By Elliott Denman
Ronnie Baker has been hiding away.
To American track and field fans, anyway, who haven't had the chance to see him run a race in the U-S-of-A this winter.
Oh, those who checked the charts and had their apps handy may have heard the rumblings - that one Ronnie Baker of USA had won three big 60-meter races in Europe, clocking a 6.46 In Torun, Poland on Feb. 10, a 6.54 in Mondeville, France on Feb. 4, and a 6.55 at Birminhgam,England, on Feb. 18. And that the 6.46 stood atop the year list, with the 6.54 ranked fifth and the 6.55 sixth.
Well, Ronnie Baker has come home - in smashing style.
The ex-TCU standout, a multi-NCAA All-America selection with the Horned Frogs, proved that the results from "across the pond" were no fluke. No way, no chance, no fluke.
Scene for Baker was not Poland, France or England but the USA Indoor National Championships Sunday at the Albuquerque Convention Center. After winning his 60-meter semifinal in 6.54, fastest by far of the 19 men in the field, Baker came back to blaze the distance in 6.45, win the final, and (all at once) add 1/100th of a second to his world lead and move to number six on the all-time world list.
Only five men have ever run faster than 6.45 indoors - Maurice Greene (6.39), Andre Cason (6.41), Dwain Chambers (6.42) and Tim Harden and Asafa Powell (both 6.44.)
Of course, of course, not including the subsequently disbarred Ben Johnson's 6.41 in 1987.
Weary after a tough collegiate campaign, Baker was unable to get past the semifinals of the 2016 USA Olympic Trials. But now he's got it all right, running on his own terms - and sizzling.
"Taking it through" the race, Baker said "I got out of the blocks (well) and at 20 meters I got to full stride and took it from there.
"I think the biggest problem (for me) right now is my start. I've got to clean that up and maybe we'll see the time drop a little bit more. It's been shaky. Once I figure it out I should be a little bit better. Around 35, 40 meters, that's when I started to pull away and was in control of the race.
"Now I'll be able to brag about this race....for a little while."
LeShon Collins ran a 6.57 semi and came back to take the silver medal in 6.54, trailed by Desmond Lawrence (6.58) and Marqeeze Washington (6.60.) Call them the relatively unsung vanguard leading the next wave of American sprint talent, the men, who quite possibly in a post-Usain Bolt post-2017 era have the talent to put Team USA back at the top of the international sprint heap.
The same might possibly said for Uncle Sam's women sprinters.
The top three in the 60 final - Morolake Akinosun (7.08), Dezerea Bryant (7.11) and Lekeisha Lawson (7.15) - are not exactly household names in the sport.Right now, anyway, but there's a world of potential there, too.
A very noteworthy fourth in the 60 was veteran Mikele "Miki" Barber. The resilient New Jerseyan, 36, was winning gold medals on the world stage as far back as 2007.
Speaking of New Jersey pride, no one exemplifies it more than Neptune's own Ajee' Wilson. At 22, the Temple University graduate and Olympic 800 semifinalist, already owns five USA National titles, four Indoors, one outdoors.
The Olympic Games certainly didn't go her way - but this 2017 indoor season certainly is. Unbeaten this winter, with an American indoor 800 record (1:58.27) already in her portfolio, Wilson ran the third fastest 600 in track history, holding off Olympic 4x400 relay gold medalist Courtney Okolo to win Nationals, 1:23.84 to 1:24.00.
She led every step of the way but still had a fight on her hands.
"I know Courtney has that great speed," said Wilson. "But I think my 800 strength made the difference."
Only the 1:23.44 by Russia's Olga Kotlyarova back in 2004, and the 1:23.59 by USA Olympian Alysia Montano in 2013 continue to outrank Wilson's 1:23.84 on
the all-time charts.
Oh, this needs to be said, too. Wilson's 1:23.84 crushed the meet record, which happened to be her own, the 1:26.56 she ran in the prelims at Boston in 2015. But there's a big asterisk next to that one.
Trouble there in Boston two years ago was that she was tripped up in the final and jogged home an unhappy last.
Wilson was in no rush to leave trackside after her big 600 win.
The 1000 was coming up soon and the hot favorite in it was Charlene Lipsey, the Long Islander who is now Wilson's training partner under coach Derek Thompson with the Philadelphia-based Juventus Track Club.
Sure enough, Lipsey - just as Wilson did - ran a controlling race right from the gun and blazed to a meet-record 2:37.97 win. Runner-up Lauren Johnson (2:38.33) was Lipsey's only serious threat.
They ran different distances here but Wilson and Lipsey seem destined to clash in the big 800s of the outdoor season.
And what then?
"Being friends won't matter then," said Wilson, smiling.
"That will be gone, We'll both be hungry to win it."
A day after taking the women's mile in 4:45.18 - a slow-paced race that apparently took very little out of her, Sioux City, Iowan Shelby Houlihan returned to the track to win the two-mile in 10:19.14.
Heather Kampf, third in the mile (4:46.06) ran second in the two-mile (10:21.80.)
"I made my big move with 600," said Houlihan. "And it worked. I was able to hold them all off."
The men's mile field was loaded with sub-4 talent. But just two of them got there, in the 3's, "on the day," and those two just barely - Ben Blankenship (3:59.22) and Cristian Soratos (3:59.56.)
Blankenship had run sixth in the two-mile Saturday in 8:40.37.
What slowed so many other notables? The slow pace, the long season, the altitude?
Likely, a combination of all of the above.
Leo Manzano, the 2012 Olympic 1500 silver medalist, may have been the biggest mystery of all,11th of 11 finishers in 4:21.92.
"I just didn't have the strength," said Ford Palmer. "I've had a great season (getting his mile best down to 3:54.92, eighth best in the world, and helping his New Jersey-New York Track Club team set a world record in the four-mile relay.) But all these races must have taken a toll. I had nothing left today."
And he thus ran 10th in 4:11.93.
Vashti Cunningham, the teen-age high jump sensation out of Las Vegas, had hardly stepped into a formal meet since the Rio Olympics. "I didn't know what to expect," she'd said.
But you'd never have guessed it - this daughter of former NFL quarterback great Randall Cunningham soared 6-5 to win it, showing little rust, and that was within striking distance of both the American indoor and Indoor Nationals meet record of 6-7 ½ set by Chaunte Lowe in 2012.
Alex Young, the fomer NCAA champion at Southeastern Lousiana, turned the tables on defending champion Colin Dunbar by winning the 35-pound weight throw with a whirl of 78 feet, 9 ¾ inches.
It was declared "longest throw in the world this year" but "world" in this case doesn't extend far past North America and a few selected locales in North Europe. And so the weight tossers and the racewalkers are kindred spirits, competing in the only national championship event not included on the program of the biennial World Indoor Championships.
It was particularly frustrating last year for Dunbar. After he won the event at the Portland Convention Center, he went home to Southern California while so many of the other 1-2 finishers were invited to stay there for the World Indoors a week later.
"This feels pretty good, man," declared Young. "To win my first National (non-collegiate, that is) is a very big thing. Especially to a smaller guy like me."
Young unleashed a big 78-8 ½ in round two, reached the winning 78-9 ¾ in round four, hit 77-8 ½ in five, and fouled his sixth. All the while, he sweated out seeing the others trying to pass him. "That was a little nerve wracking," said Young when it was all over.
Dunbar soon expects to expand his vistas - venturing into the world of Highland Games throwing events. "That will be a journey of discovery," he tells friends.
Ex-Michigan Stater Tori Franklin led the women triple jumpers, hop-stepping-jumping 45-5 ¾ to score a decisive win over Baylor grad Danylle Kurywchak, who tripled out at 44-0.
But this was one more event here that saw the stars of Rio - in this case Keturah Orji and Christina Epps - somewhere else (Along with four-time, 2012-15, champion, Amanda Smock, too.)
No doubt about this, too - Dr. Maria Michta-Coffey continues proving herself in a class all her own of America's women racewalkers. Lapping most of the field, Michta-Coffey's 13:55.27 two-mile brought her home far in front of Olympic teammate Miranda Melville (14:26.42), with Katie Burnett, who set the American 50K (31.1-mile) record six weeks ago, third over the line in 15:03.36.
"Don't ever mention the word 'retire' to me," said Long Islander MMC, who has won the National Indoor walk crown a record eight straight years.
"We're all so proud of her," said sister Katie Michta, a Molloy College junior who placed fifth in 16:47.23. "My big sister is an amazing athlete."