Spencer's pro career can wait

Spencer's pro career can wait

CHAMPAIGN — She’s already won two NCAA titles, has serious Olympic potential and is in line for a track and field payday.

But Ashley Spencer is in no rush to leave the college scene.

“I want all four years of college — I know I can’t get them back,” the Illinois junior-to-be said. “(Leaving early) is tempting sometimes late at night, but I kind of like being in Orange and Blue.”

Back on campus after winning her second NCAA championship in the 400 meters, Spencer on Tuesday reiterated her desire to leave Illinois as one of the finest track performers in school history. Only two other Illini — Tonya Williams (400 hurdles) and Perdita Felicien (100 hurdles) — have won as many as two outdoor titles.

“I’d like four,” she said.

Spencer said she’ll spend her final two seasons of eligibility with an eye on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — and an ear tuned into her coach, former Olympian and NCAA champion Tonja Buford-Bailey.

“I lean on her every day,” Spencer said. “She’s my rock. She keeps me focused and grounded.”

Spencer picked up another honor Tuesday, joining Illinois baseball’s Justin Parr as Dike Eddleman Athletes of the Year. It’s the 10th time since 2001 that a women’s track athlete has been honored.

But Spencer, who turned 20 on Saturday, can separate herself at the Olympic level, where Illinois has yet to produce a champion.

“Absolutely she has potential to win a gold medal, but that’s a ways off,” Buford-Bailey said. “She still has room to grow in the sport.”

But she’s off to a rousing start.

“She has natural gifts, the body build, stride length, ability to deal with fatigue,” Buford-Bailey said. “But to make the Olympics, there is a lot more work to make it to that point. I think it helps her that I’ve been through it.”

Spencer leaves next Tuesday for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, before returning to campus to resume training.

“It’s a big goal of mine to represent the USA at the Olympics,” she said. "Sometimes I wish it was closer, but I know I have a lot to experience until then.”