A New Role
May 12, 2010
By Larry Watts
Coming down the stretch in the final of the 400 in the Big Ten Outdoor Championships last spring, Penn State All-American Fawn Dorr glanced over her shoulder. That was all the fuel Melissa Bates needed to light her fire.
"I thought, 'Don't look back at me, why are you looking around?"' Bates says. "I figured there was no way this girl was going to beat me and I took it into another gear."
Bates nipped Dorr at the wire, 53.39-53.50,and her time ranked fourth in the Illinois record book, one position behind head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey. What Bates didn't know at the time was she became the Fighting Illini's first 400 champ since her coach turned the trick in 1993.
"I had no idea how long it had been until I read an article in the paper the next day," she says. "And I certainly didn't know my coach was the last person to do it."
Unfortunately, Bates never hit that time again in the postseason. She placed seventh (54.59) at the NCAA Regional and then was eliminated in the prelims of the NCAA Championships after clocking a 54.33.
"I was really very nervous and it got the best of me," she says. "There were a lot of fast girls."
Still, 2009 marked a breakthrough for Bates since she was only in her second season of running open races. Mainly a relay runner at Bowie High School, the Grand Prairie, Texas native estimates she only ran five open races during her prep career.
"Coach Gary (Winckler) and coach Tonja came out to watch me at practice one day and talked to me afterward," she says. "They followed me home, talked to my parents, and offered me a scholarship."
Until this day in late spring of 2007, the only offer Bates had in track had been from Langston (Okla.) University. After Winckler and Buford left, she received a call from Texas Christian the next day.
"I don't know if the TCU coach heard Illinois had visited me or not, but it sure seemed strange he would be calling me one day later," Bates says. "TCU was close to home and I am a daddy's girl, but Illinois was rated higher academically and I thought it would be better for my education."
Of course, there would still be the matter of cold weather and snow to overcome, something Bates, now a junior, still hasn't got used to.
"This whole snow thing is crazy," she says with a laugh. "I was all excited about going off to college and I never paid attention to how cold it could get. My freshman year, it was below zero and I couldn't figure out why we were still going to classes. The nice thing about it was I got to go shopping for new clothes."
Unlike many freshmen who see snow for the first time, Bates said she balked at the idea of getting down and making a snow angel.
"I didn't want to get wet, but I did make a little snowman," she says. "I had never seen this much snow before. When it snows in Texas, it's gone right away. This stuff is a real hassle. Not only is it cold, but it gets real heavy when you're trying to walk."
Heavy feet is one thing Bates never had to worry about on the track. During her freshman season, she competed individually in the 200 and triple jump and then ran legs on the 4x200 and 4x400 relays. At the Big Ten Outdoor Championships, she was eighth in the 200 while the 4x400 team placed fifth.
When Buford-Bailey took over as head coach last year, Bates dropped the triple jump and moved into the open 400 for the first time.
"That 400 is a long race and I knew I was going to be extra tired, but what was I going to do, tell her no?" says Bates. "It helped not doing the triple jump anymore because that was really bothering my knees."
Her experience in the 400 turned out to be a work in progress. After opening the season with a 56.12 indoors at the Indiana Open, she progressed to a time of 54.53 during the prelims at the Big Ten Indoor Championships. She wound up taking third (54.73) in the finals. Meanwhile on the 4x400 relay, she clocked a 52-second split on her leg when her team set a school record of 3:35.13. The squad eventually placed 10th at the NCAA Championships.
On the outdoor oval, Bates opened her season with a 54.69 for fourth at Arizona State's Sun Angel Track Classic. She would later win the 400 title at the LSU Alumni Gold with a time of 54.34 before hitting a 54.01 during the Big Ten prelims.
"Coach Tonja taught me how to run the race in sections," she says. "I had to go out hard in the first 200 and when I started getting tired for the second half of the race, I had to focus on my form, making sure my hands were in the right positions and I was keeping my knees high and relaxed. No one teaches you the technical stuff about a race in high school.
"I was nervous and scared when I first started running the 400 last year. But as the season went along, I gained more confidence and learned how to listen to my body."
It all came together at Ohio State's Jessie Owens Memorial Stadium last May when Bates pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the day.
"I even surprised myself," says Bates with a laugh. "I wasn't even thinking about winning that race. I was just mad at that girl (Dorr) for looking back at me and I wanted to beat her."
With the victory, Bates also knows she is the one with the target on her back in the Big Ten this season.
"I seem to run scared all the time so that (target) probably doesn't matter," she says. "When I run scared, it gives me a little extra adrenaline and pumps me up more."
Bates has already hit the provisional qualifying standard in the 400 and as a member of the 4x400 relay team for the NCAA Indoor Championships this year.
"But I want to hit the automatic times," she says. "And I'd like to make it there in the 200 as well. That would be nice because the 200 is my favorite race."
The communications major says she really hasn't set any goals for herself. "I keep my goals very vague," she says. "If you set a time and don't reach it, then you end up getting disappointed. My goal this season is just to improve. I want to improve my times in the 400 and 200 and also improve my splits in the relay."