Wally Ellenson works 40 hours a week and doesn’t get paid for it.
As summer nears, the freshman athlete estimates he spends more than a full-time job’s hours practicing for Gophers men’s basketball — and track and field.
The Rice Lake, Wis., native is better known for high-flying dunks at Williams Arena, but he’s competing in the high jump for the men’s track and field team this spring.
“I had some moments, up and down, riding the bench a lot in basketball this season,” said Ellenson, who is finishing up his last week of basketball practice before summer. “Track has fueled me as my sport.”
Ellenson battled injuries and illness while riding the pine in basketball, but the high jump — his natural talent — provides solace from his struggles.
He envisions competing in the NBA for basketball and the Olympics for track — a dream few athletes have.
“Olympics ’16,” reads Ellenson’s Twitter profile, presumably for the high jump, an event he won twice at the Wisconsin state championship. Ellenson hit his career-best mark of 7 feet, 1 inch at the state regional meet during his senior season of high school — two inches shy of the Olympic Trial qualifier.
Gophers assistant track and field coach Paul Thornton remembers scouting Ellenson when he was a junior at the Wisconsin state track meet.
Thornton heard that Ellenson was also getting offers to play basketball.
“That screamed to us, ‘This guy is going to be pretty good,’” Thornton said. “I think that interest we showed on the track and field side helped [Ellenson’s] interest in Minnesota grow.”
Programs like Louisiana State, Texas and Wisconsin showed interest in Ellenson for track, while Kansas, West Virginia and Connecticut contacted him about a possible basketball offer.
But Ellenson made it clear to all his suitors — it’s both sports or neither.
“My dreams are to do both sports. [I] want to make the Olympics,” Ellenson said. “Hard thing is, you have to have two different body types in each to compete at a high level like that. Something might have to give.”
As one of two active high jumpers for the Gophers this spring, Ellenson has placed in all three meets he’s competed in. But as he claws to catch on to collegiate track, his competitors have been practicing since the indoor season began in January.
“That’s where he’s green,” Thornton said. “He’s gifted, but he needs to catch on to the college speed of things.”
Ellenson’s raw talent comes from a long line of athletes in his family who have played Division I hockey, football and track, according to his father, Rice Lake high school track coach John Ellenson.
“I’m one of the few fathers that had to tell his child in high school, ‘no, you’re not going to the gym today, you go every day,’” John Ellenson said.
The elder Ellenson watched this basketball season as his son struggled through injuries to his hand, his heel and even the flu.
“He had a really tough basketball year,” John Ellenson said. “It was really tough on him mentally not to be on the floor. Then to go to practice early, shoot early and not see those things pay off.”
John Ellenson said track and field is a blessing, not a burden, to an already gifted athlete who needed the sport to gain confidence again.
Thornton said it’s nice to see Ellenson’s work ethic paying off in track, adding that “track doesn’t have a bench,” and athletes like Ellenson can make a difference out of high school without working through the system.
Sean Hartnett, a family friend and personal trainer to Ellenson in high school, said Ellenson’s drive sets him apart from other athletes.
Before the Wisconsin regional meet Ellenson’s senior season, Hartnett offered the idea that Ellenson try to jump 7 feet, 1 inch, despite missing the 7-foot mark 25 times in a row.
“I got a momentary pause,” Hartnett said. “He gave me a wink of his eye, and it was game on.”
Ellenson hit the 7-foot mark on the first try and followed it up with his career-high jump of 7 feet, 1 inch, the highest mark in the country at the time.
“He’s dedicated,” John Ellenson said. “He’s going to go places. He’s got bigger horizons.”