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By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)
VirginiaSports.com
 
CHARLOTTESVILLE – As an intern with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, Jade Baker received an invitation to join a group for dinner on a weekend night. She declined, but not because she had other plans or wasn’t interested. Baker told Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, that she needed to continue working on a project.
 
That stuck with Warren, who likes to see if interns have grit, if they’re “willing to work outside their quote-unquote normal hours,” he said this week.
 
“That’s something I always look at,” Warren said, “and when I saw her do that without even any encouragement, that’s when I said to myself, ‘There’s something special about this young woman, and if she stays focused and stays determined and is willing to continue to grind, then she has a really bright career.’ “
 
A media studies major who carries a minor in government, Baker will graduate next month from the University of Virginia, where she’s also a standout in the hammer throw on the track & field team. Then she’ll start law school at Georgetown University. Baker also was accepted at NYU, Notre Dame and Boston University, and Harvard wait-listed her.
 
“She’s an incredible human being from a great family who’s a fantastic student-athlete,” said Warren, whose son, Powers, plays football at Mississippi State, where Baker’s father, Brian, was an assistant coach for the past three seasons.
 
“I’m excited to see her finish up her academic and athletic career at Virginia in a strong manner and then watch her thrive in law. And whether she decides to become a practicing attorney or ends up on the Supreme Court one day, I look forward to being there with her every step of the way.”
 
Baker’s parents were stellar athletes too. Brian Baker played football at Maryland. His wife, the former Nevada Tinsley, was an ACC champion sprinter at UVA.
 
Her father, who’s now associate head coach at Alabama, has nearly 20 years of experience as an NFL assistant, with eight teams. Baker, who was born in California, has also lived in Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio and Virginia.
 
She spent most of her high school years at Covenant Christian Academy, outside Fort Worth, Texas, from which she graduated in 2015. At Covenant Christian, Baker won state titles in the 100-meter dash, the 200, the 400 and the long jump, and numerous Division I track & field programs recruited her.
 
Baker cut her list to four schools: Stanford, Baylor, Maryland and Virginia. In the fall of her 12th-grade year, she settled on Baylor, but then she heard again from Bryan Fetzer, UVA’s director of cross country and track & field.
 
Fetzer suggested that Baker use her last official visit on Virginia. Her mother, excited about returning to Charlottesville, liked the idea.
 
“So we took the visit,” Baker said, “and I just fell in love with it. At the time, Baylor was kind of my comfort zone. Living in Texas, I didn’t really imagine I would leave. But the opportunities I’ve had here and the way things have fallen into place here, I couldn’t have had anywhere else.”
 
In high school, she’d been a four-sport standout, competing in soccer, volleyball, cross country and track & field. At UVA, Baker pursued track & field full time, “which was really, really strange for me,” she said.
 
She was recruited as a sprinter, but Baker soon switched to hurdles. Another, more dramatic move followed.
 
One of the Cavaliers’ volunteer assistants during Baker’s freshman year was a Croatian, András Haklits, who had won three NCAA titles and been an Olympian in the hammer throw. Haklits told Fetzer that Baker, who stands 5-7, had potential in that event.
 
“In America, you take the biggest kids and you make them throwers,” Baker said, “and that’s just how it’s always been. But in Europe it’s not like that at all. You take the most athletic kids, the strongest fast kids, and those are your best throwers. And you see that most of my throwing teammates [at UVA] are Europeans. That’s why they’re so dominant in throws. They have this athletic build and they’re not just relying on size.”
 
The Cavaliers’ throws coach is Martin Maric, who represented Croatia in the discus at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012. On the men’s side, UVA senior Hilmar Jonsson is a three-time ACC champion in the hammer throw.
 
“The misconception is that big people throw far, but you have to be fast first,” Maric said. “Once you become skillful, the speed is what matters.”
 
A hammer thrower makes four turns before releasing the implement, Maric said. “So each turn you’re accelerating more and more, and that’s why fast people like Jade can develop so much speed over four turns and throw far.”
 
Baker laughed when she recalled her first competitive throw: about 42 meters. Early this month, during a meet at Lannigan Field, she threw 62.67 meters, a school record.
 
“Her hard work with her talent resulted in this,” Maric said. “This is just incredible.”
 
Without Maric’s belief in her, Baker said, she never would have accomplished so much as a thrower.
 
“I’m the first athlete he’s ever coached from scratch,” Baker said. “I hadn’t thrown. I didn’t even know what a hammer was until almost my second year of college. He just really dedicated a lot of his time to me.
 
“When I broke the record last weekend, there was this video of me jumping up and down and hugging him. I think that’s what makes our relationship so special. He’s seen it through from the beginning, and I know he would never give up on me, and he knows I would never give up on him.”
 
Maric said: “When talent meets hard work, this is what happens. It wouldn’t have been possible without her wanting to be good.”
 
The Cavaliers are hosting the Virginia Challenge at Lannigan Field this weekend, and Baker is scheduled to compete at 6 p.m. Friday, weather permitting. Her fellow hammer throwers include Eva Mustafic, a sophomore from Croatia “who’s amazing,” Baker said. “She’s been throwing probably twice as long as I have.”
 
Mustafic’s best throw is 61.18 meters, and she’ll eventually break the school record, Baker said. For now, though, Baker is savoring her accomplishment.
 
“Jade wanted that school record so bad,” Maric said. “That was her target.”
 
To say Baker’s schedule is packed would be an understatement. For the past three years, in addition to taking a full load of class and competing in track & field, she’s worked in a variety of roles for the UVA athletics department’s video services department, which is based in John Paul Jones Arena.
 
“I’ve always been really driven, and I’ve always loved being busy, and I also always loved the idea of working and doing something for myself,” said Baker, who lives with teammates Alexis Woodley and Ciara Leonard.
 
“So I just sought out and asked what I could do, and they ended up giving me more responsibility every year, which I totally loved. I feel like so often as student-athletes we all meld into the same people, because we’re all always together, we’re all doing the same things every day, and I didn’t want to lose that aspect of myself that was something different than just a student-athlete.”
 
Mike Szlamowicz, UVA’s director of video services, live events and ACC Network, said Baker has shown she can handle additional responsibilities.
 
“Every different part of what we do, she’s done in her time here,” Szlamowicz said, “She could be directing in the control room at JPJ, she could be on camera, she could be running a camera, she could be wrapping cable, running graphics machines, replay machines, editing. You name it, she’s probably done it.
 
“We tell our students all the time: You get out of something like this what you put into it, and she’s put a lot into it. And she’s shown us that she’s reliable and that she’s interested in a lot of different aspects of the stuff that we do.”
 
Baker, who has provided analysis on broadcasts of UVA volleyball games, initially wanted to become a sports reporter. She chose a different career path after seeing  the Unite the Right rally rock Charlottesville in August 2017.
 
“Everything that happened kind of shocked me,” she said, “and then I was shocked that it was legal to a certain point. And that angered me and really upset me, and in the back of my head I was l like, ‘I have to make a change with civil rights.’ ” 
 
During Baker’s internship with the Vikings, Warren, who has a law degree from Notre Dame, became a mentor, and she developed an interest in sports law. After she finishes at Georgetown, Baker said, she might seek a job in that field, but her long-term goals lie elsewhere.
 
“Eventually, I know I want to get into policy and politics and run for office and make a difference in the world through politics,” she said. “I just want to make a difference. That’s always been my goal.”
 
For now, she’s focused on graduating from UVA and finishing her track & field career on a high note. Virginia will host the ACC outdoor championships next month at Lannigan Field.
 
“I would love to get first in the ACCs, but my biggest goal right now is to get on the podium at ACCs,” said Baker, who also ranks fourth all-time at UVA in the weight throw, an indoor event.
 
Off the track, Baker said, the “experience I’ve had here and the person it’s made me, it’s something I couldn’t have had anywhere else. So I’m really happy I decided to come here and stuck through it to the end.”