Blessed with neither superior speed nor great physical strength or stature, John Baker simply willed his way to the level of outstanding miler by constant application of a work ethic rarely seen. Recruited by coach Hugh Hackett out of Albuquerque's Manzano High School, Baker's story is one of courage, determination and sadness.
His first mile run at UNM was a school record, and he won a pair of Western Athletic Conference championships in the mile and in cross country. Maybe Baker's most dazzling race came at University Stadium in the spring of 1965. The mighty Southern California Trojans were in town for a dual meet and Baker faced a trio of USC milers with better times than his. With more than 10,000 screaming Lobo fans in attendance, Baker broke the tape first, winning by three seconds. Inspired by Baker's victory, the Lobos swept every following event, handing USC its third-worst defeat in 65 years, 92 1/3 to 31 2/3.
Baker had several options after graduation: college coaching offers, work with children, train for the 1972 Olympics. He accepted a job that would allow him to pursue both ambitions - he became a coach at Aspen Elementary School in Albuquerque, and at the same time started his rigorous training in preparation for the 1972 Games.
Shortly before his 25th birthday in May of 1969, Baker noticed that he was short on stamina during workouts. An ensuing doctor's appointment confirmed the worst: terminal cancer with approximately six months to live.
Early in 1970 with the cancer ravaging his body, Baker began coaching a small Albuquerque track club for young girls. The Duke City Dashers.
By summer, the Duke City Dashers were performing like their coach use to, breaking records at meets throughout New Mexico and bordering states. Their performance made Baker claim: "The Dashers are going to the national AAU finals."
John Baker died on Nov. 26, 1970 (Thanksgiving Day). He was 26, but lived 12 months longer than his doctor expected. Two days later, his beloved Duke City Dashers won the AAU national championship in St. Louis.
The Baker story has been told nationally on television ("A Shining Season," CBS), in an article in Reader's Digest and in publications and special programs throughout the West.
In early spring of 1971, 520 families in the Aspen school district voted to rename the elementary school in honor of John Baker. The vote was 520-0 in favor. Aspen School officially became John Baker Elementary.