Maybe you have heard the story of Becky Ayars Baker. Even so, it is worth retelling.
Born 84 years ago in Evanston and raised in Champaign-Urbana, Becky — who died last month in Virginia, and will be buried in Champaign — was ahead of her time. Way ahead.
Becky moved to Urbana with her family at age 2, living at 510 Iowa Street. In the 1950s, she started running. Really, really fast. While Becky was attending Uni High School, then-Illinois track coach Leo Johnson asked if she wanted to use the school’s track.
Becky’s father James had an office on campus. She would change into her running gear and head to the track.
“Leo helped her,” said Joe Baker, Becky’s husband of 60 years.
Becky ran against football players.
And more than held her own.
“Nobody wanted to run against her because she could beat every man except Bobby Mitchell and Abe Woodson, two all-time greats,” Baker said.
This was long before the start of girls’ high school sports in Illinois. Or at the college level.
Becky competed for a club team in Chicago. She kept running while in college.
In 1956, Becky won the U.S. title in the 100-meter dash. That earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, which competed at the Melbourne Games.
“She actually beat the world-record holder at the time,” said her daughter, Mary Harris.
Becky made the long trip to Australia and participated in the Opening Ceremonies. She was all set to compete, but she contracted pneumonia and had to be replaced by a teammate.
Favored to win the gold medal in the 400-meter relay, the U.S. team without Becky had to settle for the bronze. The Americans were four-tenths of a second behind the winners from Australia and two-tenths behind runner-up England. The U.S. team included future star Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Becky stopped running competitively after she returned from Australia.
She had taken a break from law school at Illinois to compete in the Olympics. Becky was one of three women in a law school class of 300. Later, she earned an honor as a distinguished graduate.
“There was no ceiling,” Harris said. “She didn’t let anything stop her.”
Missing the big race didn’t alter Becky’s life.
She found Olympic closure before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Becky was nominated by her family to carry the Olympic torch during the relay.
“I wrote to the Olympic Committee: ‘She didn’t get to complete her Olympic experience,’” Harris said. “At the end of her leg in Arlington, Va., Becky passed the torch to first responders from 9/11. They had a special ceremony.
“She said that day she finally got to cross the finish line.”
Though her track career ended after college, Becky kept running. Up to 3 miles a day until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1996.
In 1991, Becky was part of the dedication ceremony of the Olympic monument in Dodds Park. She is listed along with Bonnie Blair and all the others.
“That was awesome,” Harris said.
Not that Becky ever made a big deal about it.
“She never bragged,” Harris said. “She let her actions speak.”
Becky split her time in Illinois between C-U and Springfield.
No matter where she lived, Becky remained a fan of the Illini.
“She had blue blood in her veins,” Baker said.
Later in life, Becky moved to Washington D.C. to work for Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen. After he lost his re-election bid, Jepsen was appointed as head of the National Credit Union Administration. He kept Becky on his staff, where she remained for 22 years, serving for both Democrats and Republicans.