KRAVITZ: For promising Lawrence North hurdler Spencer, the future may be now

Bob Kravitz

RIO DE JANEIRO – She could smell her grandma's perfume.

That's what Ashley Spencer, the pride of Lawrence North and Olympic 400-meter hurdler, told me moments after she won her first-round heat with relative ease Monday night at the Olympic Stadium. I asked her about her "Nana" -- her grandmother Joyce Smith Campbell -- a beloved woman who died from pancreatic cancer two years ago.

As she lay dying, Campbell told Spencer, "I want to see my granddaughter run in the Olympics, but I'm going to miss that."

She missed these Games in body, but in spirit, well, that's something else entirely.

"I smelled her perfume before I hit the track," Spencer said after winning her first-round heat in 55.12 seconds and advancing to Tuesday's semifinals. The finals are Thursday. "I felt her with me. I miss her so much and I know she's proud of me, but I know she's with me. I feel her here with me."

Spencer probably could have run in the 2012 London Olympics as a precocious 19-year old, could have competed in the 400-meter race. But both her parents and her coach at the time, Tonja Buford-Bailey, felt she would be better suited to biding her time and perfecting her craft in the hurdles, then taking a crack at the Games in 2016.

So here she is, a hurdling prodigy but still a self-described "baby" in this particular track discipline. She only competed four times in the 400-meter hurdles during her college years at Illinois and then Texas, and just three more times before the U.S. Trials. And yet her time Monday was the second-fastest of all the heats, and she eased up down the stretch. Not bad for her first-ever Olympic effort.

"I really saw this whole first round as just another track meet, to be honest," Spencer said after her heat. "I know this is a really big deal and I'm so blessed to be here, but it's the same 400 meters we've been doing all year. I know we're in the Olympic Stadium, millions of people are watching and cheering, but when I run, I don't hear anything, I don't feel anything other than my own footsteps, so I kind of remove myself from the situation. Then I cross the finish line and see the result I want, I pull myself back."

There's a reason why Buford-Bailey has said publicly that Spencer is the "future of track and field." By Spencer's own admission, she still doesn't truly know how to navigate her way down the track and over the hurdles. She's a born 400-meter running, a hurdles newbie, but she has so much raw speed that overcomes her lack of technical expertise, she's a threat to medal any time she competes.

In fact, in its pre-Olympic edition, Sports Illustrated predicted she would earn a bronze medal Thursday night.

"Thanks, Sports Illustrated," she said, laughing. "It's nice they have so much confidence in me."

If only Spencer had as much confidence as the publication.

"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, but the 400 hurdles are still new to me," she said. "I'm still trying to figure out stride patterns and this and that…The thing I've had to learn is to slow down, to be honest. I find myself wanting to sprint too early; that just comes from my 400 background. The hurdles aren't like that. I really have to take my tempo down. My first couple of times practicing the hurdles I was sprinting and just crashing into hurdles. It was like 'bam, bam, bam.' So it's just a matter of being patient. I'll get to sprint, just not in the first 200 meters.

"… So anything I do from here, it's a big shock to me. I mean, this is my first year doing this. I'm just looking forward to learning as I go through the rounds and having some fun out there."

Spencer had absolutely no issues on a cool, rainy, wind-swept night that saw the competition halted for roughly a half hour due to a downpour. Frankly, it didn't feel like a big-time Olympic track and field night; the crowd was small, a jarring departure from one night earlier when Usain Bolt came close to packing the house. The evening's marquee event was to feature American Allyson Felix, who was attempting to become the most decorated female track and field Olympian in history. Felix is one of the all-time greats, but she doesn't pull an audience the way Bolt does. (She grabbed the silver medal in a thrilling and close race with gold medalist Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas).

On this night, Spencer started somewhat slowly, then gained momentum and ultimately pulled away at the end. With a bit more effort, and it wasn't necessary in a first heat, Spencer likely could have beaten her personal best. But why bother? Why not save it for when it really counts?

"I really wasn't focused on the time," she said. "I was focused on advancing smoothly. I'm really shocked at the time (55.12 seconds). I'm really happy with that. I didn't necessarily push to go that fast. It's nice to know that I can run a nice, comfortable pace and still get a 55.1, so I'm in good position."

For the future of track and field, the future may be now.

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