May 26, 2009
The most unlikely winner of Illinois' four champions at the 2009 Big Ten Outdoor Track & Field Championships was definitely sophomore Melissa Bates, considering she had never run the open 400 meters prior to this season.
"I never really expected to win Big Ten's," Bates said. "My goal was to just stay with the top girls and run a decent time. Until this year, I never even thought I was a 400 runner."
But Bates blazed to the Big Ten 400m title at Ohio State's Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium on May 17, passing Penn State All-American Fawn Dorr during the final stretch of the race and timing a personal-best 53.39. The performance was over half a second faster than her previous best of 54.01 from the day before in prelims, and also ranks Bates as the fourth-best 400m performer in Illinois history.
Surprising for the sophomore, who timed 56.03 in the 400m to open up the outdoor season but has gradually developed into a star for the Orange and Blue.
"I always saw that potential in her that she could be a great 400 runner," head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey said. "We didn't give up when she ran 56 (seconds) because I knew eventually she would run a lot faster. During fall training she was never the one in the front, but she was never the kid in the back. She was always just solid."
Bates' progression this outdoor season has been impressive, with her 400m times dropping each meet. After running 56 seconds at the UCF Invitational, she timed 54.69 at the Sun Angel Track Classic two weeks later and then ran 54.34 at LSU to qualify for the regional championships. Her breakout performances at the Big Ten Championships mean that she has lowered her 400m time by over 2.5 seconds in less than two months.
Buford-Bailey said the first time she saw what Bates was truly capable of was in March at the Alex Wilson Invitational. The Illini 4x400m relay needed a strong performance to ensure a berth in the NCAA Indoor Championships, and Bates was chosen to run anchor. The sophomore delivered by splitting 52 seconds in the final leg, leading the Illini to a 4x400m performance of 3:35.13 that broke the school record and ranked third in the country.
"That's when I knew she had something in her that was ready to come out," Buford-Bailey said. "She performs to what is necessary at the time, which I think is key for a true champion. At the last chance indoor meet, she wanted the 4x400 relay to make nationals so she ran to the potential she needed to make it happen."
Bates' place as the anchor leg of the 4x400m relay is fitting, considering relays is all she ran at Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas. She was a staple in the 4x100m, 4x200m and 4x400m relays, with success at the regional and state levels in all three. But the fact that she rarely ran any open races made it difficult to get a scholarship until Illinois came calling.
Buford-Bailey first heard about Bates from a family friend, eventually heading down to Texas with former Illinois head coach Gary Winckler to watch her practice. They were so impressed with her training and potential that they signed her without having ever seen her run in a competition or having any individual times.
"You have to have different and innovative ways of recruiting talent," Buford-Bailey said. "You can't just go off of a performance list. There are a lot of kids out there who don't have the greatest marks because of whatever situation they've been in, but have potential. It was always obvious that Melissa had something in her."
"Tonja has really worked with me and helped me learn how to run a 400," Bates said. "I didn't really know how to run it until this year, I just basically ran until I was tired. Now Tonja has helped me work a lot on my technique and taught me how to break the race up into sections. Our workouts help my body remember what it feels like to run a certain time so I can hit that in competition."
The next stop for Bates is the NCAA Mideast Regional Championships, where she is seeded fifth in the region in the 400m. The top five athletes from each region automatically advance the NCAA Outdoor Championships, so a trip to nationals is definitely within Bates' reach and would complete her breakout sophomore season.
"My goal is to PR again," Bates said. "I want to be surprised by the number so I'm not going to set a time, but I just want to PR ... Until this year I didn't really know what I was capable of, so it's been a whole new experience. I think I've finally accepted the fact that I'm a 400 runner."