It’s been on the books for 27 years. Ellen Wortham is so very close now.
Former Tennessee Lady Vol Sharrieffa Barksdale ran the 400-meter hurdles in a school-record time of 55.58 seconds at a meet in Eugene, Ore., in 1984. At the USA Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, last season, Wortham got within 1.25 seconds of that mark, her 56.83 scorcher now third-fastest all time for a Lady Vol in the event.
Barksdale ran in the Olympics. Twice.
Wortham’s performance at last year’s championships capped a truly breakout season for the former Maryville High School star. The hurdles mark was no fluke. She’d been only slightly off that time in running to second at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships last May at Tennessee’s Tom Black Track.
By season’s end, Wortham, a junior, had earned her second All-American selection for her work with Tennessee’s NCAA indoor champion distance medley relay.
Reeling in 1.25 seconds, even over 400 meters, is a big get, but don’t rule it out, Lady Vols hurdles coach Sharon Couch Seagrave said.
“She is tenacious, just a ferocious competitor,” Seagrave said. “She’s very quiet in terms of her personality. You put her in the line and she runs her heart out for you.”
Former Lady Vol hurdles coach Heather Van Norman helped her in “mentally getting through the race,” Wortham said.
“We worked on accepting the race,” she said. “It’s going to hurt and you’ve just got to get through it in the least amount of time possible.”
Under Seagrave, evidenced by a series of breathtaking bursts from the former Lady Rebel inside Stokely Athletic Center last week, Wortham is adding the power game.
“A big thing has been getting her to sprint!” Seagrave said.
Next up is the SEC Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., on Feb. 25.
Wortham has always had the height, now 5-foot-10, and stride length seemingly perfect for the hurdles. She was already a regular with the Knoxville Track Club’s youth program by middle school. Her father, Tom, had been a collegiate hurdler and Ellen learned quickly, already excelling at the discipline by middle school.
“I just had the long legs to be able to do it when I was younger,” Wortham said.
Success on the high school level followed. Wortham would earn 14 All-State selections as a Lady Rebel, winning state titles in the pentathlon and high jump her senior year in 2008. In a prelude to her multipurpose scoring as a Lady Vol, she finished second in the long jump and 300 hurdles that season, anchoring the Maryville’s 4x400 relay to a second-place finish.
All those points pushed the Lady Rebels to a third-place finish at state that season as a team.
“When you get into college, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh! There are so many things I haven’t even thought about. These girls are so fast,’” Wortham said. “Then you turn around and it’s, ‘Here I am.’”
That said, success at Tennessee came early as well, Wortham picking up her first All-American selection as a member of the Lady Vols outdoor 4x100 relay. She’d been named SEC co-freshman of the year for the indoor season that fall. The following spring saw a career-best 59.08 for the long-distance hurdles, a number that has fallen steadily since.
“You’re always left wanting more,” Wortham said. “You always want to run faster.”
Wortham’s personal-best in the 400 hurdles came during a qualifying heat at the USA championships. She would go on to finish eighth in the finals, but that, coming in her first season competing in the open division, doesn’t motivate her nearly as much as the second-place showing at the SEC outdoors.
“I’m definitely looking to win (this spring),” Wortham said. “If I can get my race down and focus on my race pattern, everything is going to work out fine.”
That’s where Seagrave, meticulous at correcting everything from mistakes in footwork to posture clearing the hurdles, comes in.
“You run out of (winning on) talent,” Seagrave said.
Fortunately, she adds, Wortham has an abundance of the other key components to track and field success.
“She has an amazing work ethic,” Seagrave said. “She doesn’t just compete with other athletes on the track. She competes with herself so she can see how far it can take her.”
Raw, lanky speed as a high school runner, Wortham is noticeably more muscled entering her junior season at Tennessee.
“They’ve been feeding me,” she said.
Much of the rest on this year’s to-do list is adjusting to a new coach. Where Norman focused more on the mental aspect of racing, Seagrave drives her to master the mechanics, Wortham said. Both approaches have their place.
“You kind of learn there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Wortham said. “You can’t blame your situation. You can’t blame the coach you have.”
Besides, when it comes to running, and winning, against the very best, Seagrave has been there, done that. Like Barksdale, she’s a two-time Olympian.
“I feel like I’ve been called here,” she said. “It’s the relationships. What I did when I first came to town was build relationships with them.”
Wortham didn’t do much on-track celebrating after last year’s SEC showing. After crossing the finish line and checking her time, “I did my little clap,” she said.
“How excited can you look after that race?” Wortham said.
Beware, Seagrave said. Wortham’s unfailingly polite nature masks a drive like few athletes she’s coached.
“God has put in her this machine that’s an athlete,” she said.
Twenty-seven years ago, they were saying much the same thing about a kid out of Harriman who could run like the wind.