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The Race of His Life: Sprinter James Ellington Talks About His Incredible Comeback From Injury

The Race of His Life: Sprinter James Ellington Talks About His Incredible Comeback From Injury

James Ellington racing in the 100 metres at the 2019 anniversary games

If you were looking for an example of a man who has battled with adversity and refused to take a backwards step, then you might come across British sprinter James Ellington.

After having one of the best seasons of his career on the track in 2016, his life changed forever the following January when during a warm-weather training camp in Tenerife he went on a sightseeing trip with former British team-mate Nigel Levine that saw their rented motorbike was involved in a head-on collision with a car.

Suffering horrific injuries in the crash, doctors told Ellington he may never walk again. Many would have accepted their fate, but James almost immediately set his mind to getting back on the track no matter what. In July at the London Anniversary Games he did just that, marking an incredible comeback running in the 100 metres at the London Stadium.

James Ellington wants to continue to prove his doubters wrong by making his third Olympic team and racing in Tokyo next year. With his steely will and never say die determination we certainly wouldn’t bet against that happening.

The MALESTROM sat down with the man himself to go over that fateful day in Tenerife, his comeback to the track and hopes for Tokyo 2020.

The MALESTROM: As much as you must hate to relive it, could we start with you telling us about your accident?

James Ellington: Basically, I was in Tenerife in January 2017 preparing for the upcoming season.

I’d had a good training session and had the weekend off so decided to do some sightseeing with one of my old training partners, so we rented a motorcycle and I jumped on the back of it.

We went over to see a volcano and then on the way back down all I can remember is seeing headlights and we had a head-on collision with a car.

TM: And out of that there were some very serious injuries…

JE: Yeah, I displaced my pelvis, fractured my pelvis, I broke my right leg, which was a compound fracture. I broke my left ankle, fractured my eye socket, I tore my abductors off the bone and I lost six pints of blood.

TM: The pain must have been incredible?

JE: To be honest at first, I wasn’t in too much pain, I think I was in shock, cause I was in so much trauma with my body there must have been loads of adrenaline pumping at that point, so the pain wasn’t too bad to begin with.

But then obviously getting to the hospital I was rushed into ICU and that’s when the pain started kicking in (laughs).

James Ellington in his hospital bed in Teneriffe after his accident in 2017
James in his hospital bed

TM: And you were told you might never walk again let alone compete. How did you feel after hearing those words?

JE: They were most concerned about me being able to walk again properly, let alone training or competing. But I kind of just stuck to my guns early and had belief in myself.

TM: How long it was it after that day in Tenerife, with the accident? Before you sort of said to yourself, I am going to try and compete on the track again. Was it days, months?

JE: It was pretty much the same day I woke up. And I mean, we weren’t sure whether I was going to lose my leg at the time.

I was like, if I don’t lose my leg I’ll be back on the track and even if I do lose my leg I’ll still be back on the track, but I’ll be one of the fastest Paralympian’s instead. That was kind of my mindset from the very beginning.

TM: You talk about your mindset. I mean, obviously, it’s been pretty tough for you. How have you coped mentally?

JE: I’ve been through quite a few adverse situations throughout my life… it’s weird, it’s not something I consciously try and do, maybe it’s just the way I’ve grown up that’s moulded me.

I’ve always been pretty much like that, if I want to do something and I believe it can be done, then I just stick to it and don’t let anybody dissuade me.

TM: Athletics is obviously very different from other sports, mainly down to how it’s generally an individual endeavour and you’re funded rather than paid wages. Sports teams would tend to have it in players contracts that they can’t ride motorbikes? Presumably that’s different in athletics?

JE: Not really. But since the accident, I think they’ve changed their criteria. In terms of going away on training trips, I think they’ve added it in there.

I mean, I’ve always been a sensible athlete. I’d understand if it was one of those things where I’d rent a motorbike and fly around, but I was well aware I was at training camp.

The guy that crashed with me on the bike had been riding for years and he seemed to be a sensible rider. So we weren’t going up there with any intention of riding fast and crashing. We just wanted to do the tourist bit, but it was a one in a million thing.

TM: Do you have regrets about getting on that bike?

JE: No, no regrets. It could literally happen to anyone.

TE: Tell us how your training is looking at this point, because obviously, you’ve got to the stage where you’re back on the track…

JE: At the moment I’m currently having a bit of a rest. In the lead up to that race at the London Stadium I had some setbacks going into it.

Going into it I was in massive amounts of pain and didn’t know whether I’d make the track. But there was no way I wasn’t going to run.

I’m still not fully healed. I mean if I was you’d have seen a way better performance. But the main thing was just to get to the line.

So over the next month or so I’m going to see if I can get treatment and speak to some doctors about getting this pain gone from my pelvis as it’s really holding me back at the moment.

Once I’ve sorted that I’ll be back into full training preparing for next year’s Olympics.

Sprinter James Ellington training with a resistance band in 2019
James in training

TM: You’ve said previously that people who doubt you works as motivation. Surely you’ve answered many of those by returning to the track?

JE: You’d think so, but there are still probably a lot of people out there that doubt that I’ll be back. But the thing is, I’ve got through the hardest part now.

Obviously, this pain I’ve got right now isn’t ideal, but I’ve gone through the other pains and all the trials and tribulations before, so I’ve got plenty of time if I did want to compete again this season.

But I will have converted some doubters into believers, which is good. But again, anyone that still does doubt is good motivation.

TM: What was that moment like when you did take to the track again after what you’ve been through?

JE: Yeah, it was amazing. I was thinking beforehand, what if I step on the track and I get overwhelmed and get really emotional? Because I’m not really an emotional person.

It’s weird because I was aware of it and it was an amazing moment and the crowd was cheering me, but I didn’t get emotional.

In my head, that’s because it’s not the end of the journey yet. I think because deep down inside I know there’s stuff that I still need to do and that moment will come in the Olympics next year maybe.

TM: Have you got funding right now?

JE: No. I’ve got zero (laughs).

TM: So putting yourself on eBay isn’t an option again right?

JE: No. I think that was a one-hit wonder.

TM: The big goal as you say is making Tokyo 2020. You’re in pain now, but you’re going to do everything in your power to get there…?

JE: Yeah, of course, of course. As long as I’m alive and running I’ll do everything in my power to get there. I think it’s going to be a hard thing to stop me from getting there.

James Ellington competing at the Rio Olympics
James at the Rio Olympics

TM: What would you have been if you weren’t a sprinter?

JE: I don’t know you know. I’ve always wanted to be my own boss and set up my own firm. So, I probably would have started my own business. I’ve got one business at the moment, it’s a company called Sprintfit, which is a speed training consultancy.

That’s kind of me passing on my knowledge about sprinting and helping improve speed for other sportspeople. It’s an area that can make a big difference in sports. And it kind of goes hand in hand with what I’m doing anyway.

TM: Can we just talk about the British sprint scene at the moment. It’s in pretty good health with the likes of Zharnel Hughes and Reece Prescod getting good results. Does that also help drive you, seeing them getting success?

JE: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s probably in the strongest place it’s ever been in terms of depth and the speed with the guys at the top. Zharnel is a good guy, he’s a friend of mine in the team and Reece is a good guy.

It definitely does drive me on to getting back to where I know I can get back to. Cause before the crash happened I was on an upward trajectory.

I got five PBs in the 100m in 2016, with that being the first year in my whole career I’d focussed on the 100. And obviously my race wasn’t complete, so I know there’s a lot more to show. Hence why I’m carrying on.

TM: You see a lot of talent sprinters have a bad year and then they seem to disappear from the track for a while. How hard is it to pick yourself up from having that bad season?

JE: I mean, you have a short memory if you’re an athlete. If you dwell on all the bad races and everything that’s happened in the past, you’re never going to move forward.

So you kind of learn over the years of being an athlete not to take things too seriously. I mean you have to take it seriously, but not kind of dwell on things.

TM: Is that the way you sort of cope with the pressure as well, by not taking it too seriously? There are so many pressures for athletes to make times to make squads…

JE: If you know you’re in good shape and you believe in your ability, then whatever’s going to be is going to be, I think. The athletes that mess up the most are the ones that know they’re in good shape, but put that pressure on themselves.

I kind of thrive on the pressure. I’ve noticed over the years my best performances have come from whenever I’ve put myself in the deep end.

In 2016 I decided to go to the trials of the 100 metres. All the British Athletics management had an agenda of who they wanted on the team and it made me second guess myself, saying,

“Are you sure you want to do the 100 at the trials? Maybe you should stick to the 200?”

But I stuck to my guns and I came second at the nationals.

Even with the EBAY thing back in the day, I opened my big mouth on TV and told everyone if I get funding I’ll be national champion and be able to go to the Olympics.

And everyone was like what is this boy talking about? I say things because once I’ve said it, I have to make sure I do it, because I want to be a man of my word.

TM: So you put pressure on yourself?

JE: Yeah, yeah.

TM: We always finish off by asking for a bit of wisdom from your career, if anything comes to mind?

JE: I think the only thing I’d say is, as human beings we all like to plan ahead and it’s good to have things to look forward to, but we can never control life. So, I think we all need to live in the moment and enjoy the now.

Because the past is gone, and tomorrow is a promise. I think that’s the key on how to live life.

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