Alabama State associate head track and field coach Garfield Ellenwood II will be trading in the Black & Gold for the next few days, and donning the red, white, and blue to represent the United States of America as he coaches one of the elite track and field athletes in the country.
It is not the first time that Ellenwood has donned the colors of the USA, making his fifth trip to the Olympic Games in his career. He coached in 2004, 2008 (head coach of the Liberian National Team), 2012, and 2016 prior to this year searching for his first trip to the medal stand.
“It’s an honor every time,” Ellenwood said. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to do things that I love and to be at the Olympics. I am honored that Christiana (Clemons) trusted me to be her coach, and I want to help her reach her goals and get on the medal stand. As a coach, I have been so close and it would be awesome to get on the medal stand with her after everything she has been through.”
The third-year Hornet has been with Clemons long before he arrived at Alabama State, helping her reach a ranking of seventh in the world before an injury and the cancellation of the Olympics due to COVID-19 in the summer of 2020.
“Having the games pushed back a year was a bit of a blessing,” Ellenwood said. “It gave her time to get completely healthy after her injury. We went from preparing physically to staying engaged mentally because things were being pushed back and just the uncertainty.
“I just kept her encouraged during the downtime, and when you look back on it, God gave her an extra year to rest. She was healed more when the Trails came around, and it allowed us to train harder so her body wouldn’t break down. The hardest part of training while you are injured is overcompensating and that is what we were careful of during training.”
Clemons, a collegiate star at Ohio State, ruptured her Achilles in 2013 and wasn’t healthy enough in 2016, before having to wait another year in 2020.
“I’m just so happy,” Clemons told NBC after qualifying for the Olympics. “I’m ready. My teammates, we go so hard every race. This year was different because we didn’t get to knock heads like usual, so being here (Trials) was the most competition we have had. I’ll be ready, we’ll be ready.”
It has been a journey for both coach and athlete, but the journey to get to the Olympics came down to a judgment from Ellenwood prior to the start. He changed something in her warm-up that proved to be the difference between third and fourth, in a spot on the team or fighting to be an alternate.
He decided to work on her finish during warm-ups before the finals, working on finishing strong after the last hurdle. And wouldn’t you know it, that is what the final spot came down to – the finish. In hurdles, execution is the key to everything. All it takes is a stumble, all it takes is clipping a hurdle, jumping too late and your dreams are over.
“I pray over every hurdle,” Ellenwood said. “Execution is key, if you can execute then you will make it. We worked on a drill before the finals in warm-ups on ending in her lane at the end of the race. It came down to just that, she had to finish strong to make the team and she did.
“Her husband asked how I knew to work on that right before the race, and I told him I prayed to God for guidance and that was his answer to me. We did all the drills she likes to work on and then worked on finishing.”
It’s not just drills and finishing that help prepare athletes and coaches. It is also film.
“Film allows you to slow things down,” he said. “It gives you a chance to see everything. I am blessed that I can see some things with the naked eye, but nothing works like film. It allows you to go back and put marks down on the track, it helps to see things that are too close to see. Not just that, but you have to be able to communicate what you see to your athletes so they can go and compete at the highest level.”
Whether he is at the Olympics or he is back coaching student-athletes at Alabama State, he says the same thing especially with fans limited due to COVID-19.
“I look at them the same,” Ellenwood said. “The approach is the same on development, teaching, and breaking down the race. I try to teach the student-athletes at Alabama State like I do when I am preparing someone for the Olympics.
“It is the same. In track and field, it is the athlete against the clock and the competition. The crowd is just an added bonus. But when you get on the track all that disappears because you are out there doing what you have been working on for years.”
Clemons will begin her quest in the 100-meter hurdles on Friday at 8:45 pm. But the question is, where will you be able to find Ellenwood during the race. The production crew at NBC has done a phenomenal job of getting the coach’s reactions to their athletes but will have to look in a different place to find Ellenwood on Friday.
“They have sections set aside for coaches,” he said. “But I like to watch from the warm-up area on the video board. I am superstitious. After I watched one of the women’s finals from the stadium and we didn’t make the finals, I went back to the video board for the women. I can watch the men from the stadium, but not the women.”
We will see if that superstition pays off for Ellenwood and Clemons. But either way, both will represent the United States of America, something set aside for the elite of the world at the Olympic Games and honor not lost on either.
Courtesy: Alabama State Athletics