September 22, 2020

Cayman Islands medical student, ‘Dr. Ellis,’ puts pole vault firmly in her past


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Dana Ellis hadn’t touched a vaulting pole in three-and-a-half years when she picked one up this season and felt that old, familiar tug.

Ellis, the Canadian pole vaulting record holder and former Olympian, is still nagged by what-ifs over a career sparkling with highlights but cut short by injuries. But the Kitchener native knows that was in the past — she has a new life now.

On Saturday, Ellis will officially begin a new chapter in her post-athletics career. She’ll become Dr. Ellis, graduating with her medical degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.

Ellis, 32, enrolled in medical school in 2008, shortly after giving up her bid to qualify for the Beijing Olympics because of injuries. She threw herself into her studies with the same work ethic and focus she did as an athlete, graduating at the top of her class.

She spent two years at St. Matthew’s School of Medicine in Grand Cayman, in the Cayman Islands, before transferring to Tulane, where her husband and fellow pole vaulter, Russ Buller, had taken a job as a strength and conditioning coach. Ellis had flown to the university, marched into the dean’s office and begged for a transfer.

The university normally rejects transfer requests outright, but the dean eventually had to give in to the persistent Olympian. She just didn’t give up.

“I said ‘I want this. You’re not going to find anyone who will work harder,’ ” she said. “At first he said no. But eventually, he saw finally how the qualities of an Olympic athlete could carry over into medicine.”

Ellis, who placed sixth in the pole vault at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, had wanted to be a doctor since her undergrad years at the University of Waterloo. But instead of sports medicine, she found a passion for dermatology. She hopes to one day come back to Canada and work in a surgical ward.

The heartbreak, of having to quit on her dream of a second Olympics, still stings. But Ellis is still proud of her Canadian pole vault record, standing at 4.52 metres, and her unexpected success in Athens.

And that urge to compete on the track? That’s never gone away for the Grand River Collegiate grad.

“Even now, Russ and I will flip on the TV and there will be some kind of track competition on. I still feel it in my soul and in my blood,” Ellis said.

This summer, she’ll have to record the London Olympics on TV and watch events after her long shifts at the hospital in New Orleans. It’s not easy being on the sidelines, she admits.

“It’s difficult being a spectator, but I don’t think that will ever change. I can see us being 90 years old and still having that competitive drive, wishing we were on the track and pole vaulting,” she said.

Earlier this year, her old sport almost pulled her back.

Ellis was helping coach pole vaulters at Tulane this season when she picked up a pole for the first time since retiring from the sport. She did a few jumps and immediately felt the addiction coming back.

But she soon realised her new life, with its 16-hour shifts interning at the hospital, wouldn’t allow for any sort of comeback. Ellis put the pole back down, and accepted that her workouts from now on will be limited to yoga and spin classes.

“I just realised it wasn’t a realistic thing,” she said.

And that’s fine with her. She’s got a new gig, anyhow.

“As an athlete, you have to be very selfish. But as a medical student, you have to focus on others and not so much yourself. I’m liking that aspect of this next step for me,” she said. “I want to start giving back.”

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