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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas' Taylor Ellis-Watson, left, and Texas' Chrisann Gordon, right, compete in a women's 400-meter semifinal at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Thursday, June 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

One in a series on athletes with Arkansas ties competing at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Taylor Ellis-Watson had six runner-up finishes for Arkansas at NCAA meets, but she's aiming to acquire an Olympic gold medal from Rio de Janeiro.

After taking fourth in the 400 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in a career-best 50.25 seconds, Ellis-Watson has a spot on the 1,600 relay team.

In 10 previous Olympic appearances since the relay was added as an event for women in 1972 -- excluding 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games -- the U.S. 1,600 team has won six times, including the past five. The other three times the U.S. team ran the 1,600 relay, it finished second.

"I've been dreaming of this ever since I started running when I was 12," Ellis-Watson, 23, said of competing at the Olympics. "So it's kind of surreal."

[ARKANSANS IN RIO: Full coverage of 23 in Olympics]

Track & Field News picks the U.S. women to win a sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event.

"I made the toughest team in the world and the best 4-by-400 team," Ellis-Watson said. "That really gives me a lot of confidence at the beginning of my professional career."

The 1,600 preliminary heats are Aug. 19, with the final Aug. 20.

"I know for sure I'm running in the prelims," Ellis-Watson said. "It just depends on how I run in the prelims who runs in the final. I'm really hoping to get a spot."

Arkansas sprints coach Chris Johnson will be in Rio de Janeiro to lobby for Ellis-Watson.

"I know coach Johnson will help," Ellis-Watson said. "He has a voice. I'm pretty confident that I'll be in the final."

Ellis-Watson, a Philadelphia native, redshirted at Arkansas in 2013 after transferring from Pittsburgh.

In three years, Ellis-Watson was an 11-time All-American for the Razorbacks, including four NCAA second-place finishes this year in the 400 and 1,600 relays, combining indoors and outdoors. She helped Arkansas win national championships indoors in 2015 and outdoors this year.

"Taylor's been a very hard worker and very receptive to coaching and the instructions we've given her," Johnson said. "The key was being able to keep her healthy and the training be consistent."

Ellis-Watson -- who underwent surgeries for a stress fracture in her left foot in November 2013 and December 2014 -- earlier this year said she's never felt better physically and credited Arkansas' coaches and medical and training staffs for their care.

"Coming here was one of the best decisions I've ever made," she said. "I've gotten better every year and gotten more confidence with my body.

"They've been super careful with me. If I feel anything, they're like, 'OK, we've got to figure out what's going on. We can't have you injured.' "

Johnson said the Arkansas staff built a strong trust with Ellis-Watson.

"You've got to be smart and be able to communicate," Johnson said. "I think that was the key for success. We've been able to listen to Taylor, and she now understands how to listen to her body, and we've made accommodations with her training to fit her needs. It's all meshed well and now you see the result."

Ellis-Watson anchored the Razorbacks' 1,600 relay to a school-record 3:25.48 -- still the top time in the U.S. this year -- along with Damajahee Birch, Daina Harper and Monisa Dobbins at the NCAA West Regional in Lawrence, Kan.

"The U.S. would be hard-pressed to find someone who's a more vicious relay carry than Taylor," Arkansas Coach Lance Harter said. "She's sometimes run well above and beyond her own abilities to get the job done for us.

"She's phenomenal. She's been tested by fire, because we've usually been behind when she gets the stick. She's always had to chase everybody else's best runner down, and she's done that quite successfully."

Ellis-Watson missed making the Olympic team in the 400 by .08 of a second with her fourth-place finish behind Natasha Hastings, who was third in 50.17.

"Disappointment was my first reaction," Ellis-Watson said. "But then I got excited knowing I was going to be on the relay. It was kind of a relief."

Sports on 08/06/2016

Print Headline: Relaying a message

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