The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

Riley Baker: From athlete to coach

Eastern freshman Riley Baker prepares to run in the EIU Big Blue Classic on March 30 at O’Brien Field. Eastern is traveling to Illinois on Saturday for a meet.
Riley Baker during his freshman year in 2019. Baker is now a sprinter/hurdler coach for Eastern less than one year after he graduated. (File)

Transitioning in from Bowling Green State University, first-year director of track and field James Gildon felt he needed someone to help bridge the gap between coach and athlete.

Luckily for him, eight-time first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference sprinter and hurdler Riley Baker had just run out of eligibility and was looking to help coach track and field.

The former athlete has been a member of Eastern’s track team since 2019.  Baker was a key contributor to Eastern’s past track and field success.

At the 2019 OVC Outdoor Championship meet, freshman Baker placed second in the 400-meter hurdles with a season-best time of 53.91. He placed fourth in the 110-meter hurdles with another season-best time of 15.81. His efforts helped Eastern win the OVC that year and gave him a second-team All-OVC award.

His success continued into the 2020 indoor season, where his 4×400-meter relay team ran a 3:14:59 at the 2020 OVC Indoor Championships. The team was 0.06 seconds behind the first-place team, Tennessee State University. Eastern won the 2020 Indoor Championships and Baker received a second-team All-OVC nod yet again.

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 OVC Outdoor Championships, as well as the outdoor season, and 2021 Indoor Championships were not held. Baker showed off his academics during this stretch, earning his first two of four academic awards: The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic award and the OVC Academic Medal of Honor.

Baker came back to the 2023 OVC Indoor Championships after winning four first-team All-OVC nods in the 2022 season. His success from the prior season carried him into the OVC Championships, where he scored points in three different events: 60-meter hurdles, 400-meter dash and the 4×400-meter relay. Alongside his athletic accolades, Baker earned the Academic All-District award as well as his second OVC Academic Medal of Honor.

Amongst his athletic and academic achievements, Baker reportedly gained the respect of his teammates– respect that his teammates still have for him as a coach.

This respect was one of the reasons why Gildon wanted to have Baker on his staff. Gildon mentioned he needed someone the athletes already respected to help get his message across.

With Gildon being new to the program, Baker could aid him in establishing himself with the athletes, said Gildon.

“He can kind of help translate to the athletes and make [the messaging] a little bit better,” he said.

While it may seem at this point that Gildon guided the process of Baker becoming a coach, that is not the case. Baker had coaching in his sights while he was still competing at Eastern.

As his athletic career was coming to an end, Baker realized he wanted to stay involved in track. He figured coaching was the best path to take to stay involved in the sport.

“It kind of became more clear to me as I went through my athletic career that coaching is what I wanted to do after I got done competing,” Baker said. “Just staying involved with the sport as much as I can was definitely something I wanted to continue doing, and coaching was that route for me.”

Baker said that wherever he may land in the future, coaching will be a part of it.

“I think being here is exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I think down the line, wherever I may be, I think coaching is going to be what I’m doing,” Baker said.

The transition from athlete to coach has not been without its drawbacks. Baker noted that there is a small part of him that misses the competition of track and field. This small part was especially prevalent when the team first started competing at meets. Yet, Baker said being able to see the athletes he has coached compete makes up for it.

“I think just being able to see the athletes kind of do the things that I didn’t do, or do the things that I did do, kind of makes up for the lack of being able to do that now,” Baker said.

Baker also emphasized how important it is to see the work he’s doing with athletes begin to pay off. He said the beginning of his track and field coaching career has been positive, largely because he is seeing his athletes improve.

“It’s been amazing,” Baker said. “Being on the different end and learning a brand-new side of the sport has been awesome to transition and get into. Then to just see the work that we put in on a daily basis with our athletes, seeing it pay off for them is the most rewarding part.”


Aidan Cusack can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].

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