Ronnie Baker in the 60m at the IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting in Birmingham (© Getty Images)
It may have been an improvement of just one hundredth of a second on his previous best, but Ronnie Baker’s world-leading 6.46 run at the IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting in Torun made the rest of the athletics world sit up and take note.
He followed it with a win in Birmingham, where Baker overcame a poor start to win in 6.55. He trailed the rest of the field for the first half, but by the finish line he was 0.03 ahead of his rivals. He was there when it mattered.
Keen followers of the US collegiate scene will already be familiar with Baker, following his 2016 and 2015 NCAA indoor 60m titles. But now that he has racked up as many victories at IAAF World Indoor Tour meetings, athletics fans from outside the US are marking Baker as a star in the making.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Baker and his family moved to the Alaskan city of Anchorage, where Baker’s first taste of the sport came in the form of cross-country running. “We’d run through the snow and woods,” Baker recalls. “It was really wild.”
But by the time he moved back to Louisville, Baker made the switch to track and field after his coach sensed there was some untapped potential.
“In sixth grade I ran the 100m and I won one of my first races, so I carried on running track from there,” says Baker. “I also started playing basketball in high school; it was my dream to be a basketball player. But I needed something to do outside of the basketball season, so I went out for the track team and I kind of grew and started running really fast.
“By the time I got to college, I had to decide between the two sports, and track was offering me a free education,” adds Baker, who still has a passion for basketball. “Track and field has grown on me for sure.”
A 400m specialist at high school, Baker soon found success at the shorter distances too and was a valuable member of Texas Christian University’s 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams.
But it was indoors where he first made his mark, slashing 0.04 from his best to win the 2015 NCAA indoor title and then hacking another 0.04 off his best when retaining his title in 2016, clocking 6.47.
Outdoors, he exited the NCAA Championships at the semifinal stage in 2016 and soon after turned professional, winning three international races in Europe in July.
“There are people running fast in college and there are people running fast at the pro level, so as far as competition goes the biggest difference is being on your own,” Baker says of the difference between collegiate and professional sprinting. “At college level, you have everything laid out for you. Being over here (in Europe) by yourself is a little different, I get to pick what I want to do and when I want to do it.
“At college, you’ve got your team there and you just talk to them,” he added. “I don’t really know anyone as I’m still kind of new. It’s nice, though, to get to meet these people. I’m the newbie, it’s kind of like being a freshman again.”
Newbie breaks through in Torun
Baker was as surprised as anyone with his 6.46 win in Torun earlier this month.
“I was a little shocked,” he said. “I felt like I could run in the 6.4s that day, but I didn’t know I’d be running so fast that early, especially beating my PB from last year. When I ran 6.47 last year, I felt like I was in really good shape. I also felt good in Torun, but I didn’t think I was quite ready to hit that kind of speed. It was definitely a shock. I knew I was capable, I just didn’t know it would come that early.
“The 6.46 felt really good. I don’t think I had the best start, I think I had one of the slowest reaction times. But I felt really calm and relaxed going through the phases.”
Things didn’t quite go so smoothly in Birmingham, but Baker kept his cool after getting a poor start and managed to come through to take the win in 6.55.
“I was so slow out of the blocks; my reaction times were not great but I just didn’t want to false start,” said Baker, who will compete at the US Indoor Championships next month. “I just need to keep working on that and hopefully that will lead to even better 60m times.”
Baker is still coached by his college coach Darryl Anderson at TCU and their training programme is unchanged compared to previous years.
“Being my first full season out of college, we’re trying to keep it similar,” says Baker. “A big part of why I’m running fast is because I’m still part of that system. And that system works.”
Having made a name for himself on the boards, Baker hopes to continue that momentum through to the outdoor season.
“The biggest goal is making the World Championships team this summer,” he says. “Pretty much the only goal we’ve laid out is to be competitive during the outdoor season and then to be in the top three at the US Trials and go on to run at the World Championships.”
Baker competed at the 2015 US Championships, where he ran 9.94 in the heats, only for a marginally illegal tail wind of 2.1m/s – just 0.1 over the allowable limit – to deny him his first legal sub-10-second clocking. He wound up seventh in the final.
“Every sub-10-second race I’ve run has been windy,” says Baker, who has surpassed that barrier on three occasions. “It’s a target for this year but we haven’t put it out as a goal. We’ve talked about it a couple of times, there are times we want to hit at 100m, 200m and maybe even at 400m.
“If I were to go to the Trials and just compete to be among the top contenders, it will happen,” adds Baker. “My coach tells me not to worry about my times. He says the running takes care of the times.”
Baker took 4x100m silver at the 2015 NCAA Championships and has clocked splits of 44.85 outdoors and 45.29 indoors in a 4x400m. With collegiate obligations now behind him, the 23-year-old is keen to carry the baton for the USA.
“I’d love to be included in the relay pool,” he says. “I’d just love to be part of the team and have that experience. Being on a relay team would be amazing.”
He also wants to improve his 200m PB this year. “I just haven’t figured out the race yet,” he says. “I ran all three sprints in high school and my 100m and my 400m were pretty good for a high schooler. But I was never able to get to that same level in the 200m. I just never figured out how to run the race. So this year I’m looking to run more 200m races and hopefully get a better time.”
Life after Bolt
Jamaican sprint superstar Usain Bolt has confirmed that the 2017 season will be his last. Baker feels the sport will survive just fine without Bolt, but he would like to line up alongside the multiple world and Olympic champion before he retires.
“There are a lot of young guys coming out and running fast,” says Baker. “I think it will be fine and will evolve with the guys who are coming out. Sprints will still be interesting. I hope that I make the team (for the World Championships) just so I can run next to Usain Bolt before he retires; I feel like that’s one huge thing to check off my list.
“I admire Usain Bolt’s lifestyle and I think I’m a similar kind of person,” he adds. “He is an amazing athlete and has brought a lot of excitement to the sport, and I want to be that kind of athlete.”
Baker’s long-term targets include a possible appearance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018. But he also doesn’t shy away from talking about bigger goals.
“A couple of people have mentioned the 60m world indoor record to me,” he says. “You fantasise about breaking world records and those aims are always out there, but I tend not to put too much focus on those. It’s on the here and now, the training, taking the races one by one.
“I want to make the Olympic team in 2020,” he adds. “More important for me, I want to win a medal at the Olympics. I’d even go out and say that I want an Olympic gold medal.
“My simple goal is to be there when it matters.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF