At the 2019 Western A Divisionals track meet, Columbia Falls standout athlete Josie Windauer ran 1:00.00 in the 400-meter dash, a perfectly round number for the one-lap race. However, Windauer, who hadn’t lost a 400 to Class A competition all season, was in the odd position of not crossing the finish line first.
Instead, Whitefish sophomore Mikenna Ells cruised to the win, clocking her first sub-60 second race in 59.12.
“[She’d] been beating me all season and I knew I could beat her and that it would give me someone to push against,” Mikenna said about the meet. “I wanted to do it and it finally happened.”
Mikenna’s personal best from that meet lasted exactly seven days. At the state track meet that year, she blazed a 57.47, more than two full seconds ahead of the next girl in the race. Her first place finish, plus a third place finish in the 800m run and two relay wins, helped push the Bulldogs to their first state title in 35 years.
“It was just like, wow, this is super exciting.” Kelliann Blackburn, head girls track coach at Whitefish said. “I knew that we had something pretty special.”
The Bulldogs have a legacy of producing state-stunning sprinters. From 2011-2014, Marlow Schulz won 10 state titles, including a triple-triple sweep— she won the 100-, 200- and 400-meter runs in three consecutive years and holds the Class A record in the 400m, at 55.06.
Now a senior, Mikenna wants to break that, and stamp her name on Whitefish’s school record wall.
“We’ve been doing more training this year outside of just track practice,” Mikenna said. “And I’ve just been pushing myself and I’m trying to get better every day. Hopefully that will get the time down a bit more.”
Mikenna has some extra motivation this year in the form of her younger sister, Hailey, a freshman who is ranked in the top 10 in the state in four different events, including the high jump and both hurdles.
“I heard she could run in junior high, but just watching her run for the first time at our first meet this year I knew she had talent,” Blackburn said. “They’re so fun together as sisters, and it’s definitely a very healthy competition between the two.”
“They’re two of the most coachable kids I’ve every coached,” Blackburn continued, a strong statement from the 23-year coaching veteran. “They’re team players first — they’ll never tell you their accolades. They’re just humble giants.”
While Mikenna has excelled in the flat races, Hailey has taken to hurdling, losing only one race in each event this year.
“When I started in middle school I worked with the hurdles a little bit because they looked fun to me,” Hailey said. “This year I wasn’t intending on succeeding at all but it’s gone much better than I was thinking.”
The Ells sisters are both multi-sport athletes, playing volleyball in the fall, agree that track is the most fun basketball in the winter and then taking to the track in the spring. Both.
“Coach Blackburn has just done an awesome job building our team family this year,” Hailey said. “The environment, the teammates and the coaches are just great.”
As elementary school kids, the girls attended a track camp in Colorado, their first memories of sprinting down the black and white lanes. Ever since then, that’s been the spring sport, with Mikenna racing first and Hailey coming up a few years afterwards.
“I was really excited for this season, because growing up there’s always been a year or two that we overlap and I get to work with her,” Hailey said. “There’s an extra mental push of ‘I get to try and beat my sister,’ that helps push me to be better.”
While Mikenna and Hailey will only overlap for a year in high school, the elder sibling will be racing nearby in the future having recently committed to continue her track career at the University of Montana. She will be joining the top Class A sprinter on the boys side, Libby’s Jay Beagle, who also committed to the Griz.
Hailey likes watching her sister set a high bar for success.
“I definitely want to be my own person, but getting the opportunity to see her future helps me process mine a little bit,” she said. “I definitely want to be a college athlete now and I know I can do that.”
With the state track meet rapidly approaching, Mikenna is getting ready for a state title defense after the 2020 season was cancelled.
“You have to have a pretty special person to be able to compete in prelims, and then finals, in multiple events,” Blackburn said. “It’s a balancing game because you really have to know, should these multi-event people make it in all the events, what can they do for the team?”
“We’ve got to find the perfect fit so that the team benefits, that’s what happened two years ago and Mikenna knows that,” she continued. “She’s excited about where she is with the 400, but she see the opportunities with other events. She’s just ready to go.”
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