Feb. 8, 2012
Senior Ellen Wortham, of Maryville, Tenn., has been running track competitively for more than 10 years. Instead of getting burned out by the sport after a few years, as many young athletes do, her focus on track has only gotten stronger.
Wortham, a multi-event athlete with hopes of breaking the school record in the pentathlon this year, maintains immense concentration during her races. An athlete who competes in a wide variety of events, Wortham believes that focusing on each event as it comes, and even each step in the event, helps keep her from getting overwhelmed. A standout both on and off the field, her focus also helps Wortham excel in the classroom, even though she has to miss class for meets.
After recently breaking her personal record in the 400 meters, Wortham rose to sixth in the rankings of Tennessee's all-time best performers in that event at 53.49. She ranks No. 2 all-time in the 400m hurdles outdoors at 55.70, a time she ran in winning the 2011 SEC title in that event.
With hopes of winning the SEC pentathlon and continuing to improve her personal best times, Wortham is keeping an intense focus on her skills as a track & field athlete.
When did you first get interested in running?
"I've been running track competitively since I was 10 years old. I've always been fast. I've been racing since I was really young, but I didn't get really competitive about it until I was 10."
How did you know what would be the best distance for you, and how did you get into hurdles and jumps?
"It was a long process. I didn't start out as a 400 hurdler, of course, because you can't do that until you're in high school. I started out doing the short hurdles, the 80m hurdles, and the high jump. I guess, as time went on, I realized I was able to sprint longer than a lot of people, and hold endurance. Having the background of doing technical hurdles and having the endurance, I guess 400 hurdles just made sense."
How do you learn to jump over hurdles?
"It's a lot of technical training. You have to work on your lead leg and your trail leg. You do a lot of sprinting and work on endurance on the side. It's a pretty complicated event. It's a lot of race pattern and being most efficient. Because it is such a long, grueling race, you don't want to waste any energy during it."
Do you always have the same lead leg?
"Well, for the 400 hurdles, I can switch, which is advantageous in some ways. For the 100 hurdles and the 60 hurdles, I have a left leg lead leg. I can switch if I need to for the 400. I'm right legged, so I jump off my right leg because it's more powerful."
How did you decide to do the pentathlon?
"Originally, I did not want to do all the events for a pentathlon. It does not sound fun, but my high school coach forced me to do it when I was a freshman. I was pretty good at it, so I've done it every year since my freshman year of high school. Shot put and the 800m were two that I definitely didn't get as good of a grasp on until I was in college. So far, I've been improving in everything, so it's worked out well."
What other sports did you play growing up?
"I played a lot of different sports when I was younger. I played T-ball, tennis, basketball and soccer, but I've always done track. As I got older, I gradually dropped everything. I also danced for a really long time. Track was always my favorite and what I was best at, but it's not a year-round sport when you're younger, so I had time to do a lot of different things."
Do you have any family members who have competed in track or played other sports?
"My dad competed in track when he was in high school. He was a 300m hurdler, which is the high school equivalent of the 400 hurdles. He's the main person that I know who competed in track. My great-grandmother on my mother's side ran track and played basketball. She has the school record in the standing broad jump, as they had back in the day. I have a bit of track history in my family."
Do you have a favorite meet or venue?
"That's a hard question. I guess, as far as favorite venues go, I prefer oversized tracks. I'm looking forward to competing at Kentucky, which is where our SECs are this year, and it's not far from home, so there's not much work in traveling there. The seating isn't great, but I just prefer running on oversized tracks. It's easier for me to use my long strides on those. I don't mind banked tracks, but I just prefer the bigger size."
What was your greatest moment as a Lady Vol?
"There are a few moments that stand out for me personally. Last year, at SECs, when I ran my fastest time in the 400 hurdles was pretty great. It got me a world ranking, and it was the fastest time in the SEC, and it moved me up to the number one spot in the nation. It was a really exciting race. I was happy to win it for me and my teammates."
Do you have any pre-meet or pre-race superstitions or rituals?
"It's funny that you ask that. This last meet, I was starting to warm up for the 400 finals. They had been 40 minutes behind and all of a sudden they caught up in the schedule, so I didn't get to fully warm up. So, I told my coach, "Oh, my gosh, they're calling me." So I just did a couple sprint drills. And I said, "Just give me my headband!" So I put my headband on, and I was ready to go. I don't know if that's a superstition or just tradition."
Do you always wear the same headband?
"I don't always wear the same headband, but I do always wear the same kind of headband. It's not really special. I've worn different kinds before, but normally you'll see me in that one. I usually wear blue, orange, or white because they match the uniform."
Do you get nervous before you compete?
"I don't get as nervous as I used to. I feel like I've matured in my competing mindset. This year, I've been a whole lot more relaxed compared to my freshman year, when I was the new kid on the block and didn't know what was going on. I guess I don't get nervous. I get a bit of anxiousness when I'm getting in the blocks and the adrenaline starts flowing. I'm usually pretty calm before I race."
What do you think about when you're getting ready to run and during the race?
"I'm a pretty systematic thinker when it comes to running. I'm usually thinking about my race plan beforehand and when I'm running. Especially in the 400 hurdles, I'm counting my steps between the hurdles, which is a big part of it. I've got that semi-consciousness of what's going on around me, so I'm thinking about when I should make my move. I'm definitely thinking about the race when I'm racing. It's hard to think about anything else in a sprint race because it's so fast. It's usually just my race plan. It's a lot more strategic indoors because outdoors you have your own lane so you don't have to think about others as much. Indoors, you have to think about where you're going to break in, getting a good position, and using the banks if they're there."
What is your favorite thing about running?
"It just makes you feel good. It keeps you in shape and healthy. Everyone talks about a runner's high because you get the endorphins. It's really about the experience of bonding with your teammates and working toward a common goal. That's the best part."
How does weather affect your running outdoors?
"For hurdles, if it's raining, it can be slippery coming off the hurdles. A lot of wind is obviously something that makes it harder. We had a significant head wind at SECs last year. Then again, if it's a big race, you have your adrenaline going. You don't notice as much when the weather is bad. They stop the race if it's really bad weather with lightning and storms, and sometimes that can affect you by making you go through the whole process again. Weather isn't a huge factor because we practice in it as well."
Do you hear fans cheering while you are competing?
"I do. I hear people say my name, but I can't usually recognize who is saying my name. People will ask if I heard them, and I know I did, but I'm not sure where or when. You just get in the zone, especially when you're having your inner thoughts, and especially depending on the size of the crowd. People cheering definitely helps. We cheer for each other in our workouts every day. That's the most important cheering. It helps you get through when you aren't in the mood or you're tired from classes. It definitely helps in the meets as well to hear your teammates cheering you on."
What made you decide to come to UT?
"I'm from the Knoxville area, so I've always been a Tennessee fan. We have a really good track program and a really good psychology program that I wanted to go to school for. It was a pretty easy decision for me. I knew I would be coming to Tennessee."
What has been the impact of running with some of the Lady Vols and post-collegiate runners you have seen during your career here?
"It's a really good environment. You get a lot of great advice from former Olympians and current professionals. It creates that good relationship and understanding of what it takes to be a great athlete. There are definitely a lot of role models on our team who have helped me. There are also great students and friends. It's one of the most supportive teams out there."
What is the sense of camaraderie like among the Lady Vols?
"We're all very close. We see each other every day, especially in your event specialties. I'm with the sprinters every day. We're almost like sisters. We fight and we get on each other's nerves, but at the end of the day, we know we'll all be there for each other on and off the track. It's really a unique experience to come into college and have a family already set up for you. You go through the training and the hardships together, it's so nice to have that support system."
What do you like to do when you aren't in class or training?
"Sleep. I really like to spend time with my family. My family has definitely helped me with my college career, and luckily I do get to spend a lot of time with them. Just hanging out, normal things. There's nothing really that interesting in my life, other than that I'm a collegiate athlete. That absorbs most of your time."
What is your favorite sport to play or just watch, other than running?
"I don't really watch sports a lot. I used to watch football and basketball a lot more, but when I got into college, I started to focus a lot more on my own sport. I definitely watch track a lot more than I did in high school. It's not televised as much, but I do. I have a boyfriend who plays tennis, so I'm learning to watch that."
Who are some athletes you admire?
"I don't know. I've met a lot of great athletes. I trained with Aries Merritt for a period of time. He coached me when I was younger. I have gotten to know DeeDee Trotter. She has a really fun personality and a lot of good advice when it comes to training at a professional level. A lot of my older teammates have helped, like Celriece Law."
What's something interesting about you that people may not know?
"I can't smell very well. I cracked my skull in Stokely when I was 16, and it messed up my sense of smell. So now I don't have the best sense of smell. Sometimes my friends and I forget, and they try to make me smell things. And it's funny because I can't."
You were very involved in drama in high school. Is that still a part of your life and do you have any dreams of continuing with it in the future?
"I love theatre. I think it's so cool. I took an acting class last semester and had a lot of fun with it. I was going to take another one this semester, but it was just too much to do with track as well. I do enjoy it. I like going to watch plays. Live performance is so exciting. I would definitely, one day, if I had an opportunity to do a play or a movie, I would definitely be interested in doing that. When I was a little kid, that's what I wanted to be before an athlete; I wanted to be a movie star."
What's the one thing you can't live without?
"Milk. I love milk! But seriously, I feel like I have to live with my faith. God's love keeps me relaxed when I run. It keeps me focused. Having the sense of knowing that He has a plan for me and what I'm doing, whether I succeed or whether I fail, it's for Him. He has a plan for me, and I don't have to worry about it. Placing that trust makes the experience more meaningful for me."
Do you drink a lot of milk?
"Yes. My teammates think it's so gross, because I'll drink milk with pizza or Mexican food. They always ask, "What are you doing?!" I just have always had a taste for milk. All kinds of milk... whole milk, skim milk. I could be on a milk billboard one day. That could be a goal."
Do you have a favorite event or distance that you compete in?
"I enjoy most of my events, except for the 800, because it hurts so bad. The 400 hurdles also hurts so bad, but I still enjoy it. It's kind of a love/hate relationship. At the same time, it's what I'm best at, so I have to enjoy it."
How do you stay focused and motivated at meets when you are competing in so many different events?
"It helps me sometimes to have more events because I can focus in on that one thing at that particular time. Just paying attention and being present in what you're doing and not thinking about what you have to do later that night or tomorrow you have what race. It kind of distracts you from being too anxious because you have to focus on one thing right now before you move on to the next."
Do you ever get exhausted from it?
"It gets pretty tiring. Usually on Sundays I'm pretty ready for a good long nap. Having to make up school work on top of that is exhausting at times. But I definitely make sure I get my sleep. That helps a lot."
Do you know what events you'll compete in at the SEC Championships? How do you decide which you'll compete in?
"I have a fairly good idea. I'm going to do the pentathlon. I'm always up for doing a 400 leg on the DMR or a 4x400. Probably long jump, but that's not set in stone as of right now."
What are your major goals for the season?
"Of course, I want to go to nationals and become an All-American in the pentathlon. I'm trying to break the school record; I'm not far from that. Win SECs. Just overall PR-ing and doing my best in my events. It's the most important thing to me. I am working to win, if all of that comes into place at the end."
What is your major, and what are your favorite classes?
"I'm a psychology major. I have a lot of classes that I've enjoyed. I like a lot of the social psychology classes, like right now, I'm in the psychology of violence. But I also like developmental classes, like adolescent development and child development. I'm thinking about doing school psychology when I graduate. Classes that relate to that interest me most."
How do you balance competing in track and school?
"It's almost not really a choice. You can either decide to make time for everything or you cannot. There's really not a whole lot of in-between because either you make time in your schedule or you let it go. For me, I like to know what I'm doing and obviously, I work hard in academics and on the track. I'm just a hard-working person. When I decide I'm going to do something, I'm going to give it my best effort. Otherwise, it isn't really worth doing. For me, I enjoy what I'm learning about and what I'm doing in track, so it's not really hard for me to focus. Like you said, sometimes I get exhausted, but at the same time, it's stuff that I like doing and that I'm interested in."
Is it bothersome to you to miss classes for meet weekends?
"Yeah. I really don't like to miss classes. I like to be in class. Not always, just because it's so much fun (to travel and compete), but I like to be able to be present and take notes. I don't like to let other people take my notes for me because I like to do them a certain way. I have a system that works for me. You just have to stay on top of it."
What career would you like to have after you complete your competitive career?
"I'm interested in school psychology, which involves being a school counselor and helping kids in that setting. If they're having trouble psychologically or on an academic level, I think that would be something I would be good at and enjoy doing in the future. It feels like I would have a pretty good purpose behind it. I enjoy learning about something like that. There's no specific age group I want to work with. I feel like adolescents and high schoolers, eventually, but I could also work with children. I think I would be more interested in working with adolescent kids, though."