Gold Medal Ties Trace Back to McAuley HS

While a student at Catherine McAuley H.S., East Flatbush, Olympic champion Phyllis Francis was a Colgate Games champion in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Colgate Games)
While a student at Catherine McAuley H.S., East Flatbush, Olympic champion Phyllis Francis was a Colgate Games champion in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Colgate Games)

What’s the first thing an elite Olympic athlete does upon returning home from competing?

For one U.S. track runner, the answer was simple.

“As soon as I got back, the next day I had pizza; I hadn’t had pizza in a while. … It was beautiful,” said Phyllis Francis.

Francis is a 2010 graduate of the now closed Catherine McAuley H.S., East Flatbush. She recently captured a gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games.

So of course, that slice of pizza was well deserved.

Francis grew up in Laurelton before attending Catherine McAuley. While there, she participated in all 12 seasons of cross-country, indoor and outdoor track, with her main event being the 800-meter race.

From there, she attended the University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore. After competing in the 800-meter as a freshman, she transitioned to the 400-meter for the rest of her collegiate career. She graduated in 2014 to begin her pursuit of becoming a professional runner.

She had her sights set on the Olympics from a young age, but it was in Oregon where she began to believe she had a legitimate chance of someday representing her country on the international stage.

“Once I started training more and doing better in meets, I started to see that this could actually happen,” Francis said. “Then at Olympic trials when I came in second, it was just mind-blowing.”

At her first Olympic Games in Rio, Francis competed in the women’s open 400-meter as well as the 4×400-meter relay. She placed fifth overall in the individual race.

In the relay, she was originally slated as the team’s anchor. However, a coaching decision led to her running the third leg of the finals, which were held Aug. 20, the day before the closing ceremonies.

In Line for Gold

As she was getting set for her portion of the race after strong runs from Courtney Okolo and Natasha Hastings, she noticed she would be up against world-class sprinter Shericka Jackson of Team Jamaica. Francis knew she had to push her hardest for the first 100 meters in order to keep Team USA in line for gold.

“I just wanted to get out and run as fast as I can, and the rest is history,” she said as she recalled her time of 49.8 seconds during her all-out sprint in which she gave her team the lead.

The coaching decision paid off when anchor Allyson Felix clinched the victory and gold medal, as the U.S. finished with an overall time of 3:19.06.

Jamaica finished second for silver, and Great Britain took home the bronze.

“I could not believe that I would get this far,” Francis said. “So I thank God for everything and my support group at Catherine McAuley.”

Looking Toward Tokyo

Francis is now set to take six weeks off before resuming her rigorous training program, which, of course, does not involve any pizza in her diet. While she is focused on the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, the thrill of competing in Rio won’t be wearing off any time soon.

“The Olympics comes once every four years, and on top of that, it unifies all of the sports of the entire world,” she said. “We all come together. The level of competition intensifies a little bit more than world championships, which are held every other year.”

Her training will ramp up about a year-and-a-half before the Tokyo Games. She will also compete in two sets of world championships before the next Olympics.

Francis attributes the fostering spirit at Catherine McAuley as a means for her to achieve her Olympic dreams.

“They (Catherine McAuley) set up a really good environment for a lot of the young women who went to school there,” she said. “It was a second home for me. They helped us, they encouraged us, they were very motivating and I’ll never forget that. They really made me believe in myself.”

And while Francis will never forget the influence of her time at Catherine McAuley, the local community will never forget how she valiantly represented her country, her city and her high school in bringing home an Olympic gold medal.

That pizza must have tasted even better with a gold medal swinging from her neck!

Contact Jim Mancari via email at

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