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.
Holly’s dad, Wally Akervik, had a scholarship to play football at Minnesota, but ultimately played hockey at Minnesota Duluth. Her brother, Andrew Akervik, played hockey at Wisconsin and was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques when he was 17. Her maternal grandfather and great uncle both played basketball, the former on a traveling team in the 1920s and the latter for UMD. John’s grandfather, Ellwood Roosa, was a speed skater and his uncle, Jeff Ellenson, played professional basketball in Australia. After John graduated, he joined a professional team in France.
It was after John’s first and only year overseas that he met Holly at a basketball camp back in the states. She was coaching women’s basketball at Northland College at the time, and instead of returning to France, John followed her to Ashland, Wis., to take an assistant job on her staff — and then marry her only two months later. When her father died in 1994, Holly took a job at Rice Lake High School, where she is still, working as a physical education teacher and a track coach.
At the end of Wally’s eighth-grade year, the family moved to Eau Claire, Wis., when John took a job as a guidance counselor at an elementary school. But a series of incidents at Memorial High School in Wally’s freshman year led the Ellensons to sue the school for failing to protect him from bullying. Ultimately the suit was dropped, but at the end of the year, the family returned to Rice Lake.
John still possessed the Big Rivers Conference high jump record, a mark he set at Menomonie High in 1986. After Wally found he could dunk a basketball in middle school, he took up high jumping as well, with plenty of advice from his father. A year later, in his freshman season at Memorial, he broke John’s league record by an inch.
“He had better coaching,” John jokes.
His gray USA T-shirt already damp from the day’s high-jump practice on the high school track, Wally heads inside the gym and eases himself against the collapsed blue bleachers, swapping his jumping shoes for high-tops. The home of the Warriors, hung with state champion banners and trimmed with blue and gold, remains Wally’s favorite place.
“It was always my first love,” he says of basketball.
On this Saturday, Wally lifts his shirt to his brow to wipe away the sweat, then bounces up, grabs a ball and starts running, stride for stride, with Ella. The reverberating trill of their laughter mixes with the squeaks of sneakers. The 6-1 Ella goes to the hoop, getting enough lift to shovel the ball through the basket as Holly explodes with “Oooh, Ella!” from behind the baseline. Wally has made dunking a big part of his game — and now Ella wants to learn, too.
Later, as the Ellensons gorge on tacos and fajitas at Casa Mexicana, the family’s favorite restaurant in downtown Rice Lake, Ella grins and acknowledges that having three older brothers is “awesome.”
“You better say it is,” Wally says.
Holly laughs, interjecting. “She learns a lot from them.”
“Like, never to get a boyfriend,” Ellwood says.
Ella — who also high jumps and plays tennis — knows by now that such treatment is par for the course. At one recent occasion, one of her basketball coaches asked her if her brothers often teased her.
“Yeah,” Ella replied. “But no one else does.”
Four kids with such athletic talent has meant a whirlwind of interest from colleges. John is occasionally mystified at how much has changed since he was recruited, how much the business of college sports has grown. And with Wally coming into a high-profile situation at a Big Ten school, Holly has learned to filter the negativity, just like she’s always encouraged her kids to do.
“Sometimes I think I’m learning, too,” she says. “I used to read everything and be obsessed with it. Now I don’t read as much. … When you’re in the spotlight, people will have an opinion of you.”
In Rice Lake, though, the Ellensons are a household unbent by the chaos inherent in raising four potential collegiate athletes. They are vibrant and energetic, yet also close-knit and protective.
Wally hopes one day to return to Rice Lake and build a gym for the community, his way of giving back. “It’s so nice here,” he says.
And on this mild August Saturday, a soft breeze is blowing and there is plenty more of Rice Lake to enjoy. The gym doors are locked once more and now the lake is beckoning. There is still time to get on John’s father’s speedboat, and maybe squeeze in a baseball game later.
Fueled with fajitas and iced tea, the family of six is out the door. Their kingdom is calling.