CHAMPAIGN — While talking recently to one of her peers in the coaching profession, Tonja Buford-Bailey couldn't help but take offense.
The voice on the other end had the temerity to ask the Illinois women's track and field coach whether her freshman phenom, Ashley Spencer, was from Jamaica.
"I'm like, 'No!,' " Buford-Bailey said, her voice rising with indignation as she recalled the conversation. " 'She's from Indianapolis. She's a Midwest kid. Just because she's fast doesn't mean she's Jamaican.' "
Point well taken. After all, Buford-Bailey is a Midwesterner, too, born and raised in Ohio. And all the 10-time All-America sprinter/hurdler did was compete in three Olympics, earning a bronze medal in 1996.
Still, maybe Buford-Bailey shouldn't have been surprised by the question. The Illini coach readily admits that Spencer was largely under the radar during most of her high school career.
And, given that Spencer's prep resume was pretty much limited to hurdling and relays, there seemingly was little to suggest that the Lawrence North High School graduate not only would run roughshod through the Illini record book in the open sprints but emerge as the fastest woman in collegiate track this year in the 400 meters.
"Absolutely amazing," Buford-Bailey said. "I can't say I'm that surprised, but I am surprised. I'm not surprised in that I knew the talent was there. ... But it's still amazing when it happens."
Safe to say Spencer no longer is under the radar, considering that:
— Last week, she was named to the watch list for the Bowerman Award, which goes to the top female and male athlete in collegiate track and field.
— After winning three titles at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships earlier this month — matching her total at the league indoor meet — Spencer was selected Track Athlete of the Championships.
— She swept the league's indoor and outdoor Freshman of the Year awards, becoming the fifth individual in the 25-year history of the honor to achieve that feat.
— She's an NCAA indoor All-American in the 200 meters.
— And she'll enter the NCAA West Preliminary Round, which begins today in Austin, Texas, as the nation's No. 1 seed in the 400 with a 51.02-second clocking.
All very heady stuff for a college newcomer who never saw it coming.
"I'm very surprised," Spencer said before leaving for Austin. "I never really thought I'd come out and do what I've done. ... Sometimes it scares me a little bit. But I trust in Coach and I know she has a plan for me and I trust in her plan."
Spencer knew about Buford-Bailey and her world-class accomplishments in hurdling before the Illini coach became aware of the Indianapolis native.
Spencer's aunt, Le'Gretta (Hinds) Smith, was a two-time All-American in the 400 hurdles during a career at Long Beach State that overlapped with Buford-Bailey's.
When Spencer took up hurdling in the seventh grade, her aunt advised the youngster to search the Internet for video of Olympic runners and hurdlers. The youngster came across video of Buford-Bailey and was mesmerized.
"She was one of the most beautiful hurdlers I've ever seen," Spencer said. "Ever since then I wanted to come here and be coached under her because I knew that she'd steer me in the right direction to do something past collegiate athletics."
As Spencer progressed through high school, Smith contacted Buford-Bailey and urged the UI coach to check out her niece.
"She didn't really have any great marks, so the only way to have known what her potential was was to watch her run," Buford-Bailey said.
So the Illini coach was in the stands at the Indiana state meet during Spencer's junior year. Spencer fell in the 300 hurdles and was disqualified. And even though she won the 100 hurdles, Buford-Bailey judged her time as "nothing to write home about."
But the Illini coach kept her eyes peeled on Spencer during the relays. And what she saw as the long-legged sprinter helped Lawrence North win the 4x400 state crown convinced Buford-Bailey her trip had been worth it.
"I was sold," Buford-Bailey said. "And it was the way she did it, too, just snatching people (ahead of her) one by one."
At the time, the UI coach didn't have much recruiting competition for Spencer.
"Fortunately for me, she was under the radar," Buford-Bailey said.
In fact, before Spencer signed with the UI in early March of her senior year, the school's main competition came from Louisville. The prospect of joining her older sister and longtime teammate, Ahlivia, there held a certain appeal for Ashley. Ultimately, however, the prospect of striking out on her own at her longtime first choice of college programs held sway.
"I'll always be Ahlivia's little sister, but I wanted to make a name for myself," Spencer said. "And my dream was to come here."
Had Spencer not signed before her final prep track season, Buford-Bailey fears the competition would have become much more fierce.
As a senior, Spencer definitely was no longer under the radar, In her final state meet, the 2011 Indiana Ms. Track and Field broke a 24-year-old meet record in the 300 hurdles while placing second. And, after anchoring Lawrence North to the title in the 400 relay, she helped her team set a state record in the 1,600 relay with a 52.1-second split.
"Stuff you just don't see in high school," Buford-Bailey said.
In class of own
Given what Spencer has accomplished this season, Buford-Bailey doesn't need any more convincing. After competing with and coaching many of the greatest athletes in UI women's track and field history, she's ready to declare Spencer as the program's best freshman ever.
"Hands down," Buford-Bailey said. "I wouldn't even have to look at the record books. She's broke records of people who (set them) as juniors and seniors."
When Spencer's first collegiate season is finally done, she and Buford-Bailey will sit down to discuss the precocious freshman's future path.
Given what Spencer has achieved in the open sprints — particularly with so little background — her potential in those events certainly is intriguing.
But Spencer was drawn to Illinois by Buford-Bailey's world-class background in hurdling and her proven record of developing top-tier hurdlers, including two-time NCAA men's champion Andrew Riley.
"Hurdling's always been a part of me," Spencer said. "I never saw myself as a track athlete without going over some hurdles. I'll always be a hurdler at heart."
After seeing Spencer in action on the practice track and in the Illini's indoor season opener, Buford-Bailey decided the freshman wasn't ready for prime-time hurdling. There is work to do with Spencer's technique, says the UI coach, for Spencer to become the hurdler she wants to be.
"Sometimes you have to take a step back," Buford-Bailey said. "It's a whole combination of things that she just needs (more) time."
But what if Spencer does something truly special in the 400 at the NCAA Championships next month? What if, even, she wins the event against a field of seasoned runners who've trained in the event for years?
Given Spencer's talent and potential, Buford-Bailey knows a lot is riding on the decision as the Illini freshman potentially approaches a fork in the road of her career.
"One day, she will be a world-class runner," the Illini coach said. "I just don't know which event. She could be outstanding (in the hurdles). On the flip side, there's a little bit more glamour to running the sprint events, so if she can be one of the best in the world in the sprints, it's probably better for her career to go that direction."
"I'm just trying to be totally unbiased and think about what her absolutely career-best thing is going to be for her."
In the meantime, Buford-Bailey at least can be certain of this: She gets to coach Ashley Spencer for at least three more years.
"It's going to be a blast," the UI coach said. "It's going to be really fun to watch."
School records set by Illini freshman Ashley Spencer:
EVENT TIME PREVIOUS RECORD
200 23.24 23.33 (Celena Mondie-Milner, 1989)
300 37.99 38.14 (Tonja Buford, 1992)
400 53.45 53.59 (Ashley Kelly, 2011)
1,600 relay 3:34.89 3:35.13 (2009)
400 51.02 51.14 (Celena Mondie-Milner, 1989)
Others to watch
Ashley Spencer isn’t the only Illini poised to make some noise at the NCAA West Preliminary Round this week in Austin, Texas. Here are some others:
The 2012 Big Ten Track Athlete of the Year enters his final postseason in search of a third NCAA hurdles title. The senior won the 110-meter hurdles in 2010 and the 60 hurdles in 2011. Riley, a nine-time All-American, is the national No. 1 seed in his signature event with a school-record time of 13.28 seconds. Miami senior Devon Hill (the top seed in the East Preliminary) is No. 2 nationally at 13.35.
In March, the sophomore became the first Illini in women’s track and field history to qualify for an NCAA Championships in the pole vault. Now, Richartz is looking to add an outdoor national appearance to her resume (the top 12 at the Preliminary Round advance). She enters on a roll, having won the Big Ten title by clearing 14 feet, 23/4 inches — a school record and good for the No. 6 West Preliminary seed.
WOMEN’S 1,600 RELAY
Earlier this month, the foursome of Ryisha Boyd, Ashley Kelly, Latoya Griffith and Ashley Spencer ran the second-fastest time in school history (3:31.77) to win a Big Ten title. That clocking gives Illinois a No. 4 seed in a loaded West Preliminary field. Illini coach Tonja Buford-Bailey says this group has the potential to produce the UI’s highest 1,600 relay finish at nationals since the 1993 unit placed third.