A Smile Each Mile (or Kilometer) for Ellie Davis

About three minutes into my conversation with Ellie Davis, I asked her about her mile time. I had to ask primarily because I’m endlessly fascinated by distance runners, a group of which she is newly a member. I’m often curious as to how these runners measure themselves, and that starts with wondering what their mile time is. It’s my baseline. Ignorantly, I assume it’s theirs, too.

She didn’t have an answer. This is because, she said, she hasn’t raced a definitive, hard mile. Which isn’t necessarily true; records from her first year on the Marist cross country team show that she ran a 5:44.38 at the NYC Gotham Cup, placing 32nd. But she mainly measures her runs in kilometers, which may explain why she neglected to mention the astounding time: she’s more focused on the specific metrics of the kinds of races she’ll frequent a bit more. For instance, the 3K, 5K, or 6K, all of which she ran in the 2019-20 season. To do the math for those just hoping to find a reasonable spot to stop on the treadmill, a 3K almost two miles; her math, not mine, which benefits the both of us. 

“So, what’s your two-mile time?” I wondered, still haplessly trying to keep the numbers in English. I got a subtle smile in return, followed by, “Well, my 3K time is 10:46.” 

It’s a time she seems unimpressed with, at least indifferent to. The search engine Quora says a good 3K time is 14 minutes for competitive runners. A number of commenters on the community website Gym Nation note that a good time hovers around 10 to 11 minutes. No matter what one is the correct, universal measurement, Davis would find herself in the clear of deriding comments from the trolls of running Twitter. Not that it would matter. 

She seems pretty unfazed by things of this nature, like my joke about needing resuscitation after a two-mile treadmill run of 22 minutes. Slight chuckle, sure, but little time for games when there are questions to answer and training to think about. And also, it’s not two miles. It’s three kilometers. Get it right.

That might make her sound too stern for comfort, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s plenty of time for fun and games when there’s not a race looming or a personal record to break. She put an emphasis on “3K” earlier because it’s important to get the specifics of things correct, particularly when that’s the task at hand. When discussing the specifics of something in detail for an interview, she just wants to make sure that everything she says makes sense and is accurate. 

Naturally and ordinarily, Davis is cheerful and eager if still incisive and focused. When we first met, she was sitting huddled with a group of teammates and other Marist athletes having recently finished their own practices. I don’t know what they were talking about, but they were laughing, and Ellie was at the center of it. 

She kept laughing and smiling as she walked over to where we were introduced and then ushered into a sort of utility closet for our interview. No one said anything about this because… well, it felt more odd to point out that the interview was in a closet than it did actually holding the interview in the closet. Where it caught me off guard, Davis didn’t skip a beat.

For her first interview, she handled it like a pro. No, really; straightforward answers, solid ones, too, but nothing too grabby or revelatory. Not akin to Kawhi Leonard or Bill Belichick – she’s quite far from dull – but more like an Andrew Luck-type chat. Modest, orthodox, but with the personality to make it all feel a bit more exciting than it actually may be. 

What she does is simple, it seems to both her and me. She runs, and she loves running. She loves her teammates. There’s a “cool dynamic” to having a men’s team as well because the groups have become so close while working together as a unit where men’s and women’s teams in other sports would operate separately. Her coaches, Pete Colaizzo and Chuck Williams, she says, are “amazing.” All very pleasant and straight replies to what were, perhaps, simple inquiries.

Until I asked her why she runs. As opposed to what she did before.

Apparently, the average soccer player travels a distance of seven miles per game. It depends on your position, sure. Midfielders are bound to run much more rampant than a goalie. Defenders, too; Sergio Ramos, defender for Spanish club Real Madrid, traveled 41.4 kilometers (6.4 miles) per match over the course of four World Cup games in 2018, per Soccer Blade.

It’s impractical to say that Ellie Davis was ever a Sergio Ramos-like talent. Traveler, though? Much more feasible, even from the start. She began playing soccer when she was three – have you ever watched a three-year-old play soccer? The “chicken with their head cut off” analogy is almost insulting to their hapless galloping philosophy. Who knows if Ellie was like that, but speculation could argue that considering her relative success, she was an active force all throughout her career. 

She recites her resume with ease and humble confidence, ensuring that the specifics are noted, not the accomplishments exalted. She played for just about her whole life. She was on “elite club teams,” traveling all over the place for tournaments – Phoenix, California, and Florida, to name a few, all of which are considerable escapades for the Port Washington native.  “College coaches would come to showcases… [we’d] practice five days a week, three hours a night,” she said. “So yeah, like it was intense.” 

Here’s what she hadn’t mentioned, at least not by this point in our conversation, though some were neglected altogether: she was an alternate for the Maccabi USA Women’s National Team in 2017. (Maccabi USA is an organization dedicated to “building Jewish pride through sports.”). She was also the National Premier League Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. (The NPL is “a national competition platform created to elevate and change the competitive youth soccer landscape”).

She committed to play soccer at Marist in December of her junior year of high school and began the collegiate portion of the soccer career she had built for 15 years in the fall of 2018. She appeared in four games and tallied a total of 45 minutes of playing time in which the team won three of the four games and handily outscored opponents 9-4. At season’s end, she quit.

Initially, she brushed past the notion that she had quit, though I knew she had and was curious about interviewing her in part because of this transition between sports. It’s not necessarily an unusual transition to undergo, but any shift from one sport to the next in college is unique.

“I quit and I joined the cross country and track team,” she said, describing her journey to joining the cross country team. “I always really enjoyed running, so it wasn’t that hard of a transition for me.” 

But why the transition at all?

She started her answer by asserting her love for her former teammates, noting that they are still her best friends and that she wouldn’t trade her experiences for the world.

“It definitely made my freshman year of college super memorable, and I learned a lot about just being in college and a lot about myself,” she said. “But I didn’t like the team environment that the coaches fostered.”

It’s not something she was necessarily prepared for, regardless of the required adaptability that comes with sports. Davis was recruited by Katherine Lyn, but walked into a team led by Leigh Howard after Lyn resigned in 2017, months before her recruits would even step foot on campus for the 2018 season. Her resignation, coupled with Howard’s this past season, is indicative of a larger problem within the program. Perhaps Davis was lucky to avoid it. This doesn’t change the fact that she never wanted to leave the sport she loved and planned on pursuing a four-year collegiate career, just like anyone else who commits to a school for one sport. 

Davis went on to describe the matters that nudged her toward leaving the team, also things that are all indicative of greater issues in sports. She mentioned that she wasn’t a fan of the politics at play, a factor that caused her enjoyment of the game to wither. “It made going to practice a task rather than something I would usually look forward to… I think it was really at that point when I realized that playing made me [sad more] than it made me happy. That was an issue.”

Beyond the organizational politics, if you will, she noticed blatant favoritism; “I don’t think playing time had anything to do with how you performed at practice [or] the standard and expectations that the coaches set up for playing time,” she said. For example: all players had to pass a fitness test, or they wouldn’t play. But, Davis noticed, the results didn’t seem to correlate. She would pass every single test, being either the fittest person or second fittest person on the team… and that was never acknowledged.” 

The coaches were also, apparently, “extremely big” on character and care for the team. Davis felt as though she consistently went the extra mile, doing more to help with equipment, giving the clichéd 110% in all aspects. “We actually did a team survey,” she said, “and I got ranked five [out of five] on everything by every single one of my teammates.” None of it seemed to matter, not even specific requests for extra practice in the interest of improving. Asking for long balls – one of her weakest points as a player – wasn’t met with what Ellie deemed was a proper response. Acknowledgment never came; the validation she thought her work called for was nonexistent. 

“And I’m not negating the fact that I had weak points as a player,” she said, asserting that she knows she wasn’t a Sergio Ramos, heck, even a Keri Bradley. But she was sure that hard work should be noticed, at the very least. When it didn’t – after a meeting with her coaches in which they noted that being the fittest and hardest working didn’t matter, that she needed to be okay knowing she may never step foot on the field – she had officially reached the point where she was done.

“I know the talent I did have as a player… was way more than they were giving me credit for,” she said. “I never even got the opportunity… I was really like, okay, this is not worth it to me anymore. It wasn’t fun for me anymore.”

The University of Albany athletic department, where Leigh Howard now serves as the women’s soccer team’s head coach, did not respond to a request for Howard’s comments. 

I figured this had to have been difficult. Revolutionary analysis, right? How hard could it have been for a lifelong player to give up the sport she loved because others gave up on her? That was an idea one could only imagine, though I’m sure they’d prefer to refrain from even dreaming up the possibility. Davis lived through it, and though she found a second competitive life in cross country, she felt like she was giving up on a part of herself.

She mentioned the idea that she was letting down her parents, who had put so much time and energy (and money) into her soccer career. It wasn’t just giving up a backyard pastime. Davis described it as giving up everything she had ever known, from a competitive standpoint. “But knowing I was miserable… it was worth it at that point.”

She paused for a moment, leaving room for me to mention the bright side of things: having cross country to explore.

“Yes,” she replied emphatically, with the inflection of someone who had just gotten back from a lovely first date. A smile reappeared for the first time in a while; not since huddling and laughing with her teammates had she grinned. 

Apparently, the average healthy collegiate cross-country athlete logs between 70 and 100 miles per week. When Davis first joined the track team, she wasn’t like a fish out of water, but more so a starfish in a saltwater pool. The environment mirrored what she once thrived in, but it would take time to acclimate. 

Upon arrival, Davis started by running 55 miles a week. She found it “kind of cool” when her coaches and teammates told her that she was maintaining a solid log for someone who hadn’t run before. Chuck Williams, her assistant coach, acknowledged Davis’s natural acclimation to the sport’s tendencies, mentioning that while it is a transition, it’s not as taxing as it would be for someone who played more of a standstill sport. “The amount of running she would do for soccer wasn’t nearly the volume that she would do running cross country,” he said. “So we made it very gradual… we gradually built up her mileage in the summer.” This gave Ellie the ability to become slowly familiarized with the idea of longer runs. By the end of the summer – utilizing the same work ethic she put into everything else – she was, Williams said, “up doing mileage that a lot of our girls were doing normally.”

He also mentioned perhaps the less notable transition involved, but one that’s just as pivotal to identify. Ellie was moving from one game where she was a scholarship player to a different “game,” one that, at the time, didn’t have money to offer. Eventually, the necessary parties met with Athletic Director Tim Murray, who signed off on Ellie’s transfer and continued scholarship in order to do “what was best for everyone involved.” 

The whole thing is rather uncommon. Williams and Colaizzo will see athletes cross over, playing one sport (soccer, notably) and running, but it’s not often that you’ll see athletes leaving one for the other. “We see more crossover in our sport than others,” he said, “but to completely transition and leave one completely and go a full season in one? That usually isn’t really common.”

Ellie’s circumstances, obviously, were different than anything you’d call “normal,” as transitions go. This wasn’t moving from human resources to sales. It was changing companies. She never meant to change things on a dime. But when she did, she immediately found that the team environment was unlike anything she had experienced with soccer, at least in some ways. “The biggest difference I think is – and, like, not that the soccer team wasn’t supportive – but really, the sense of support on the team,” she said. “Everyone just wants you to do well. And if you have a bad race or a bad day, everyone is always there to pick you up.”

In soccer, she said, it was a little different. “If you have a bad game… if you mess up and if you, like, make a shitty play or whatever, girls are gonna be pissed at you and kind of talk about you behind your back,” she said more resoundingly than I had expected, even from someone who was so straightforward throughout the interview. “Like, ‘Wow, she just passed the ball to the other team… she played so bad, like, she sucks.’ You know?” She’s still friends with her former teammates – she lives with a number of them – but the change was a necessity.

It was nice to discover. She noted that Williams and Colaizzo have been so supportive, that she feels like she, “can talk to them about anything, whether it’s running, personal life, anything… they’re always there for me, always there for anyone. They care so deeply about us as runners and as people, which is something I really never experienced before.” Williams echoed the sentiment, saying she was received very well. 

Regardless of the fact that there was a team support system in the background, Ellie also found herself moving away from a holistic team sport for a sport that would emphasize the individual. Was it weird? Sure, but it was what she needed. That motivation, the will to put in the extra effort on your own, was something she realized she was craving. In track, “no one else can run for you,” she said. “Because of that intrinsic motivation, I think I’m able to do really well because yes, I’m running because I want to score points for my teammates and do well for my teammates and make my coaches proud, but I’m also out there doing this for me.”

All of this and more made it hard to give up track, though that will (ideally) only last for the remainder of this year. Though that wasn’t voluntary – there were “a lot of tears” when it was announced that they wouldn’t be returning, nor continuing their transition from indoor to outdoor due to the COVID-19 outbreak that erased the remainder of all college seasons. But Ellie, naturally, didn’t give up running. She has even more time for it now, when she’s not sitting through online schooling. 

Distances and severity depend on the day now. She says – this time over Zoom, not in a closet – that Mondays are an easier day (five miles), while Tuesdays are big volume days, like what they did at school (13 or so miles spread throughout the day, plus a lift) and Wednesdays are “a pretty easy nine miles.” She’s running to the tune of “Big Bootie Mix, Vol. 17” these days. “It’s really good,” she said with a laugh. 

She also likes to fill time by baking, something she did at school in her free time and a luxury she’s sure her team misses. At the end-of-season dinner, she made three cakes: one chocolate with vanilla frosting, one vanilla with chocolate frosting, and one red velvet with cream cheese frosting. “Everyone loved them,” she said, as if that wasn’t obvious. 

At home, if she’s feeling fancy, she’ll vie for macaroons or eclairs, elaborate layer cakes, too. “But I make a lot of cookies, a lot of muffins and banana breads and stuff like that.” 

Thank god for daily training.

Does Ellie Davis miss soccer?

“Um…” she said, stopping to think, perhaps trying to access a memory that reminded her of the best aspects. 

“I miss specific moments.” 

Like what?

“I miss knowing how happy I could have been.”

She continued, allowing herself to parse apart what she just said, contextualizing things. She misses the feeling of having a great game; she misses the kinds of experiences she could have with soccer, like playing with the Maccabi team and winning the gold, a “life changing experience and one [she’s] so glad [she] was able to be a part of.” That memory was formed last summer, amidst her cross country training. It just solidified what she already knew was true: soccer was no longer her game.

“Doing that made me realize how happy I could be [when] playing soccer, but how I would never be that happy playing soccer here.”

As her coach, Williams assuredly sensed that, at times, she missed the game she played for so long. “She’s always gonna love soccer,” he said. “Her dog’s named Rooney [after the legendary Wayne Rooney], you know? So it’s part of her. It was part of her identity for so long… there’s always gonna be a part of her who’s gonna love the sport.” 

He mentioned that he’s a big supporter of the team and was close with Leigh Howard, so he attended a lot of their games. Ellie was there with him, watching her former team as a supporter. “Now she has a new passion,” he says. “I’m sure over the summertime she’ll be kicking the ball around, and it’s quite alright by me… It’s hard to just give up.”

Before exiting the closet, Ellie wanted to offer one final thought. She said that people, including me, always ask if she regrets her decision to quit. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she avowed. “This switch… is one of the best decisions I have made thus far in my life. And I know that sounds extreme, but I am so much happier than I was before. So much happier.”

“I never looked back,” she said, unintentionally offering up a racing reference. The smile, by now, had returned. “And that’s a really good feeling.”

Edited by Bridget Reilly and Dave Connelly

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