RICE LAKE, WIS. – On a rare Saturday morning in August that finds all four Ellenson kids at home, restlessness creeps in quickly.
Clustered around a small sun room that acts as an entryway to the caramel-colored Rice Lake house, the Ellensons are all lanky limbs and pent-up energy. Wally mindlessly bats a football between his knees. Ella rummages for a ball to toss. Ellwood and Henry’s 6-8 and 6-10 frames are holed in a corner of the room like a pair of eagles in a bird house, glancing outside, itching to stretch their wings. Past the open windows is a world the Ellensons have made their athletic kingdom: a picturesque northwestern Wisconsin town of about 8,300, lined by oak trees and crowned by Rice Lake, a glistening basin only two blocks away.
Each of the four kids appears to have a bright athletic future. Wally, 19, competes in both basketball and track and field at the University of Minnesota, where he is one of the country’s top collegiate high jumpers. Ellwood, 18, will play basketball at Bemidji State this year. Henry, 16, is ranked No. 42 in the nation by Rivals.com for 2015 high school basketball recruits heading into his junior year. And Ella, 14 and just entering high school, already is receiving attention from colleges, including the Gophers women’s basketball program. The siblings are a pickup game ready to happen. In any sport.
Sometimes the activities are football or baseball, with rules uniquely created for however many participants the kids can find. Other times it’s golf or biking or badminton in their yard. Many times, Wally will head to the lake solo, propping his fishing tackle and one of the family’s two canoes on his skateboard to gingerly guide it to the dock. At night, all six — the four siblings and their parents, John and Holly — will trek a couple blocks over to the public tennis courts and face off under the lights.
Over several weeks this summer, the four kids constructed a tool shed and painted a white picket fence. Occasionally, they find time to help a neighbor in his cornfield, picking ripe cobs for his vegetable stand.
Most of the time, they can be found at the Rice Lake High gym, shooting or scrimmaging for hours on end.
“They stay busy,” Holly says with a laugh.
Experiencing, even for a day, the family’s frenetic pace, Wally’s gym rat reputation comes as no surprise. Last year, even though the Gophers’ 6-6 wing averaged only 5.3 minutes in nine games as a freshman, it was not unusual to see him on the Williams Arena floor hours before a game, putting up extra shots. He’s maintained his already relentless basketball regimen — one he devotedly established years ago — while becoming a two-sport athlete.
“I knew it was going to be hard, but it’s definitely a surprise how busy it actually is,” Wally says. But asked whether it’s a pace he can sustain, he is quick with a smile and a response.
“I know I can,” he says.
A rich history
Sixteen years ago — only four days after he was born — Henry was already at the gym, swaddled in a pack on the bench as Holly coached the Rice Lake High girls’ basketball team in a road game. She’d been out of the hospital barely 48 hours.
The family found a second home at Rice Lake High. The Ellensons would play three-on-three basketball games — brown eyes vs. blue. As they got older, the brother battles got so intense — with so many elbows thrown and bruises administered — they’d ask their parents to officiate, at which point Holly and John would generally opt to exit.
With Holly teaching and coaching at the school, her extra set of keys — there is no other gym in town — was so well-worn that her kids got to know the school custodians by name.
“As a little kid, Wally would always say ‘Can we go to the gym? Can we go to the gym?’ ” John says. “Holly would work here for eight hours and then bring them back.”
Cascading frames of pictures and mementos down a crimson stairway wall at the family’s home tell an athletic history that goes much deeper than four lanky kids who don’t want to sit still.
“We call it our hall of fame,” says Holly, as Wally and Ella begin to push the boundaries of the living room, their game of squishy ball toss featuring deeper and deeper throws.
Both parents were high jumpers in high school and played basketball in college — Holly at Wis.-Eau Claire, along with her sister, Leah, and John first for Marquette and then Wisconsin.
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