Before Burkheart Ellis was an Olympian, he was a 2-year-old, trailing behind his mom and her former St. Augustine’s teammates as they ran sprints on the track.
He can still picture those days. It was where he first developed his love for running. His mother, Sofia Ifill, said it was then that she knew her child would be a runner.
“He’d run a lap or two around the track without even stopping,” she said. “He was 2 years old and he would do men’s pushups.”
And he was faster than all the other children.
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“I just enjoyed running fast,” Ellis said. “When everybody else wanted to be a fireman or policeman, I wanted to be a track star.”
Some would say it’s in his genes. Not only was his mom a sprinter at St. Augustine’s, but his father, Burkheart Ellis Sr., who also had speed, was a jumper for the school. Ifill says the elder Ellis once ran the 400-meter sprint in 49 seconds, while wearing basketball shoes. And the younger Ellis has always loved the sport.
Now 23, he’s running for Barbados in the Rio Olympics, where he will compete in the 200-meter sprint, and likely run against the world’s fastest man – Usain Bolt – on Aug 16.
Ellis has dual citizenship in the United States and Barbados. He said he chose to try out for Barbados’ team because there were fewer athletes trying to make one of the few spots on the team and he’s always wanted to run for Barbados.
“We don’t have that much athletes like the USA or Jamaica or any other country because we’re a small island,” Ellis said. “But now the past three years, we’ve been progressing, and more of us are coming out the woodwork and winning.”
But the path to being an Olympian wasn’t easy.
Moving to Barbados
Ellis, born in Raleigh, moved to Ifill’s native country of Barbados when he was 3.
Probably best known lately for being the birthplace of singer Rihanna, Barbados is a small island in the Caribbean with a population of 284,644, about the same as Durham.
His parents sent him there to live with his great-grandmother and four cousins in hopes he would get a good education. Ellis credits his great-grandmother as one of the persons who raised him. She’d sit in the stands late at night, in the dark, waiting for Ellis and his cousins to finish track practice.
“She always supported us at anything we were doing, especially when it came to track,” he said.
But when he came back to Raleigh in 2007 to live with his mother when he was a 14-year-old in middle school, his parents had divorced.
It hit him hard.
As a freshman at Leesville High School, Ellis said he had lost his love for track.
His grades dropped to the point where he was unable to compete for his school. Out of competition, he gained weight, and was out of shape at 6-1 and 200 pounds.
That was until his mom sent him to live with one of her closest friends, Knightdale track coach David Castell. Ifill was working two jobs at the time, and Ellis needed a male mentor in his life, Castell said.
He lived with the coach from 10th to 12th grade.
“It was tough on him,” Castell said of Ellis’ parents’ divorce. “It was really tough on him. But once he came to live with me, it was no excuses. I said, ‘I’m here for you. I’ve got your back.’ ”
Castell, whom Ellis refers to as his uncle, taught him discipline.
He changed the way Ellis dressed. He changed the way Ellis walked. He encouraged Ellis to study harder and apply himself in class.
Castell had Ellis write the goals he wanted to achieve on a piece a paper and keep it with him in his pocket. At the end of the week, the two would sit down and review those goals, and what Ellis had done to achieve them. If Ellis didn’t achieve a goal, they’d figure out why, which oftentimes was because he was either watching too much television or spending too much time on his phone.
Castell had Ellis get up every morning at 6 and run three miles around the neighborhood. In the evening, he’d run another three miles. If he was late to practice, he’d have to run home. He wasn’t allowed to eat after 8 p.m. and if he did, Castell would take the television away, locking it in his room with the remote.
“I would teach him life lessons,” Castell said. “If he had a job, he can’t show up late. Everything I was doing was preparing him for life. We had to make sure he was mentally tough.”
Castell said things eventually clicked for Ellis.
Ellis didn’t like the extra workouts and changing his diet, but he said he knew he had to do it to get back in shape and compete.
Ellis dropped 15 pounds.
By 11th grade, Ellis had pulled up his grades up and was eligible to compete at Knightdale, where he was a star. In 2012, he won the 400-meter race in the state championship and came in second in the 200-meter his senior year.
Ellis would get nervous before the start of every 400.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “But when the gun goes off, my mind is clear and I’m just running. It’s like a thrill to me.”
Once the butterflies disappear and the focus kicks in, all he can see is the lane he’s running in. He blocks out his opponents and the noise from the crowd.
“When people come up to me after the race and be like, ‘I was cheering for you, you didn’t hear me?’ I’m just like, ‘I didn’t hear nobody,’ ” he said. “I’m just in the zone when I’m running. Just tunnel vision.”
Desire and focus
After graduating from high school in 2012, Ifill suggested that Ellis follow his parents’ path and run track for St. Augustine’s, where he thrived under coach George Williams.
“I can’t make no people run fast unless they bring something to the table,” Williams said. “And he brought something to the table. But I can take speed that you have and develop it.”
Ellis came in third in the 400-meter hurdle as a freshman in the Division II nationals. He was the only freshman to make the finals. Ellis was also one-fourth of the 400-meter relay team that broke the Division II national record, finishing the race in 38.91 seconds.
In 2016, his final season at St. Augustine’s, Ellis won the 200-meter sprint in the Division II nationals, came in second in the 100-meter sprint after a poor start, and was part of the national champion 4x100 relay squad. He was also named the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year.
He graduated in May and is now set to pursue his Olympic dream.
Williams says what makes Ellis a good sprinter is his desire and focus.
“And it’s something that he wants,” Williams said. “He’s still not as focused as you would like him to be because he’s a young kid. But as he gets older, I still think he has two or three more Olympics. And so, he’ll get to that point.”
Ellis desires to be one of the greats in the sport.
“My family my friends ... they keep my head on straight so I can go further in the sport,” he said. “I just want to keep running.”
Today, Ellis is a little taller, with an athletic build at 6-3 and 199 pounds. He has a full beard and a slight Barbados accent that can go unnoticed unless you listen closely.
Running against Bolt
When Ellis steps onto the track in Rio for the 200-meter sprint, there’s a chance he’ll be running against the fastest man in the world, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. There are four heats, with eight runners each, trying to get to the semifinals. The top four in each race advance to the semis. The top four from the two semifinal races advance to the finals.
Has he thought about the prospect of running against Bolt? Oh yeah. When asked about running against the world-record holder and six-time Olympic gold medalist, Ellis’ facial expression changed, he raised his eyebrows, nodded his head and let out a nervous laugh.
He is trying not to think about it too much so he doesn’t throw himself off.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m running against Bolt,’ ” Ellis said. “I just want to go out there and be like, ‘He just another athlete. Just run.’ ”
In order to reach his goal of earning a medal, Ellis will likely have to outrun his personal best of 20.36 seconds. He said the average Olympian runs the 200-meter sprint in about 20.2 seconds or less.
Bolt’s world-record time is 19.19 seconds.
But Ellis is confident. Exploding out of the curve is his strength. He said if he gets into the curve with the lead, “it’s a wrap for other runners.”
Even against Bolt, he said.
His mom, Ifill, agrees.
“One thing about him,” she said, “it doesn’t matter who is on that line. Usain Bolt or Justin Gatlin. He is going to compete.”
It’s been that way since he was 2 years old.