“I need you to run.”
Those five words put Keshia Baker, a graduate student at San Diego State University, on the fast track to the other side of the globe.
They kindle the competitive fire in Baker, a seven-time All-American, a two-time NCAA champion and, now, an Olympic champion.
Months have passed since Baker earned the Olympic title, but today she continues to pursue her goals with tenacity.
Nearly every day Baker trains with her coach, Quincy Watts, in Los Angeles. A typical morning starts with a 5 a.m. alarm for a three-and-a-half hour workout. Watts, a former Olympian and world record holder, sees an athlete that stands out.
“Keshia sets the tone at practice,” Watts said. “She comes out with her hard hat and she’s going to give 100 percent. Everyone around her notices it and everyone around her is affected by it.”
But Baker is more than just a professional athlete.
Life as an Aztec
Three days a week Baker endures the 121-mile drive between her home in Los Angeles and her classes on Montezuma Mesa. The athlete contends with exhaustion and traffic in pursuit of a master’s degree in public health and social work at SDSU.
“I would say school is the biggest sacrifice,” Baker said. “The fact that I live so far from school is the hardest part, but SDSU has been really great. The teachers have been really helpful.”
Baker came to SDSU after graduating from University of Oregon in 2010 as Pac-10 Track Athlete of the Year and six-time school record holder. She believed her track career was finished when she received her diploma.
“I was already getting ready to move out [to San Diego],” Baker said. “Then I had the opportunity to run professionally and it was just figuring out how I could work track in with school.”
The duality proved to be a difficult path.
“I didn't know if it was going to work,” said Watts, who expressed concern over the impact on Baker’s focus. “When you’re a trying to be a professional athlete, an Olympic athlete, it takes a lot of dedication on and off the track.”
Baker shows how to succeed in both.
Getting the call
Last summer Baker was with family and friends when she received an unexpected opportunity to compete in a world championship track meet in Daegu, South Korea.
“I was in Sacramento at home vacationing when they called me,” Baker said. “I just packed up and left the next day. I still didn’t know if I was going to be able to run or not.
“Finally, they called and said, ‘I need you to run,’ so I ran,” Baker said.
The decision came easily for Baker, as if she had spent her whole life competing. In reality track has been a priority only since 2008.
“I started running track in high school my 10th grade year, but actually became serious my junior year in college,” Baker said.
As the competition in South Korea ended, a new finish line began to appear on the horizon.
“I didn’t really think about the Olympics until 2011 when I came back from Daegu,” Baker said. “Then it was the next big thing.”
A taste of Olympic gold
Baker debuted on the Olympic track in London. She ran the first leg of a preliminary heat for the women’s 4x400 race. When USA’s relay team won gold in the finals, Baker received her own medal, which initiated a new era of her athletic success.
“My family mainly took the medal and they were the ones showing it to everyone,” said Baker.
For Baker, the gold medal marks the beginning of an Olympic career. It is another reason to work even harder to make her mark on sports history.
“I was happy that I got a medal, but realistically I have other things that I want to achieve,” Baker said. “I want to come first, second or third in my own individual event and definitely run in the prelims and finals in a relay and be a part of the 4x4 world record.”
Enjoying the road to success
In a sport that focuses on crossing the finish line, Baker balances her athletic goals with personal accomplishments along the way. Before she steps onto another Olympic track, she expects to graduate with her master’s degree from SDSU in May of 2014.
The following June she will marry her longtime boyfriend Terrill Kirtz. The pair ran on the Fairfield High School track team together and shared classes in the 10th grade.
Baker’s growing family provides an essential support system for her. With their help, the professional athlete is racing forward.
“With her master’s I think she’s going to be able to inspire a lot of people,” Watts said. “She’s going to challenge them to be better than they thought that they could be. She not only has respect because of her speed, but she’s intelligent, and she is going to go places.”