The fifth fastest man in the world got his start at Anchorage’s Willow Crest Elementary.
Ronnie Baker, who placed fifth in the 100-meter finals at the Tokyo Olympics and ran a leg for the United States in Wednesday night’s 4x100-meter men’s relay heats, developed his love for running under the guidance of Willow Crest P.E. teacher Leroy Jones.
Baker attended Willow Crest as a child but by the time he was in middle school, he and his family had left Alaska. He went on to become a two-time Gatorade track athlete of the year at Ballard High School in Louisville and a 12-time NCAA All-American for Texas Christian.
At Willow Crest, Baker was so fast that Jones sometimes gave other kids a head-start in races so Baker would experience competition, according to Willow Crest principal Dianna Beltran.
Baker, 27, is a first-time Olympian who qualified for the Tokyo Games by placing second in the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
In Tokyo, he won his first 100-meter heat in 10.03 seconds and then ran a personal-best 9.83 to finish second in his semifinal and qualify for the finals. There, he finished fifth in 9.95; Italy’s Lamont Jacobs grabbed the gold in 9.80.
In Wednesday’s relay heats, Baker was part of an American team that failed to advanced to the finals. They finished sixth in their heat; finalists included the top three teams from each of two heats, plus the teams with the two best remaining times. A sixth-place team had no mathematical chance of advancing.
China won the heat in 37.916 seconds. Canada was next in 37.918 and Italy third in 37.95.
Lagging behind in 38.10 was the American team of Trayvon Bromell, Fred Kerley, Baker and Cravon Gillespie. A bad baton exchange between Kerley and Baker proved costly — the pair didn’t drop the baton, but it was not a smooth exchange.
Baker was part of Jones’ after-school cross-country running program at Willow Crest, and Beltran said he is probably Willow Crest’s most famous alum.
“But the most famous person here is Coach Jones, because everyone knows him,” she said.
Jones has spent 29 years at Willow Crest. He runs after-school programs in a variety of sports, Beltran said, and in April he was recognized as one of the country’s “Superhero Teachers” by The Happiness League, a nationwide initiative to honor top teachers.
This story has been updated with results from Wednesday’s relay races.
Correction: Photo captions in an earlier version of this story included the wrong age for Ronnie Baker. He was 10 at the cross-country race in 2003.