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Jun 18, 2019 12:21 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Natalie Ehlers Becomes A Two-Time All-American In Racewalk

Jun 18, 2019 12:58 PM

When Natalie Ehlers was a freshman on the Westhampton Beach high school girls track and field team, she was expected, like all her other teammates, to consider competing in an event that isn’t usually top of mind for most of them: the 1,500-meter racewalk.

It is a niche discipline—some would be less kind and simply call it weird—without the heart-racing thrill of the 100-meter dash, the prestige of the mile run, or the novelty of field events. The Lady Hurricanes had earned a reputation as a team that always had a top-notch racewalker, and it wasn’t an accident. Longtime head coach John Broich was actively committed to maintaining that tradition, encouraging nearly every athlete to at least give it a try. Ehlers loved being on the track team, but wasn’t a great runner, by her own admission. So she tried the racewalk, making a promise to herself that as long as she didn’t finish last in her first race, she’d stick with it.

In that first race, she finished second to last. But by her senior year, she was a two-time All-American.

The story of Ehlers’s transformation from reluctant racewalker to nationally-lauded standout is one of triumph over adversity, the power of dedication, and discovering a passion over time. It is also a story of how an older sibling can motivate and bring out the best in a younger one, and how sports can unite a family around a common goal.

Ehlers officially finished her Hurricanes track career at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13 to 16, finishing fifth out of 21 in the 3,000-meter racewalk, with a time of 15:33, to earn All-American status for the second straight year (given to the top six finishers). She became the third Westhampton Beach alum to earn All-American honors twice in the racewalk, and like those racewalkers before her—Annica Penn and Heather Buletti—will have her achievements emblazoned on a banner that will hang in the high school gymnasium. Penn was a three-time All-American and Heather Buletti was a two-time All-American, while her sister, Leah Buletti, and Kelsey Jordan were also All-Americans.

The trip to Nationals was a family affair, as Ehlers’s younger brother, freshman distance runner Gavin Ehlers, also qualified, finishing 10th out of 32 runners in the freshman 2-mile race, with a time of 9:52. Westhampton Beach junior Ermel Bautista also competed at Nationals in the 2,000-meter steeplechase. He finished 30th in 6:36.12. An East Hampton senior also competed in the same race but did not finish it.

While Natalie’s high school career came to a close, Gavin’s is just getting started. He was a standout as a freshman, setting a school record for a freshman in the mile with a time of 4:28, and narrowly missing out on going to states in that event. (The racewalk is not contested at the New York State high school championships). He says he is excited for next year, hoping to excel not only in his personal distance events, but on the 4x800-meter relay team as well, and also aiming for another county title during the fall cross country season. He says that while they have different personalities and specialized in different events within the same sport, his sister’s achievements on the national level did not go unnoticed.

“Going down to Nationals during her sophomore year, I realized there’s a lot of things you can achieve, and seeing her do that gave me goals I could set for myself,” he said. “And sometimes we’d have that competitiveness, where I’d think, she just placed fourth at counties, I want to try to beat that. But mostly it was just about cheering her on and hoping she’d do well.”

Achieving her goal of becoming All-American again, and also watching her brother as he embarks on his own promising track career at the same event, was the perfect ending to Ehlers’s career, and redemption as well. Ehlers had been disqualified at indoor nationals in the winter, for improper technique. It is not an uncommon occurrence in racewalking, where rules state that one foot must always be in contact with the ground, and there are other guidelines about the way the foot is supposed to strike the ground and proper leg and hip alignment. Those rules are subjective by nature, with judges on the inside of the track scanning the racewalkers and looking for violations.

Ehlers was not an obvious pick to become a two-time All-American, at least not initially. Aside from the fact that she was not immediately talented at racewalking, she also had to overcome several injuries during her career—knee injuries that were a result of her unorthodox racewalking form and technique, and multiple ankle sprains as well. But there was not another obvious candidate to fill her spot. And the team needed her. Kelsey Jordan, another talented racewalker who had been to Nationals, was graduating. So Ehlers remained determined, and she also had some specific, tangible goals that provided extra motivation; specifically, a banner and a backpack.

“I got this crazy idea that I wanted to go to Nationals,” Ehlers said of her goal-setting when she was an underclassmen. “I see all the names on the walls, and Kelsey had gone to Nationals. I wasn’t going to leave school without that banner.”

Athletes who are invited to Nationals get some kind of swag for their appearance, but the ultimate prize, Ehlers said, is the backpack given to competitors in the elite division, emblazoned with the name of the meet. They have special significance for athletes as they travel from meet to meet.

“When you go to a meet, and you see someone with that backpack, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, they’re good,’” she said. Ehlers said she remembered being at a meet where she was trying to hit the qualifying time for an invitation to Nationals. One of her friends was cheering her on, and when she was at a point in the race where she was tired and struggling to find the energy to keep going, her friend encouraged her by shouting, “How bad do you want that bag?”

Ehlers laughed re-telling the story. “It’s almost like a medal that I can hold, and use,” she said.

Now that she has both the banner and the backpack, Ehlers is focused on the next step: competing in national and international track and field competitions. She is headed to Elon University in North Carolina in the fall, planning to major in broadcast journalism. Before that, she will compete in a 10K race in a USA Track and Field event in Florida, hoping for a top four finish, which would allow her to represent the U.S. in a meet against Canada. Remaining competitive and getting to events will be a bit trickier once she gets to Elon, which, like almost every NCAA college or university, does not have racewalking as an event for its track and field teams, so she will join an independent club about 45 minutes away, The Raleigh Walkers, led by coach Michael Roth, and continue to train for big meets. Her ultimate “crazy dreams,” as she terms them, are to compete internationally and in big races like the Olympic Trials.

Not being able to join a traditional college team is a bit of a barrier to those goals, in some senses, but Ehlers explained why she is determined to keep going.

“I love racewalking. The community is so supportive. And I don’t want to look back in 20 years and think, I could have done more with the sport. I feel like I’m only just getting started.”

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