Saudia James-Heard reaches full speed. She quickly gains on Alexis Ellis, nothing slowing her down.
It was impressive considering James-Heard was in school clothes and carrying her lunch. And it was in the cafeteria, not on the track.
It was the second day at Curtis High School for the pair of freshmen and James-Heard couldn’t find Ellis at lunch.
“I was scared, so I brought my lunch to the bathroom and I looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘OK Saudia, you have to look for Lexi. If you can’t find her, you are just going to sit in the bathroom and stay in there.’ ”
She walked out, saw Ellis sitting at a table, sprinted to her and wrapped her arms around her.
The two clicked almost immediately when they met for the first time in August. They are alike in many ways, including their love for dancing, jumping and running — and both show early signs of being two of the best jumpers in state history.
They could be the best to come through Curtis along with Vikings graduate and training partner Andrea Guebelle, who went on to be a three-time NCAA champion at Kansas.
James-Heard set the state freshman record in the triple jump when she hit 40 feet, 31/4 inches at the Pasco Invitational on April 18. Ellis hit 42-41/4 at the Lake Washington Invitational two weeks later.
That’s believed to be the best mark a freshman has ever hit, not just in the state (passing James-Heard), but the nation. It’s tied for the 21st-best mark in high-school track and field history, according to Dyestat.
“They are both extremely talented and focused,” said Nate Wilford, who has been coaching track and field for 40 years. He’s the coach for the Flying AJ’s club team based in Federal Way that also trains defending 2A state long jump and triple jump champion Peyton Russell of Tumwater and defending 3A and long jump and triple jump champion Chinne Okoronkwo of Mountlake Terrace.
“There is no telling where they could go. They could honestly qualify for the Olympic Trials next year. They could be the two best triple jumpers ever in high school.”
Wilford moved from California after being a coach at Mount Miguel and Granite Hills high schools. He said he essentially came to Washington to die.
His late mother lived here and Wilford said he was told he had three years left to live after suffering a stroke and discovering he had atherosclerosis and colon cancer.
Wilford needed to keep his body moving, so he walked past the track at Curtis one day and noticed, through the holes in the fence, Sarah Burns (now Sarah Hannula) jumping.
“And I’m like, ‘These kids don’t know how to jump,’ ” Wilford said. “I would come every day and peek through the fence and say, ‘If you try doing this …’ And Sarah actually started doing what I said.”
Hannula is in her third year as the track and field coach for Curtis after winning state titles in the long and triple jump events for the Vikings.
“I was a sophomore and I was at the jump pit and he was just standing there, just a random guy,” said Hannula, a former team captain for the track and field team at Washington State University. “I was just like, ‘Who’s this guy? Kind of weird.’
“He’s like, ‘Let me work with you for a bit.’ … I went with him and I started seeing vast improvements fast.”
Geubelle too thought Wilford, who said he no longer has his previous ailments, was weird.
But she began working with him diligently her junior year and went on to win three state titles and set the state record in the triple-jump at 42-10¼ in 2009. The Olympic hopeful holds the University of Kansas records in the long and triple jump and hit a wind-aided personal best of 21-11¾ on Saturday at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
Now all three have a consistent hand in helping train Ellis and James-Heard.
“Both of these girls work their butts off,” said Geubelle, who attended Curtis alongside Ellis’ brother, Stephan Ellis, who won a state title in the triple-jump. “I can honestly say I was not as dedicated to the sport as they are.
“If there are two girls who are going to break my record, they are going to be the ones to do it.”
Ellis is tall and lengthy. What weight she has is muscle. James-Heard has long legs, could actually be an eighth grader at 14 years old and Wilford said she’s as strong as some collegiate athletes.
Though Geubelle trains alongside them, she said she has to train differently. They are both taller than Geubelle, who is 5 feet, 5 inches.
“Lexie doesn’t have to be as technically sound as I do because she can put her legs out and already be a foot in front of me,” Geubelle said.
“You look at Saudia. She is a force. The girls can run. She is so strong and she is pretty tall for her age.”
Wilford will highlight the technical aspects, such as their strength-to-weight ratio, hand-to-foot and hand-to-leg relationships and that they don’t get “toey.” But Ellis and James-Heard think their success comes from their rhythm.
Just like Hannula when she competed, this year’s team likes to dance. They have synchronized a move they call the whip, which they did together after the team placed second at last weekend’s 4A West Central District meet.
“Me and Saudia are always dancing together,” said Ellis, whose grandfather, Joe Ellis, played eight seasons in the NBA with the Golden State Warriors from 1966-74.
They have grown into best friends but the fact they are also each other’s greatest competitors pushes them even more.
“We are always going to be teammates,” Ellis said. “But once we get onto the pit …”
James-Heard interjects: “No friends.”
They’ll both be gunning for the 4A state title in the triple-jump finals at 3:45 p.m. Thursday at Mount Tahoma High School. But they’ll certainly be cheering each other on.
“They are more like family than friends,” said James-Heard’s father, Tony. “As long as (the state title) is under (Curtis’) roof, we’re OK with that.
“But if it goes to someone from another team, then we have some problems.”
“There can only be one state champion and they can’t both have it,” Hannula said. “I wish they could both win, but whoever shows up that day, that’s just how it goes.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677