LSU track star Baptiste set to compete in Olympics for second time

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Next month, LSU will send 12 current and former track and field athletes to compete for their native countries in the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing.

Among the LSU contingent making the trip to the Far East is former Lady Tiger sprinter Kelly Baptiste, who is actually making her second career Olympics appearance while wearing the red and black of her native Trinidad and Tobago.

With this kind of international pedigree, it’s strange to think that Baptiste didn’t even have a single scholarship offer from a Division I track and field program prior to her first Olympics experience in Athens in 2004.

“A lot of coaches don’t really do a lot of hard core recruiting in the Caribbean,” Baptiste said.

“I wasn’t winning a lot of meets, but I was performing pretty well. Since I wasn’t winning, it was more difficult to get noticed by American college track coaches.”

Fortunately for LSU, Assistant Head Coach Mark Elliot identified Baptiste and introduced her to the Lady Tiger program and Head Coach Dennis Shaver. Elliott hails from the Caribbean himself as he is a native of the nearby island nation of Jamaica.

Baptiste’s one and only scholarship offer soon followed and she decided to be a Lady Tiger.

 Since her first Olympic berth, Baptiste has dominated the sport of track and field at the collegiate level by racking up 14 All-America honors in four seasons and wrapping up her career with NCAA titles in both the 60 meters and 100 meters.

With a pair of individual national championships and an Olympic appearance already under her belt, Baptiste didn’t want to end her collegiate career without an NCAA team championship. She took it upon herself to make sure that didn’t happen.

As they kicked off their final outdoor season, Baptiste and her fellow seniors were on a mission to end an unprecedented drought in which the Lady Tigers failed to win a team title in eight national championship meets dating back to their NCAA Indoor title in 2004.

After finishing runner-up at the NCAA Championships three times during their careers, the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships was the final chance for Baptiste and the rest of the senior class to win their first national championship and continue a remarkable tradition in which each athlete to wear the purple and gold for four years has won at least one team title.

The task was simple.

The Lady Tigers entered the final event of the meet – the 4×400-meter relay – tied with the defending national champion Sun Devils of Arizona State for first place in the team standings with 59 points. If the Lady Tigers crossed the finish line before the Sun Devils, the title would be theirs. But a slip up could mean a fourth straight runner-up finish to Arizona State dating back to the NCAA Indoor Championships in 2007.

And to secure victory for the team, Baptiste was called upon to run the second leg of the 4×400-meter relay – a race she had only run twice leading up to the championships.

“When you’re a senior, you sit around and realize that winning a national championship is really important,” Baptiste said.

Baptiste and her teammates – Brooklynn Morris, LaTavia Thomas and Deonna Lawrence – finished second in the relay to beat Arizona State by more than five seconds and score eight points for the Lady Tigers. They won the team championship by four points after edging out the Sun Devils, 67-63.

“When Arizona State beat us each time before that, they wanted it more than we did. I guess we learned our lesson just in time,” Baptiste said. “It felt really good to run that last race and help my team win. We were determined to go out champions this time around. This is the first year I truly understood what it meant to win a title for the school, for my coach and for the team.”

Baptiste ran in nine races over the course of four days of competition while scoring a team-high 19 points for the Lady Tigers and winning her first career NCAA title in the 100 meters.

“The difference this time around was that we wanted it more than the other teams,” Baptiste said. “We didn’t want to be the team to go out without winning one. We wanted to carry on the tradition of winning national championships.”

Fresh off of her title-clinching performance at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, Baptiste now turns her attention to where her career truly began. In a few short weeks, she will compete in the 100-meter dash and the 4×100-meter relay for Trinidad and Tobago at the Olympic Games.

“This time is totally different because I didn’t really expect much from myself in 2004,” Baptiste said. “Even though I felt like I was going to participate and do my best, I didn’t think it was really my place yet. I wasn’t going out there to try and make my mark.”

Baptiste said she’s ready for Beijing and expects to improve her performance. Her training, however, has stayed just the same. She can still be found training with Shaver in Baton Rouge along with fellow NCAA 100-meter champion and countryman Richard Thompson.

Baptiste doesn’t see any reason to change.

“From the day I got to LSU and I saw Coach Shaver’s approach to coaching, especially to the sprints, I knew that this was the place and the man that was going to get me to the next level,” Baptiste said. “That’s why I’m not going anywhere. Coach Shaver was the one that got me to the point I am at today and I’m going to stick with what got me here.”

When considering the number of races she’ll need to run at the Olympics in order to reach the medal rounds, Baptiste feels just as confident. After all, she did run nine times in three days at the NCAA Championships while winning one race and finishing second in two more.

“I thought that I was going to have to make a transition in training to get ready for the Olympics, but I realized that when I was at LSU, I was training for championship meets nearly every week,” Baptiste said. “That’s what the Olympics are – a championship meet. I know I’m ready for it because I’ve participated in meets like it before.”

Whether or not Baptiste can continue her winning ways at the Olympics is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain. Being an Olympian just isn’t enough for Baptiste anymore.

“I need to go out there and be able to compete among the best professional athletes in the world to prove to myself that I can do it,” Baptiste said. “I feel pretty confident because I’ve found ways to run at my best all season. I think anything’s possible. You make it to the finals and once you’re there, it’s anybody’s race.”