by Tom Utescher
Last week the Local caught up with former area sprinting star Taylor Ellis-Watson, although in the literal sense, very few people in the country are capable of doing that.
A 2011 graduate of the old Springside School (now Springside Chestnut Hill Academy), Ellis-Watson finished her collegiate career as an 11-time All-American as she helped the University of Arkansas capture the 2016 NCAA Outdoor National Championship in early June.
Right now, she’s out in Eugene, Ore. for the USA Track and Field Olympic Team Trials, having met the qualifying standards in both the 200 and 400 meter dash.
On Sunday, July 3, Ellis-Watson ran a personal best of 50.25 seconds to finish fourth in the finals of the 400. The winner, with a 2016 world-best time of 49.68, was Allyson Felix, the 2015 World Champion in the event, and the defending Olympic champ in the 200 meters. The top three finishers in the 400 will compete individually in the open 400, while Ellis-Watson’s fourth-place showing earned her a trip to the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as a member of the 4 x 400 relay squad.
At the NCAA championships a few weeks earlier, she’d been the runner-up in the 400 to collegiate record holder Courtney Okolo, a University of Texas senior. Last weekend, however, the former Springsider out-sped Okolo, who finished sixth in the finals. All the other members of the seven-woman field were more experienced, including the 30-year-old Felix.
Ellis-Watson still has work to do out in Oregon, as she’s slated to compete in the 200 meter trials starting this Friday.
She began her collegiate tenure at the University of Pittsburgh and earned All-Big East Conference honors, but her career really took off when she transferred to Arkansas for the start of the 2013-14 academic year. There she would be racing in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), one of the strongest and deepest track and field organizations in collegiate sports.
Because of the transfer, she had to sit out the 2014 indoor season, but in the winter campaigns of 2015 and 2016 she became the SEC individual champion in the 400 and also anchored the Razorbacks’ winning 4 x 400 relay quartet both times. Ellis-Watson and Arkansas went on to runner-up finishes in these two events at the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Indoor Championships, and the Razorbacks claimed back-to-back SEC team titles.
Outdoors, she helped Arkansas win three straight SEC championships, and she was a two-time conference champion in the open 400. At the 2016 SEC meet, she set a new track record in the 400 (50.81 seconds) at the University of Alabama’s Sam Bailey stadium.
Already close to her current six-foot stature in high school, Ellis-Watson was a natural standout at Springside. She ended her career by anchoring the 4 x 400 relay at the league championship meet, and the way she tracked down and passed a Penn Charter runner with a huge lead is the stuff of Inter-Ac legend.
“In high school, I was used to dominating races, but that changes when you get to college,” she related.
Even so, she said that in order to push herself at Pitt, “I kind of had to train with the boys, which was fine. Coming into an SEC school was a whole different story. There was a lot better competition even within our own team.”
While at Pitt, she ran a number of meets at Penn State, and got to know the Nittany Lions’ sprint coach, Chris Johnson. He became an associate head coach at Arkansas starting in the 2012-13 academic year, and Ellis-Watson joined him there a year later.
She’d been at Pitt for two years, but due to an injury, she’d only used one-and-a-half years of NCAA eligibility. After sitting out the 2013-2014 indoor season, she would be able to run spring track in 2014, and then compete for two full years (indoors and outdoors) after that.
“The coaching is great at Arkansas, and they’ve got a great training staff and medical staff,” she noted. “I knew it would be a good opportunity for me.”
One of the lasting connections she’d made in Pittsburgh was with fellow track athlete Wesley Washington, to whom she became engaged. They will be getting married in October, and will settle in Florida.
Ellis-Watson earned her undergrad degree in psychology at Arkansas in 2015, and this past year she’s been engaged in post-graduate studies in the field of counselling. Maintaining a 4.0 GPA and making multiple appearances on the SEC academic honor roll, the former Springsider was named 2016 SEC Indoor Scholar Athlete of the Year, and was voted onto the 2015-16 Academic All-District 6 first team by CoSIDA, the national organization of collegiate sports information professionals.
“With moving to Florida, I’ll have to figure out what direction I want to go in terms of a graduate degree,” she remarked.
Once her collegiate athletic career officially ended following the NCAA championships, Ellis-Watson had a few weeks to concentrate solely on preparing for the Olympic trials.
“My coach calls it sharpening the blade,” she said. “We did shorter distances, with faster, focused, quality workouts, looking to just clean up my race a little bit.
“We worked on the last 40 meters, because that’s where it hurts so much,” she continued. “I’ve also been focusing on developing my rhythm in the first 200. Because I’m a lot faster than I’ve ever been, I needed to learn to go out faster than what I’m used to. With doing a time of 22.4 in the 200 itself, in the 400 I should be hitting around 23.6 seconds in that first 200 meters, where I’d been doing it in about 24.5 before.”
In Eugene, Ellis-Watson opened up on Friday with a second-place showing in the second of the four heats held in the first round of competition. She was runner-up in her heat to Phyllis Francis, a runner two years out of the University of Oregon who set the collegiate indoor record in the 400. Ellis-Watson posted the sixth-fastest time out of the 16 women who advanced to Saturday’s semifinal round.
The following day she placed third in what was clearly the faster of the two semifinal races. Felix was one spot ahead of her, and the winner was 27-year old Francena McCorory, a member of the U.S. gold medal 4 x 400 team at the 2012 Olympics. In this race, all four of the runners who advanced to the final put up times under 51 seconds, while in the other semifinal section only the winner, Okolo, undercut that mark.
In relative terms, Felix earned a convincing victory in Sunday’s final, with Francis joining her under 50 seconds in 49.94. After that, it was simply a matter of four runners in the 50-second bracket lunging at the line for the highest place they could get. Ellis-Watson was in lane three next to Francis, and on the outside in lane eight there was a third-place finish (50.17) by Natasha Hastings, a 2008 Olympian.
Digging out fourth place in 50.25, Ellis-Watson got to the line ahead of the veteran McCorory (fifth; 50.37) and her own collegiate rival, Okolo (sixth; 50.39). Seventh and eighth were former University of Texas star Ashley Spencer, and Quanera Hayes, who was coming back from an injury after winning the silver medal at the 2016 World Indoor Championships.
In the first two rounds of the 400 trials, Ellis-Watson had been one of the few runners without a sponsor’s name listed next to her own. That changed quickly – she’s now on board with Adidas.
Just within her own U.S. relay team, she’ll benefit greatly from working with highly-accomplished women with a vast amount of experience and knowledge to share. With no relay competition at the 200 meter distance in the Olympic Games, Ellis-Watson will have to turn in a top-three finish at Trials this coming weekend in order to represent the U.S. in the open 200. Whatever the outcome there, she knows that her passage to Rio has already been booked.