By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – It’s hard not to reference Charles Dickens in this situation.
That the Tennessee women’s track and field senior class has experienced the highs and lows during the last four years has created a unique bond between its members, who began competition in their final NCAA Championships this Thursday at the East Preliminary Rounds in Jacksonville, Fla. The Lady Vols are the nation’s ninth-ranked squad entering the weekend.
Two key members of that class include Chanelle Price and Ellen Wortham, true student-athletes who are as accomplished in the classroom as they are on the track. Each is recipients of NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships and exemplifies class and character daily.
“They have done remarkable things on and off the field,” Tennessee head coach JJ Clark said. “Academically, they are scholar-athletes with GPAs of 3.8 or better and have earned NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships. That’s the part you don’t see, you don’t see academics. On the field, there have been a lot of championships with the relays both nationally and at Penn Relays. They’ve scored a lot of points for Tennessee, as many as any other team we’ve had and that includes Sarah [Bowman] and Phoebe [Wright].
“It’s remarkable how unselfish they are,” Clark continued. “Ellen has been on the 4x100, the 4x400, the long jump and the 400 hurdles and Chanelle does everything from cross country to the 800m to the 1,500m to the 4x400m. They have just been willing to do those things to put the team in a good position.”
Price is a middle-distance runner from Easton, Pa., while Wortham, a sprinter/jumper/hurdler, joined the squad from nearby Maryville, Tenn. Over the course of a four-year period, the two have experienced an NCAA Indoor Championship in 2009, the combining of the men’s and women’s programs in advance of the 2010 season and a handful of coaching changes.
“We’ve definitely had a lot of transitions,” Wortham said. “It hasn’t always been easy. For me personally, going through a lot of coaching changes has brought us closer in the end as my teammates have pulled together and brought the best out of each other. There have definitely been challenges, but it has been a positive experience.”
At times, it seemed as if the experience was the stuff of dreams at the highest points. Price was a member of a world-record setting distance medley relay team that consisted of current professionals Sarah Bowman and Phoebe Wright. The Lady Vols took home the trophy at both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Indoor Championships in 2009, and took home countless Championship of America relay titles at the prestigious Penn Relays Carnival.
“You don’t really think about it, not even in your dreams,” Price said. “I was on a part of the indoor DMR team that broke the world record. You just don’t expect that type of thing to happen. I haven’t gotten a chance to look back at my career and let it sink in. When we came in, Tennessee was on top and it was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience to win nationals, win at Penn Relays and set all types of records. We just had the ball rolling and so those were some of my best memories.”
It hasn’t always been easy for the Lady Vols, but the program has put together its best three-year period of national finishes since 1982-84. After the national indoor title in 2009, Tennessee finished second and then seventh in 2010 and 2011. Along the way, Clark has raised the bar when it comes to expectations for success with Lady Vol track and field. That’s a standard of excellence that will remain with each of the athletes long after their athletic careers have included.
“They’ve had some transition, but I tell them that’s life,” Clark said. “You have to overcome obstacles and keep your eye on the goal. They’ve done that with the coaching changes and mergers; they’ve been through different training cycles with different coaches and they’ve overcome. It’s been very, very positive overall. Merging our men’s and women’s team was a good transition, however it was a change and they’ve adapted very well. You can tell that by their performances, along with what we’ve done at the conference and national meets.”
It’s the relationships that the Lady Vols have formed amongst themselves that have helped the athletes battle through the hard times and rejoice the good times.
“As far as my teammates go, they’re the most consistent thing I’ve had the past four years,” Wortham said. “They’ve always been there for me and have seen me at my worst and my best. They always know how to cheer me up and support me. It’s kind of like a secondary family for me. My family is close by and this is just another support group that kinds of helps me celebrate successes, and we help each other through failures. It has been a really great team support-wise.”
Price agrees and says she is proud to see that strong team bond trickle down to the younger members of the Tennessee team.
“We’re like a family, honestly,” Price said. “I was actually talking to a parent of one of the younger girls when I was at SECs. She said she had wanted to go out to eat with her daughter, but her daughter wanted to go eat with us. She said that she knew her daughter was happy because she always wanted to be around her teammates. It’s important to be a family if you want to be a good team.”
The bond that his seniors have formed has given Clark a bit of a different outlook on the overall student-athlete experience that takes place as part of track and field.
“It’s made me realize how important the relationships can be that you develop over the years,” Clark said. “They’re very good friends, not just in track and field, but off the field. It’s made me realize how track and field is one aspect and academics are one aspect, but the relationships are a very important aspect also.”
That academic part has been just as key to the duo’s time at Tennessee as anything the pair has accomplished on the track. Both are NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship recipients and have taken their studies very seriously. Price majored in journalism and plans to pursue a career in sports media, while Wortham majored in psychology and is interested in a career either working with mental health or as a counselor in a school setting.
“Growing up, I was involved in all types of sports, but I wasn’t allowed to go to practice if I didn’t have As and Bs, so I just kind of carried that on to college,” Price said. “I want to be as consistent in the classroom as I am on the track. As an undergraduate, I had to be committed to academics. We don’t get much free time, so I had to be disciplined, but it wasn’t that hard because I have the discipline of being an athlete.”
Wortham credits the support system in place at the University of Tennessee for helping her succeed in all aspects of her life.
“I’ve been successful not just because of myself, but because of the resources we have at Tennessee,” Wortham said. “We have great academic support from the Thornton Center and good coaching at an SEC school. I’ve really been able to balance everything by going out there every day and giving my best on the track and my best in the classroom. It’s pretty easy to be successful at Tennessee because of all the support and also because of their high standards. From the get-go, we were told that we were expected to be successful in the classroom first and then on the track, or whatever you happened to be doing. Tennessee has their priorities straight and is really focused a lot on the student-athletes.”
Clark has seen the commitment by his seniors to balance academics and athletics that has translated into success in all areas of their lives.
“They know how to curtail social activities,” Clark said. “You have to make a decision – it’s hard to be social when you have commitments academically and athletically. Something has to give. That doesn’t mean you don’t have friends, but you have to give a little bit. They were willing to make that sacrifice for academic achievement.”
Price knows her time at Tennessee will help her transition into life after college no matter what obstacles may come her way.
“I had very little adversity in high school,” Price said. “I didn’t deal with any obstacles, but here, I’ve had different health battles and it’s been one thing after another. Those things teach you that you have to bounce back and stay motivated. That’s how life’s going to be sometimes – you’re going to get hit left and right. I appreciate everything I’ve gone through and don’t think I would be prepared for the real world without it.”
Prepared is one thing that Price and Wortham certainly will be. Clark has no doubt that his pupils will find success no matter what they decide to do and no matter what may stand in their way.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Clark said. “I like their character and like the development that I’ve seen them make. In the big picture, they’re going to be great contributors to society. They’re good people first and I realize that.”