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On her toes
After 15 years of ballet, Ellis transforms into track star

SUWANEE - Imani Ellis trained 15 years to be a hurdler, she just never knew it.

The Collins Hill senior grew up a ballerina, performing in "The Nutcracker" and several other major shows.

It wasn't until last year that she joined the Eagles' track team.

Ellis never participated in any organized sports as a kid, since all her attention was on ballet. Yet the constant jumping and leaping ended up as the perfect preparation to be a hurdler.

In her first season of track, she placed third at state in the 300-meter hurdles and fourth in the 100 hurdles.

Now she's one of the top hurdlers in the state and a favorite for a state championship.

"It's still kind of unreal to me. It all kind of happened real fast," Ellis said. "Sometimes I'll be in the blocks and I'll look up and I'm at a track meet. It's so weird."

Ellis grew up in the performing arts. She never played on a softball or basketball team like other youngsters. Sure, she played kickball or soccer with friends, but ballet was always her thing.

Beginning when she was only 3 years old, Ellis practiced ballet six days a week for five to six hours a day.

The dedication has been rewarding.

When her family moved to Lawrenceville six years ago, Ellis began performing with the Atlanta Ballet. She played Clara, the little girl in "The Nutcracker," and was the first African-American to ever play the role in the 78-year history of the Atlanta Ballet.

"I think that's my biggest accomplishment other than track," Ellis said.

Ellis decided to give athletics a try last year and she stopped performing ballet. Along with a couple of friends, she tried out for the track team. She was originally put in sprinting events, but after advice from one of her teammates she tried the hurdles.

It was a natural fit.

"It seemed to be an automatic transition," Collins Hill coach Andrew Hudson said. "Just because the strength of jumping, she has such a grace about her. It's isn't surprising. She's on her toes, she's got the long legs and incredible strength in her legs. It's something to watch her run hurdles."

Although it wasn't a graceful beginning.

In her first track meet, Ellis was winning the 300 hurdles when she fell just a couple of meters before the finish line. She was able to crawl her way past the finish line and still won with a time of 48.26 seconds. Right then Hudson knew he had something special is Ellis.

"You don't want your first experience to be you're falling," Ellis said with a laugh.

Ellis never fell again and was a big part of Collins Hill winning its second straight state championship last season.

She won the 300 hurdles region title and took third at state in the event. Her time of 43.63 seconds is a Gwinnett Country record.

Ellis credits her instant success to 15 years of ballet.

"If I had to say that anything prepared me, then it definitely was ballet," Ellis said. "In terms of breathing and endurance, (ballet) requires more than people think. It looks really pretty, but up there you are doing a lot of work. I definitely think it helped me in terms of endurance and breathing."

One of the main areas of being a good hurdler is mastering the three steps. It takes three quick, powerful steps to get between hurdles. Ellis was used to that in ballet.

"Just like for hurdles you do three steps jump, three steps jump and those three steps give you momentum, ballet is the exact same way," Ellis said. "You do tombe peux de burae, which is small steps, then grand jete, which is the big steps. It's the exact same thing. I love it. Just different names."

Ellis is looking to build on last year's breakout season with state championships at the state meet in May.

Last year's 100 hurdles state champion Jasmine Edgerson from Campbell returns, while Ellis is the top returner in the 300 hurdles.

"Hopefully, this year I do better than I did last year," Ellis said. "I have high expectations for myself this year. I'm hoping to get first, at least second, in the 100 hurdles and then first in the 300. Those are pretty high expectations. You just don't pull them, you have to work for it."

And if Ellis' story seems a little unreal - a ballerina turned hurdler - it will only continue next year. She signed a track scholarship with Vanderbilt earlier this year.

"A lot of athletes have their agenda and I'm still trying to realize that I run track," Ellis said. "It's exciting."

SideBar: The Ellis File

· Who: Imani Ellis

· Sport: Track and field

· School: Collins Hill

· Class: Senior

· Favorite movie: "Center Stage"

· Favorite food: Cereal

· Favorite athlete: LeBron James

· Favorite music artist: Chris Brown

· Noteworthy:

· Placed third at state in the 300 hurdles and fourth in the 100 hurdles

· Holds Gwinnett County record in the 300 hurdles with a time of 43.63 seconds

· First African-American to play Clara in 78 years of the Atlanta Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

· Maintains 3.78 GPA

· Will run track next season at Vanderbilt

· Father Ken was a four-year letterman at Western Kentucky from 1979-1982