her coach for the last 10 years, first as a USC Trojan and then as a pro still training in Los Angeles.

TRACK AND FIELD TRIALS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Ellis, 28, laughed when she was asked what Watts told her after the biggest victory of her life. “Stop all that crying,” she said Watts joked to her.

The emotions also flowed out of training partners Rai Benjamin — who beamed in the stands with Watts — and Michael Norman.

“The hard workouts, the sacrifice, the painful days, I see everything,” Norman said of Ellis before the final.

Back in 2017, Ellis made her USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships debut after her junior year at USC. She made the world championships team by placing third in the 400m final.

In 2018, she broke 50 seconds for the first time, was the world’s sixth-fastest woman for the year and authored a fifth-to-first relay anchor leg at the NCAA Championships at the old Hayward Field.

In 2019, she was second at nationals to make another world team.

Then at the Tokyo Olympic Trials, Ellis was passed by Allyson Felix in the last 10 meters for an individual 400m spot. She still made her first Olympic team for relay duty and won gold and bronze medals.

Ellis thought back to those Tokyo trials as she prepared for Sunday’s final.

“Devastation. A lot of tears,” Ellis said. “I remember being so heartbroken. I’d rather have gotten fifth or sixth (and still been in the Olympic 4x400m relay pool). I did not want to be fourth place to be so close. But certainly a learning lesson, knowing that fourth place coming into today, reminding myself that I don’t want that feeling again.”

In 2022, Ellis was again runner-up at nationals. At 2022 Worlds in Eugene, she was eliminated by placing sixth in her first-round heat.

“Two days before my opening round at the 2022 World Athletics Championships, I was wracked with so much anxiety, I was paralyzed in bed — I physically could not move or get up for a few torturous minutes,” she wrote for World Athletics. “Trapped under the sheets, I realized this was probably the most severe my anxiety had ever been. Anxiety is mental, but makes itself known physically.”

Ellis said she considered retiring that year. She ultimately chose to keep running.

“I will continue to show up,” she wrote. “I will continue to fight. And I will keep pushing myself to get to the line every time, for those who feel like they can’t.”

In 2023, she was eliminated in the semifinals at nationals. For the first time in her career, she did not make the U.S. team for a world championships.

“Foreign territory for me that, frankly, i hope remains foreign,” she posted after her season.

In Sunday’s final, Ellis was in lane eight. The same lane that Felix had in 2021, when she surged past Ellis (then in lane seven) in the final meters at trials.

This time, Ellis pushed into the lead coming off the final turn and then widened the gap to 20-year-old runner-up Aaliyah Butler. Before this weekend, Ellis’ lifetime best was 49.99. On Sunday, she ran 49.46.

“I feel like the Kendall I’ve been supposed to be,” she said.