DES MOINES, Iowa — Freshman Ashley Spencer celebrated her 19th birthday by becoming the second Illinois national champion Friday, winning the women's 400 in 50.95 seconds, the fastest time in the country this season.
The Indianapolis native is Illinois' first outdoor national champion on the women's side since Angela Bizzarri won the 5,000 meters in 2009. Bizzarri won the 3,000 indoors at the 2010 meet.
"It feels great. I worked hard. I never expected I'd come out and do that. This is the best birthday ever," said Spencer, who set the school record in the 400 in the process. "The last 100 meters I knew I'd have to kick. I knew the other girls had real good finishes. I knew I had to push myself the last 100 meters and it paid off."
On the men's side, Illinois' Andrew Riley won the 100-meter crown earlier Friday.
Illinois coach Tonja Buford-Bailey knew the Indianapolis native had the ability to one day become a national champion. She didn't think it would happen so early in her career. Spencer was an All-American in the 200 indoors.
"It was amazing. I always felt she was capable of doing that. She's still a real novice to the event and she's got a great future," Buford-Bailey said of Spencer, the first Illini to win the 400 and first freshman to win the event since Texas' Sanya Richards in 2003. "Her future is awesome, there's no telling what she can do. She hurdles, too, and she's got such a bright future there."
Friday was a special day for Buford-Bailey, a 1993 Illinois grad who won a national title in the 400 hurdles in 1992, as she had a hand in both titles her alma mater won.
"I coach both of those guys so it's really awesome for me," Buford-Bailey said of Riley and Spencer. "They've been working so hard since the fall. It's great, especially being an alumni. This is really awesome."