The meet was over and the north side of Mike A. Myers Stadium quickly filled with athletes, fans, and coaches. The heat that had persisted throughout these NCAA Championships hadn’t lessened, but the pressure that gripped the meet finally relented. Tired athletes milled around waiting for awards, posed for pictures and ate pizza piled on paper plates.
In the middle of it all, Anna Cockrell was crying.
“I just gotta fix you before you get on camera,” her older sister Ciera, said, wiping away Anna’s tears.
About 70 minutes earlier, Cockrell won the first individual title of her career, dominating the 400m hurdles in 55.23 to comfortably win by over three-quarters of a second. Combined with her fifth-place finish in the 100m hurdles, Cockrell delivered 14 crucial points for her USC team that was trying to repeat as champions.
“It’s hard to celebrate that when it feels like I let the team down,” Cockrell said.
Less than an hour after her 400m hurdle victory, Cockrell grabbed the baton from her teammate Kyra Constantine on the third leg of the 4x400m relay.
The stakes of the relay were clearly defined.
After Arkansas distance runner Taylor Werner placed second in the previous event, the 5000m, the Razorbacks and USC were tied for first with 56 points.
The 4x400m relay would decide the women’s championship. There were other strong teams in the field, but the focus was on USC and Arkansas. Whoever placed higher in this event would win the meet. Arkansas and USC had season bests entering the meet that were .01 seconds apart.
Every indication was that it would be close and could even match the drama of 2018.
Last year, USC needed a victory to clinch the team title. Cockrell ran the second leg on that team and celebrated at the finish line when her teammate Kendall Ellis passed Purdue in the final stride to cap a remarkable comeback to win the race and the meet.
On Saturday night, Cockrell grabbed the baton in second place, behind South Carolina, but more importantly, ahead of Arkansas. With 180 meters to go in the penultimate leg, Texas A&M’s Jazmine Fray went past Cockrell. Alabama, Arkansas and Florida also closed in. Space was at a premium. As all six teams began to come off the curve, Cockrell lost her balance, she stumbled, her arms flailed, she made contact with another runner and the baton sailed through the air.
Even with the benefit of replays and freeze-frames, it was hard to decipher what happened.
“I started kicking and then all of a sudden the box was closing in on me and I was starting to trip and I was losing my balance. I just fought as hard as I could to stay on my feet and I think somebody bumped me and the baton flew out of my hand, said Cockrell.
“I just had a second of disbelief.”
The disbelief was one thing that was easy to see on a second viewing. Cockrell’s mouth is agape, her body frozen. The baton bounced out of lane one and into the infield. The race, and the team title, was going in the opposite direction.
For several torturous seconds, the baton sat on the ground.
WORLD LEADING 3️⃣:2️⃣5️⃣.5️⃣7️⃣ pic.twitter.com/iIlWvFyysu— NCAA Track & Field (@NCAATrackField) June 9, 2019
The move scrambled the field, but everyone else stayed on their feet.
Waiting for Cockrell on the anchor leg was Kaelin Roberts. The junior was the NCAA champion indoors in the 400m this past March. An injury kept her out of the individual 400m at this meet, but she ran well in the semifinal heats of the 4x400m on Thursday. Arkansas was running Kethlin Campbell, fourth place in the individual 400m.
Campell’s personal best was two-tenths quicker than Roberts. If they got the baton at the same time, it would have been down to the wire, again.
Instead, Roberts had no chance to get back in the race. Arkansas placed second behind Texas A&M and clinched the team title.
“That’s what sucks so much about it. I had enough left in the tank to get the baton if not in first, in great position for Kaelin to let her finish it off,” Cockrell said.
USC didn’t file a protest after the race. “It’s the mile relay. It happens,” USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said.
And because it’s the mile relay, it’s hard to assign blame--on Cockrell or anyone else. It looks like the chain reaction might have started when Cockrell took the slightest step to the outside and made contact with Alabama’s Mauricia Prieto who was behind Cockrell. Or, maybe Cockrell ran into Tatyana Mills of South Carolina who was in front of her. Figuring out who she ran into to force the baton out requires even better detective skills.
The line between reckless and aggressive on the track is only determined if you like the outcome.
“I’ll go home and watch it like four times and cry,” Cockrell said. “I’m the kind of person that wants to understand so I’m going to watch it until I feel like I understand and so that I make sure that I don’t make that mistake again. When we come back here next year I will do everything I can to get this team a title it deserves.”
After the race, Cockrell apologized to her teammates. On a young team, she’s the vocal leader and the team captain. If this group has a spokeswoman, it’s Cockrell. She speaks about the group, not as a collection of athletes in individual events, but in the way a quarterback discusses a football team.
Cockrell’s apology came with a rebuttal. Her teammates pointed out that they wouldn’t have even been in the position to win the meet if not for Cockrell’s perfomances in both hurdle races.
“She scored (14) points for us today. What am I going to be upset about?” Smith Gilbert said.
Last year, the Ellis comeback was precipitated by a near botched exchange. Ellis held on and erased an unthinkably large gap. This year, the baton bounced the other way.
But it’s worth going back to ever further--2017--for another USC 4x400m. The team championship wasn’t at stake for USC, but the Trojans were in position to win the race when Ellis got the baton just behind Oregon’s Raevyn Rogers. She quickly passed Rogers on the inside and maintained the lead on the backstretch. Entering the final curve, Rogers responded and reclaimed the lead. Ellis clung to her, but couldn’t draw even.
A year later, the top of the final curve was the exact spot where Ellis began her momentous comeback.
“This is going to be all I’m thinking about for the next year, making it up to this team, making it up to Coach Caryl,” Cockrell said.