Underneath the Hayward Field stands, shielded from the persistent Pacific Northwest rain that had taken over the NCAA championship track and field meet, four mostly unknown college athletes gathered one last time as teammates.
The updated standings flashed on a nearby TV. Georgia, 52. Stanford, 51.
One event left, and it was theirs. If the USC 1,600-meter relay team could just do what they came to do, the Trojans would be awarded 10 points and the NCAA team national championship. Fortunately, they didn’t have time to overthink it. Kendall Ellis, a senior who had already run the fastest 400 split in the country this spring, led a quick prayer with the three women who would hopefully give her a routine anchor lap. They hugged and broke their huddle.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” Ellis would say later. “Just like an extra motivation.”
Four years ago, when Ellis arrived at USC as a state champion from Pembroke Pines, Fla., she wouldn’t have been able to see it like that.
“What I remember most about Kendall, she would be so nervous before every meet her freshman year, to the point of making herself sick,” said Kyrah McCowan, USC track’s director of operations. “Watching her progress from that to the grown woman that she is now is an amazing transformation, almost like watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly.”
Saturday night in Eugene, Ore., the transformation was ongoing. Ellis does not like a lot of attention. A couple of weeks before this event, she deleted her Twitter and Instagram accounts from her phone. In past years, the potential of distraction wouldn’t have been an issue, but now her hype was slowly building.
Ellis watched from the side of the track as Kyra Constantine and Anna Cockrell got the Trojans off to a slower- than-usual start. When Deanna Hill began the third leg, they trailed Purdue by a significant margin and were also running behind Oregon and Florida. Ellis was unfazed because she knew her fellow senior Hill, one of the top sprinters in the nation, could easily erase a deficit. And Hill knew that if she just got USC into the mix heading into the final lap, Ellis would take care of the rest. Hill executed, closing the gap to nearly nothing.
What happened next — as traumatic and terrifying as it felt in the moment — is the key to the whole story. It is the reason Ellis is now a name you know, the reason she would be asked to reload her social media accounts onto her phone later that night, the reason her life may never be the same.
Because when Hill bobbled that baton, delaying Ellis’ start by tenths of seconds, she gave her friend the chance to be extraordinary.
A year ago, standing on the same red rubber at a much sunnier Hayward Field, Ellis took the baton seamlessly.
Trailing Oregon star middle distance runner Raevyn Rogers only slightly starting the anchor lap, Ellis kicked into a high gear early. She took the lead from Rogers and planned on keeping it.
“Kendall Ellis attempting to be the spoiler!” the ESPN play-by-play announcer screamed.
As the lap continued on, though, Rogers gradually overtook her. By the home stretch, as Ellis kicked into her highest gear, she simply didn’t have enough left to beat Rogers to the finish.
When Ellis looked up, there was Rogers celebrating with her teammates. The Oregon Ducks were national champions, and Ellis had been unmistakably outkicked.
“That hurt,” Ellis said. “I cried a very long time, a very long time, and it kept getting replayed over and over again on social media. It kept getting replayed for two weeks, and three months later, it came back. I kept seeing it. It sucked, and it hurt. We worked so hard, we were confident, it was our title to win. To do everything in your power and not win, it’s like … what do you do next?”
What happened next, well, Hill has a few names for it: Snafu. Jumble of confusion. Ka-bobble. Yes, ka-bobble.
“We kind of ran into each other,” Hill said, referring to the mass of humanity she met around handoff time. “Her hand was everywhere, and I think at one point, I just grabbed her arm, like ‘take this and go.’ I ended up stepping on her. Her spike was completely shredded. I can’t really remember what happened.”
The brief exchange would be no more clear for Ellis.
“It touched my hand, it left my hand, and then it came back and just … I’m not really sure what happened,” she said.
Hill looked up at the Hayward Field video board and saw Purdue’s Jahneya Mitchell seemingly leaving the field in the dust and Ellis in fourth place. The work Hill put in during the third lap to bring USC close had disappeared, just like that.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, she’s going to have to work for this now,’” Hill said. “But if anybody can do it, Kendall can do it.”
Ellis pulled even with third-place Kentucky without much effort. She paced herself from there.
“There’s not a set of steps to run a four by four,” Ellis said. “You have to kind of base it off the competition, the way the race is going.”
Ellis realized something crucial as her lap hit the back stretch.
“I wasn’t tired,” she said. “That’s one thing I knew.”
When the runners reached the last 100 yards, Ellis was still firmly in third place, and Mitchell was so far in front that ESPN announcer Dwight Stones declared “there’s no way” that Purdue could lose.
Of course, it was around then that Ellis started actually running. She passed Oregon about halfway down the straightaway.
“She’s not going to pass Purdue,” Stones said. “I don’t think …”
“Oh my goodness!”
“Oh my goodness!”
“Oh my God!”
Ellis could see that she was coming up on Mitchell, almost as if she were reeling her in with a lasso. Mitchell, obviously exhausted, could only hope that the race would mercifully end before she was caught. With a few strides left in the NCAA championships, Ellis pulled even.
“I made sure I leaned,” Ellis said. “To have caught her, I wasn’t sure if I had outleaned her or not.”
Ellis fell to the ground and didn’t look up. She didn’t want to allow herself to think USC had won the race and the national championship. But, as her relay mates mobbed her, she could feel the good news palpitating from them. The Trojans were indeed champions.
She had run a split of 50.05 — a time that was somehow faster than the 50.19 she had clocked earlier in the day when she finished second in the 400-meter dash. Just hours before her relay miracle, that had felt like a debilitating loss to Ellis, the favorite to win the individual event.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Ellis would say. “I didn’t get what I wanted in the open 400, and it was disappointing. But to come back and do that on the relay, I’m not going to say it erases the open 400, but it’s a different kind of satisfaction.
“You can’t let your personal and individual disappointment affect the greater good.”
On Monday afternoon at the USC track and field office, Ellis and Hill are reliving their Saturday night and the wild couple of days that followed. ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” is playing as background noise when they notice a familiar topic in the show’s “rundown.”
“We’re going to come on TV,” Ellis says.
Co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon discuss the French Open and Alex Ovechkin’s Stanley Cup celebration antics, then it’s time for the next topic.
“Did USC win the NCAA 4x400 relay on Saturday,” Kornheiser asks, “or did Purdue lose it?”
“No, we won!” Ellis pleads.
“If you are the USC runner,” Wilbon says, “and you get jostled as you take the baton, and then with, I don’t know, less than 100 meters left, you then outrace this woman as if you are Usain Bolt! Are you kidding me? I don’t want to hear about the Purdue woman running out of gas. Look at that! You don’t see that! That is ALL Southern Cal.”
“This woman’s name, I believe, is Kendall Ellis,” Kornheiser says, “and all praise to her. She was hopelessly beaten, she’s 40 yards down with 100 yards to go, and she wins this race!”
“You know how coaches say when their teams are down, ‘Just keep playing,’” Wilbon says. “This is that! This woman, she just kept running! And they won the national championship.”
“Cheers to her!” Kornheiser says.
And in Los Angeles, the room erupts.
“CHEERS!” Hill and McGowan yell toward Ellis.
“I feel so bad for Purdue,” Ellis says. “They’re being so mean to them.”
Ellis can’t believe this is her life. From the moment Kobe Bryant tweeted “Will power” with the video of Ellis’ stirring comeback on Saturday night, she has had no choice but to reengage with social media and try to respond to as many of her new fans as possible.
She had 70 direct messages waiting for her on Twitter, and her Instagram (@kendi_kendall), which gained 2,000 followers, has seen a constant outpouring of love and admiration.
From @sportsday: “The world needed to see what you did! You imparted hope in the human spirit to find a way to win across disciplines. It was David over Goliath, Ali over Liston, USA Hockey’s win over Russia in 1980 Olympics…”
From @jenblessed75: “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched this race. You exemplify the epitome of staying the course and showing what can happen if you don’t give up.”
Ellis’ time on the big stage is just getting started. Wednesday she and her relay mates will do a couple of morning TV spots locally, and they’re planning to throw out the first pitch at the Dodgers game.
More opportunities will come. She says she has chosen her agent and is in discussions with shoe companies for sponsorship. Her hope is to make the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Games in 2020, where she’d surely have to consider deleting her social media apps again.
“I’m in a situation and position that a lot of people don’t get to have,” Ellis says. “So I’m learning to embrace it more, especially in the sense that I can use my sport to have a broader reach outside of my sport.
“That’s really important to me. If you can take something that I’m doing and apply it to your life, that’s cool. That’s pretty meaningful to me.”
It seems like everyone she bumps into now has something to say about her heart-stopping relay run to glory.
Monday, as she and Hill posed for a photo shoot, USC throws coach Dan Lang stopped by the track.
“I’ve got people who don’t even watch track texting me and saying, ‘Oh my God, that last leg,’ ” Lang said. “That was epic.”
“Thanks,” Ellis says.
Walking away, Lang adds, “She was so sad that she didn’t win the 400, but people would have forgotten that. This is different. Nobody is ever going to forget that.”
Ellis can thank Hill’s ka-bobble. Without it, USC likely would have won the race going away.
“I think this is the best story,” Hill says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”