NEW YORK (08-Feb) -- Two Saturdays ago Olivia Baker ran the 800m at the 114th Millrose Games at The Armory in Upper Manhattan, finished sixth of seven athletes in 2:06.11, and was visibly disappointed when she left the track. The 25 year-old Atlanta Track Club Elite athlete had come into the race after winning her season opener at Vanderbilt University the week before in a career indoor best of 2:01.52, and hoped for a big performance in New York.
PHOTO: Olivia Baker after setting an indoor personal best of 2:00.33 at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Staten Island, N.Y., on February 6 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"It was a great day," Baker said of her race at Vanderbilt in a video posted on Twitter by the Atlanta Track Club. "I've been anticipating getting to open-up in my Atlanta Track Club/adidas uniform. I was really excited to get out there. Training has been good."
But in her Millrose race, Baker struggled in the second half. She was aggressive in the first 400 meters, and was actually leading the race with a 60.2-second halfway split. But when eventual winner Ajee' Wilson took off in the final lap, Baker was unable to respond. She tied up in the final circuit and faded to sixth place.
Eight days later, Baker lined up for another 800m at the New Balance Grand Prix in Staten Island which, like the Millrose Games, is part of the prestigious World Athletics Indoor Tour. Running from lane one, Baker approached this race differently. She settled into the pace line in fifth position after the first lap, and gently moved up to fourth place at halfway. Ahead of her, she could see Jamaica's Natoya Goule starting to pull away and Baker made a quick decision on how to respond. Without over-striding, she passed her Atlanta Track Club Elite teammate Sadi Henderson and Britain's Isabelle Boffey coming out of the backstretch and set her sights on Goule who was about to round the final bend for home.
"I saw the gap start to form a little bit after 400 meters," Baker told Race Results Weekly. "I was feeling pretty good, so I was like OK, I need to respond to this. I can't let it get too far." She continued: "I knew if she gapped me she wasn't coming back."
From the halfway point to the finish, Baker essentially cut Goule's lead in half, from 1.35 seconds to .71 seconds. Goule ran a world-leading time of 1:59.62 and Baker ran a USA-leading 2:00.33, an indoor personal best and a mark which was only a quarter of a second off her best time outdoors. Baker's move to Atlanta last September to train under coaches Amy and Andrew Begley was already paying off.
"I'm so grateful, so thankful for my teammates, my coaches, for all of my friends and the fans out here today," Baker said. "It's such a blessing to run well after last week, kind of having a really bad race. This was a really good one to kind of mentally and physically get back on track."
Before moving to Atlanta, Baker was training with the Garden State Track Club (GSTC), which is more of a grass roots community organization than an elite training group. She represented GSTC at last summer's USA Olympic Trials where she finished fifth in her heat and did not advance. She needed a different kind of training environment, and the Atlanta Track Club program was a good fit. She is surrounded now by other strong middle distance women, like Allie Wilson, Gemma Finch, Sadi Henderson, and Yolanda Ngarambe. Henderson raced with Baker in Staten Island and finished fifth.
"It's great, I love it," Baker responded when asked about training in Atlanta. "Back in my old training group I really didn't have training partners in the 800. So, to have training partners in the 800 and to be out there with Sadi was really a special experience that I'm really enjoying. It's one of the things I love most about being in Atlanta now."
Like Baker, Henderson came to the Atlanta Track Club Elite from another training group (she used to be coached by Lauren Fleshman in the Oiselle/Littlewing Athletics program in Bend, Ore.). She missed advancing out of the Olympic Trials preliminaries by just 2/100ths of a second. Henderson has a personal best of 1:58.62, and after being beaten by Baker she might push just a little harder during practice this week.
"All in good fun," said Baker with a laugh.