Ashley Spencer records two titles at Big Tens

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

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Youtube: Illini of the Week: Ashley Spencer

With the Illinois women’s track and field team clinging to the slimmest of leads over Nebraska, the Big Ten Championship title was on the line in the 4x400 meter relay. It was then, on the indoor track in Geneva, Ohio, that Ashley Spencer calmly awaited her turn to anchor the relay on the race’s final 400 meters.

“We knew what was at stake,” Spencer said. “The girls on this team really excel in that event, and we were all confident prior.”

Spencer’s fellow sprinters — Asia Thomas, Morolake Akinosun and Marissa Golliday — all ran strong legs to give the Illini the lead before the baton was handed off to Spencer. And 400 meters later, Spencer zoomed past the finish line with a Big Ten Indoor title, a school record time of 3:30 and the team’s first conference title since 1996 in tow. It was Spencer’s third title of the day, following title-winning performances in the 200-meter and 400-meter dash.

“It was such a shock to see Illinois up on top of the scoreboard once we finished the 4x4,” she said. “Back in September, ‘Big Ten Champs’ was just a word, and a word that seemed so far-fetched for us. Now that word can be attached to women’s track again, it is really a blessing and an amazing feeling.”

As a sophomore, Spencer is overloaded with a full slate of classes, undecided interest in switching to news-editorial journalism and daily practices at the Armory. Many in her situation would not be able to stay level-headed — a quality of importance for the student-athlete. In the midst of these pressures, Spencer keeps her focus and is able to remain grounded, which she credits to the two constants in her life at Illinois: her teammate and sister, Ahlivia, and her coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey.

Spencer began competing in track as a hurdler in middle school in her hometown of Indianapolis. As a seventh-grader, her future high school coach at Lawrence North High School instructed Spencer to look up other hurdlers. Spencer came across Buford-Bailey and began to watch footage of her future coach competing in college and at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Witnessing Buford-Bailey compete at such a high level, along with fellow Illini track standouts such as Andrew Riley, Ashley Kelly and Latoya Griffith, cemented her decision to run track at Illinois.

Since then, Buford-Bailey has coached Spencer to six outdoor and indoor Big Ten titles. Last season’s Illinois Female Newcomer of the Year won two titles in the 400 and 4x400 relay at the IAAF World Juniors.

“She is like my mom away from my mom,” Spencer said of Buford-Bailey. “She keeps me grounded, she keeps me focused and always helps me put things in perspective. She has been a tremendous influence on my life and I’m thankful that she is my coach.”

Buford-Bailey commented on her relationship with Spencer, saying: “Since track is such an individual sport, I think it is very important to have someone that you can trust and feed off of. I’ve had success beyond the collegiate level and that is something that Ashley wants too, and she continues to trust in what I do to try to put her in that position.”

In addition to her head coach, Spencer credits Ahlivia with keeping her grounded. The Spencer sisters both had success back home at Lawrence North throughout high school before Ahlivia graduated and chose to run track at Louisville. Once Ashley graduated and enrolled at Illinois, her sister decided to transfer to Illinois to rekindle the track success they had in Indianapolis.

“When we were separated for that one year when I was still in high school, it was tough to be away from her,” Spencer said. “I’m just so glad for her that she was able to find and call Illinois a home. I influence her, she influences me, and I push her and she pushes me.”

Ashley is quickly becoming one of the most decorated women’s sprinters in Illinois history. As a sophomore, she has nine individual Big Ten titles in both indoor and outdoor and is fresh off her team’s most prized title yet, a Big Ten Championship.

Spencer will be off to the NCAA national meet in two weeks and then begin the outdoor track season after spring break. With a Big Ten team title and a clear mind due to the bond with her coach and sister, Spencer is brimming with confidence for the outdoor season.

“The success we just had, not just for me as an individual, but for everyone, from us sprinters to the throwers, will catapult us for the outdoor season,” she said. “We’ll be in the mix once again for more success outdoors, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Dan can be reached at descalo2@dailyillini.com and @danescalona77.