Feature14 May 2013

Ashley Spencer: ‘the future of American women’s track and field’


Ashley Spencer of United States celebrates after winning the Women's 400 metres Final on the day four of the 14th IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona on 13 July 2012 (© Getty Images)

For Ashley Spencer, it’s all about the appropriate steps.

Steps in her career, and steps between the hurdles, because last year’s IAAF World Junior Championships 400m gold medallist is a hurdler at heart.

“That has really been her event,” said Tonja Buford-Bailey, her University of Illinois coach.  “The diversion last year was really the 400. She was training for the 400 hurdles; that’s what she was doing.”

Buford-Bailey made the somewhat controversial decision last year, after the runner had won the highly prestigious American collegiate (NCAA) 400m title as a first year student, to steer Spencer away from the London 2012 Olympic Games and, instead, concentrate on the World Junior Championships, which were held in Barcelona last summer.

The coach has called Spencer ‘the future of American women’s track and field’ and theorized that too much too soon could impair her athlete’s development.

After all, Spencer doesn’t even turn 20 until 8 June.

Buford-Bailey was on the US coaching staff at the Olympic Games but feared that even if Spencer made the 4x400m Relay squad, she would not be selected to run in the rounds as she did not run summer track as a teenager and was tired by mid-June last year.

Spencer herself wasn’t even sure she could run any faster in Barcelona but Buford-Bailey assured her that she could, and the outcome was a time of 50.50. The performance elevating Spencer to number six on the all-time world junior list with the fastest  lap of the track by a junior women since by Sanya Richards in 2004.

Shock treatment

She says that last year she saw herself just as ‘a high school kid’ and called the World Junior Championships a ‘culture shock.’ She shocked herself on the track too and, into the bargain, won a second gold medal in the 4x400m Relay.

“I think that me going to junior worlds instead of the big Olympic stage was a really good choice for me,” reflected Spencer recently. “I want to get all the experience I can.”

She is inexperienced in the 400m Hurdles but loves learning the event and has a great mentor.

Buford-Bailey, now 42, won an Olympic Games bronze medal in 1996 and an IAAF World Championships silver medal the year before. She was also an Olympian in 1992 and 2000 and her best of 52.62 from 1995 still puts her as the fifth fastest woman of all-time. She succeeded her own coach, Gary Winckler, at Illinois and the latter was one of the world’s foremost technicians and has passed on that expertise.

She suggested some perceived years of stagnation in her speciality are likely to soon come to an end. “This event is going to be really good, and not just on the college level, but on the world level.”

Spencer’s parents, Demietrus and Rita, were good high school sprinters. Her uncle, Steve Smith, was a three-time NCAA runner-up in the high jump and once leaped 2.31m. Smith so closely resembles Spencer that he is often mistaken for her father while Spencer’s aunt, Le’Gretta (Hinds) Smith, was an All-America hurdler and coached her in high school.

The niece ultimately embraced her aunt’s rigorous workouts: 12 times 200m in 30 second or less, all with two minutes rest.

“Every year, she got to a point where she would do the workout, and she’d look at me like, ‘Is that it?’ ” commented her aunt. “I always say about Ashley: ‘I don’t know her breaking point.’ ”

Spencer’s once-awkward form – she made circles with one arm while running– transformed slowly into an efficient fluidity.  Her aunt said her niece’s running style is similar to that of Maicel Malone, another Indianapolis native that once set a US 400m indoor record and won a Relay gold at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Buford-Bailey recognized what kind of speed Spencer had when the sprinter fell in the 300 hurdles at an Indiana high school state meet, only to get up and finish second. Spencer was subsequently disqualified, but there was no denying the latent talent.

Back to the barriers

Spencer wanted to try the 400m Hurdles a year ago but a combination of a typical Midwest spring – cold and windy – and lost training time to food poisoning kept her away from her beloved barriers and she confined herself to the 400m.

It wasn’t a bad option. She did not lose a 400m final in 2012 and became just the second woman to achieve NCAA and World Junior Championships victories in the same year in the same event, following her compatriot Lashinda Demus, who did so in the 400m hurdles a decade before in 2002.

A flat/hurdles double at this year’s NCAA Championships at Eugene, Oregon, is plausible but unlikely for someone as inexperienced as Spencer.

If the timetable remains the same as a year ago, the two finals would be barely 75 minutes apart. Moreover, there would also be two races over each of two days at the regional championship at Austin, Texas.

“To talk about her even running it at the national meet is a little bit premature,” said Buford-Bailey.

Spencer ran a best of 56.32 on 6 April at Tempe, Arizona, but two weeks later, she pulled up in the hurdles with tightness in her hamstring but she recovered quickly, contributing to three Illinois victories at the Drake Relays last month, returning to the Des Moines track where she won the NCAA title last June, where she was a sizzling anchor in the 4x100m and delivered a hand-timed 50.0 leg in the 4x400m.

Spencer acknowledged she still doesn’t know what she is doing in the 400m Hurdles but, nevertheless, is excited to be doing it.

She is so new to the event that he has found herself in the middle of a race forgetting that a barrier is coming up next.

“I missed hurdles a lot. I did,” said Spencer. “So far, it’s going well. Trying to get my step pattern, and being comfortable with the fatigue.”

Early-season times suggested she is faster and fitter. She clocked 11.46 in a 100m in March and, “could run a lot faster,” according to Buford-Bailey. Spencer followed that with a 23.04 in the 200m a week later.

She was third in the NCAA Indoor Championships in 51.27, more than a second faster than her 2012 best and won her actual race (over 400m at the NCAA Indoor Championships, there are two seeded races and places are decided by time) to preserve a remarkable streak. Spencer has never lost a head-to-head 400 final: indoors or outdoors, college or international.

Spencer declined to look ahead to a possible berth on the US team for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow but, so far, she has thrived under her coach’s incremental approach.

Step. By. Step.

A correspondent for the IAAF.