Ashley Spencer of the USA (Kirby Lee) © Copyright
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From hurdler to sprinter Ashley Spencer has all it takes to shine in Barcelona

It became obvious that Ashley Spencer was serious about taking a gold medal at the forthcoming IAAF World Junior Championships when she decided to skip the US Olympic Trials, at which she had a plausible chance of making the American team going to London, in favour of fine-tuning her preparations for Barcelona.

The University of Illinois student leads this year's world junior rankings over 400m with the 50.95 she clocked to win the NCAA (US collegiate) title on June. The last time a first-year student won at the championship over one lap of the track was a certain Sanya Richards in 2003.

It was also the fastest time in the world by a junior since 2008 and so Spencer will start as the favourite to add her name to the roll call of champions at the World Junior Championships.

Best birthday present

"I've worked hard but I never expected that I would run that fast, I had to push really hard in the final 100m because I was up against some of the best athletes in the country and in the world. It's the best birthday present I could have wished for," said Spencer, who turned 19 on June 8, the day she won her NCAA title.

After her thrilling run in Des Moines to beat the best of the rest of the 400m runners at US universities, a breeding ground of talent in the sport especially at the sprints, the following week she just floated round the track at the US Junior Championships to win by more than half-a-second in a relaxed 51.68.

"I'm still just a freshman (a US university first-year student). I've got another three years. The next Olympics are in 2016, I'll be going full force for that," explained Spencer, who expects to graduate in 2015, about her decision not to try to qualify for the Olympics this time around.

"My coach decided that I was a little bit too young for the (Olympic) Trails this time. I agree. She said: 'just wait, your time will come,' and I trust her.

"This is the longest season I've ever had. Junior worlds and I'll be done (for this season) but I'm looking forward to that to finish things off."

"I've never been outside the country; and to go and do what I love to do, I'm very excited," she added.

Learning her trade

Some observers might have been a little disappointed about the time at the US Juniors, especially in light of her fireworks the week before and with the World Junior Championships on the horizon.

However, her coach, the 1995 World Championships 400m Hurdles silver medallist Tonya Buford-Bailey, put matters into perspective.

"She was still a little tired from running three hard races at the NCAAs and was not used to having two hard weekends back-to-back. This is a part of the learning process and now being able to get a chance to get international experience in Barcelona will be great for her."

Buford-Bailey, still fourth on the World all-time list for her event after clocking 52.62 but just missing out on the gold medal and then World record when she was just edged out by 1-100th of a second by her compatriot Kim Batten in Gothenburg - what was arguably one of the best women's 400m Hurdles races ever - can take much of the credit for refining Spencer's raw talent.

"I knew she was good when I watched her run the 4x400 relay in her high school state championship meet; and when I saw her fall in the 300 Hurdles in her junior year and then chase everyone down, Before she ever stepped foot on campus, I knew she was pretty special," commented Buford-Bailey.

In return, Buford-Bailey's credentials as one of the very best exponents of her discipline convinced Spencer to move across state lines from her home in Indianapolis and sign up for Illinois.

Originally, Spencer arrived with ambitions of being a hurdler like her mentor but Buford-Bailey saw where her potential really was.

Hankering for the hurdles

"But I started track as a hurdler and I will always be a hurdler. I can always go over some hurdles whenever my coach needs me," joked Spencer, slightly lamenting the fact that there have been no barriers in her way in her most recent races.

In addition to the influence of Buford-Bailey, Spencer has got good genes for athletics.

Both of her parents and her aunt were very talented high school athletes and her uncle Steve Smith, was a noted high jumper in the 1990s whose best was 2.31m and who finished second in the 1999 US Indoor Championships.

In the Catalan city, Spencer will come face-to-face with equally awesomely talented Shaunae Miller, from the Bahamas, the defending champion who won two years ago in the Canadian city of Moncton at the age of 16.

Miller is second on this year's World junior list and ran a national junior record of 51.25 in May to show that she is not going to give up her title easily.

However, Spencer will be motivated by the fact that should she win then she would become only the third American to win at the IAAF World Junior Championships, following in the footsteps of Monique Henderson in 2002 and Natasha Hastings two years later.

Not even the 400m icon Sanya Richards-Ross managed that accolade, having to settle for second behind Henderson a decade ago.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF