Olivia Baker Aiming For Her First Sub-2:00

Last year’s No. 6-rated American in the 800, Olivia Baker twice won international age-group medals in the 400. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

EARLY IN HER CAREER Olivia Baker showed that she has speed. Plenty. As a prep junior she won World Youth (U18) silver in the 400 and the next year she took World Junior (U20) bronze. The New Jersey native didn’t start in on the 800 until that senior year, when she ran 2:06.01 to finish 2nd at New Balance Nationals and earned No. 3 All-America honors. But it was in the 400, where she ran 52.46 that she was the top-rated high schooler.

In her four seasons at Stanford, however, her focus switched to the 2-lapper. She earned All-America honors six times, with an NCAA runner-up finish in her second year. She also won a Pac-12 400 crown in ’16.

To step up and compete as a pro turned out to be another game entirely. A few weeks after graduation in ’18, she clocked her PR 2:00.08 to finish 6th at the USATF meet.

After this last season, while she admits she was frustrated not to break 2:00, she says, “I knew the transition from collegiate running to professional running wasn’t going to be easy, just like any transition. So I expected to take the challenges as they came and I felt like I had a good end to the year.” She arrived in Des Moines with an early season best of 2:01.21, and improved that to 2:00.94 in placing 4th at USATF.

“It was kind of a high and a low because I felt like I was so close. I don’t necessarily mean close to 3rd; I fully recognize that 3rd was like 2 seconds in front of me. Yet in that time when Ajee’ won the Diamond League, with that 4th-place all I would have needed to do is hit that world standard to get the extra spot on the world team. And I missed it by three-tenths. So in some ways it was bittersweet. But I also look at the improvement of having been 6th in 2018 and 4th in 2019. I look forward to continuing to work my way up the ranks.”

Now training near Austin with coach Darryl Woodson, Baker says, “We just have to keep getting stronger. I feel like I say that almost every year and every year I continue to make progress. I’ve got to get some more mileage under me and that’s something we’ve been working on.”

For now she has put on hold applying to med school. She took the MCAT exam in ’18 and expects to continue with her academics after the Olympic year: “There are a lot of options that are up in the air right now.” In the meantime, she has kept busy reading scientific journal articles and running a book club with horizontal jumper Keturah Orji.

The biggest lesson she learned from the ’19 campaign? “I figured out my race plan and learned how to keep it consistent. When everything around me is changing and moving, it’s important to stay grounded in my race plan.”