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Olivia Baker in line to represent U.S. again - DyeStat

Published by
DyeStat.com   Jul 2nd 2014, 10:50pm

Olivia Baker in line to represent U.S. again


By Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor

Olivia Baker is the kind of person you want representing the United States of America -- at a track meet, a science fair, or at the U.N.

The senior from Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. has a chance to make the U.S. junior team this weekend in Eugene, Ore. and she will lineup to try and earn a spot in the 400 or the 800 against quality competition.

There's no guarantee that she'll finish in the top two and earn a spot Saturday and Sunday at Hayward Field.

But there's also no mistaking a track record that suggests she'll get there. This is someone who has won 10 individual titles at the New Jersey Meet of Champions. This is someone who brought Franklin Field to its feet two years in a row with stirring come-from-behind wins at the Penn Relays.

"She has a lot of heart, a fire inside," said Lisa Morgan, Baker's coach. "She's a competitor. We compete all the time. And she has the heart and desire and will to win."

She's fast. She's in it to win. Those are good reasons to hope she makes the U.S. team.
But with Baker, there is so much more than that.

She played viola in the Columbia Chamber Orchestra.

She was a regular member of the Astronomy Club.

In the fall, she played on the tennis team.

A few years back she spent part of her summers at circus camp in Pennsylvania, learning to swing on a trapeze.

With all of those interests – and many others – it's no wonder that her active mind chose Stanford University, where she will begin in the fall.

Morgan calls Baker "a Renaissance woman."

Baker said it's simply a matter of pursuing and engaging what appeals to her.

"There are a lot of things I'm interested in," Baker said. "I don't want to limit myself to one thing. Just because I'm good at track doesn't mean I can't have similar talent or be better at something else."

Did we mention she wants to study to become a neurosurgeon?

"I like science and experimenting," Baker said. "I definitely want to do some research at Stanford."

Baker was already an age-group standout in track and field before she entered high school (she ran 54.64 for 400 in the eighth grade). Morgan had just graduated members of the 2010 Columbia team that had run historic times in the 800 medley and sprint medley relay.

Morgan heard that there was a talented new freshman coming into Columbia, but she had never seen Baker and reserved her judgment. That changed on Dec. 14, 2010 when Baker did a workout for Morgan.

The contents of that workout are secret. Neither party will talk about what happened in that workout. But Morgan left it thinking "I got one."

Morgan, though, had no idea really what she had found. 

"Olivia challenges me, which is awesome. It keeps me on top of my game," Morgan said. "I like that. Sometimes it can be a pain in the butt. You want to say 'Just do it!' But explanation is something that she wants, and I admire that. She wants to know why and how it works."

Baker's desire to compete and test herself is matched by a thirst for understanding.

In elementary school, a music teacher came to class to show her fifth grade class every instrument that the school was offering to teach. At first, Olivia wanted to be a trumpet player. But after realizing that one wasn't for her, she settled on the viola because it wasn't too big (cello) and it wasn't too small (violin). "It fit me," she said.

"Learning to read music was not easy for me," she said. "It's like learning a new language."

Baker said she hopes to keep playing her viola in college.

Of all her athletic accomplishments, one that Baker takes particular pride in is the honorable mention all-Essex County citation she received for tennis. Baker played for the Cougars for four years, first as a doubles player and then three years of varsity singles. It was an off-season sport that Baker turned to for fun.

Baker enjoys tennis and follows what's going on at Wimbledon. She is not an aggressive player, but prefers to slide back and forth along the baseline and use her cross-court forehand and backhand to keep the ball in play. She often wins her points by waiting out her opponents to make the first mistake.

Baker also likes Astronomy. And at Columbia, on Monday nights every other week, you could find her in the clock tower at school with the Astronomy Club looking through telescopes.

"We could see as far as Saturn," Baker said. "I didn't get to do it this year because I didn't have enough time, but my freshman and sophomore years, and some of my junior year, I attended regularly."

Then there is the circus.

"I had a huge interest in being part of the circus," Baker said.

Up until a couple of summers ago, she would go to a two-week summer camp in Pennsylvania to revel in circus skills and learn what it's like backstage under the big tent.

"I got to be part of a flying trapeze team for four years and I got to the point where they let me fly without a harness," Baker said, proudly. "I also learned how to unicyle."

A year ago, after making the U.S. Youth Track and Field team, the group was camped near Chicago. The athletes put together a talent show. Baker went to the stage and performed a magic trick that she learned at circus camp.

Baker's interests have brought her into contact with a wide variety of people, and that has led to an ever-expanding fan base.

This spring, in New Jersey, it was Baker who was a prime target for "race-day selfies."

Morgan could only shake her head and smile when she saw a photo on Twitter of a girl snapping a picture of herself with Baker flying by in the background. "Hanging out with Olivia Baker," the tweet boasted.

Morgan met a parent at a track meet this spring who had taken off work and driven her daughter to the meet – just to watch Baker run.

And then there are the Silver Cougars. They are Columbia High alums, some in their 70s and 80s, who write letters telling how proud they are of Olivia and the achievements of the track team.

"To watch that grow, from having her as a freshman to seeing her developing into a star, it's amazing," Morgan said. "She handles it so well."

Morgan, one of the most highly regarded high school coaches in the country, deserves some credit as well. She was part of the U.S. coaching contingent that led the Youth team last summer to Ukraine and is involved again this summer in the same role for World Juniors, July 22-27 in Eugene.

"She's done a great job of bringing out the best in me and helping me reach toward my full potential," Baker said of her coach. "She's been almost like an extended family member in my life, and a huge role model for me."

All year long, Morgan and Baker have plotted to take this ride as far as it will go – all the way through July, just like they did it in 2013.

"The whole experience (in Ukraine) was truly amazing," Baker said. "Just the idea of representing the country overseas and then this year on your home turf ... I don't know how to describe what it's like to represent your country. It's great."

Baker wants to represent the U.S. again and there are many people in New Jersey – and across the country – who are pulling for her.

Another athlete on the entry list this week – someone with a real shot in the 400 hurdles – is freshman Sydney McLaughlin of New Jersey's Union Catholic HS. McLaughlin may just be an heiress to Baker's remarkable four-year legacy.

And Baker has words of advice for McLaughlin, and any other freshmen in the same place she was four years ago:

"Continue to do your best in every race," Baker said. "Don't take anything for granted. Even if you are the top seed in every race you enter, on any given day someone can come up and beat you. Also, enjoy it. A lot of people look up to you and want to be like you, and want to ask you questions. Slow down and answer those questions and take a moment to get to know those people along the way."

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