Elly Henes is no stranger to winning. A 10-time NCAA All-American, six-time ACC Champion, 13-time All-ACC Performer, three-time NCAA East Regional Qualifier and much, much more, Henes cemented her name in the NC State record books in just five years at the college. Despite the challenges of running through a COVID-19-stricken year, Henes found a way to pile onto her all-time success with the Wolfpack.
Most recently, Henes was named ACC Women’s Track Performer of the Year, becoming the first athlete to win both the Indoor and Outdoor Performer of the Year awards in the same season in program history. To take it a step further, Henes is the first athlete in NC State history to be named ACC Outdoor Women’s Track Performer of the Year. Before that, Henes competed at the USA Track and Field Olympic Trials, posting a sixth-place finish in the 5,000-meter race final, the only collegiate runner to make it to the final.
“That was crazy because there was so much going on,” Henes said. “I mean right after NCAA’s, that’s when professional coaches, agents and all that kind of stuff are really able to reach out to you and talk to you. ... Then going into trials I had to push that stuff out of my mind and focus on racing. ... I was able to come in and be like, ‘Okay, this is my first experience here so I know I’m fit. I know I’m confident. So I’m just going to put myself in there and see what happens.’ ... There wasn’t as much pressure on my race and I think that was a good thing for me, just being able to go in and have fun and compete with people that I’ve looked up to for so long.”
Prior to her Olympic trials outing, Henes accomplished something straight out of a fairy tale: winning the NCAA Championships in the same stadium her mother did 30 years prior. Henes’ mother, head coach Laurie Henes, won the 5,000-meter outdoor championship in 1991, on the day of her last race as a member of the Pack. Elly Henes’ 5,000-meter championship was the first for the Pack since her mother did it on the very same Hayward Field three decades ago, and was the first individual title for the team since Kristin Price won the 10,000-meter race in 2002.
“Going into it, it was something that was in the back of my mind that was like something I knew that she had done and I knew that was really cool,” Elly Henes said. “But I’ve always asked her advice, what it felt like, we talked about that a lot. So when I finished the race and went up to her afterwards, people were telling me that it had been 30 years in between when she had won hers and when I had won mine. I just thought that was so cool. And I ran up to her and hugged her. ... To be able to have that moment for myself and for it all come together was just really cool. [It was] really special to have her there too, to hug afterwards.”
Upon reflecting on her career, Henes said that she owes much of her success to the role her family played since the very beginning.
“[They played] a huge role,” Henes said. “Before college, even before I was running at all, actually they, and I’ll admit this, guided me, pushed me into running because I did a bunch of other sports but running was what I was best at. And at the time I didn’t have as much of a passion for it because I was like, ‘Okay this is what my parents did, I’m just trying to find my own way, find my own independent path in life.’”
Despite several personal challenges along the way, including her mentioned lack of passion for the sport at times in her life, Henes’ family kept her pushing.
“I think that throughout my high school and collegiate career there have been certain times where I’ve started to be hard on myself, give up on myself, not believe in myself,” Henes said. “Having them be so close to me and be my support system [was important]. My mom is there every day. She notices when something is wrong or if mentally, I'm not in the right place. And she’s really been able to hold me accountable in that way and also support me and watch me grow. So having both my parents around and having them go through this process and being able to guide me. They played a huge role in my success.”
However, there was a time in Henes’ life that she wanted to forge her own path to success. According to Henes, she avoided NC State as a potential collegiate suitor during her recruitment process out of high school. In Henes’ own words, she was a “rebellious teenage girl” looking to dodge any pressure to live up to her mom’s illustrious Wolfpack career. Henes looked at several schools, including taking visits to Providence and Georgetown and talking to many college coaches around the country.
But then Henes visited NC State.
“I ended up coming on the visit for the first time, and I guess that was the first time I really looked at NC State as independent from my mom,” Henes said. “I looked at the school and what that looked like education-wise and what the team looked like and just being immersed in the culture, the women’s family culture of the team, if that makes sense. It’s cliche and we talk about it all the time but it really is a family where everyone is looking out for each other and everyone has each other’s backs. I could just feel that energy on the visit so that was just something that really pulled me to NC State.”
Henes went on to say that on a personal and career level, NC State felt the most like home to her.
“I also wanted to study psychology there,” Henes said. “And I guess somebody told me beforehand to make sure that, ‘no matter where you go, you would be happy even if your sport was to not work out for you. Like some worst-case scenario, that you would still be happy at the school and with the people you are around.’ That made up that decision for me.”
And the rest is history. Elly Henes leaves NC State as one of the winningest athletes in the history of the entire school. With five Performer of the Year awards and two Olympic Trials under her belt, Henes definitely forged her own success with the Pack. But Henes hopes that her legacy will last much longer than on-field accolades.
“I think something I would love to leave behind with my teammates is to listen to everyone,” Henes said. “And I guess what I mean by that is like, everyone has a story. Everyone has something they’re going through. Everyone comes from different backgrounds. And if we can just listen to each other, understand each other and be there for each other, then I think that physical performance feeds off that. That team camaraderie and just people loving each other.”
As for what comes next for Henes, the nine-time All-ACC Academic performer has big plans for the future following her successful NC State career.
“I want to run professionally for as long as possible,” Henes said. “But even during that I’m planning on getting my sports psych masters and then going into sports psychology afterwards hopefully working for a DI program or athletes of any caliber because that’s what I love doing.”
Regardless of what comes next, one thing is for certain: Elly Henes is a winner and an NC State legend. Henes outright dominated the competition, providing an inspiration on and off the field for her teammates, her family, and the Wolfpack faithful, who will be sad to see her go.
“NC State and the kind of support that I’ve found here, from my mom, my teammates and even, people talk about it a lot, but NC State fans are crazy and I love them,” Henes said. “Because they’re so loyal and supportive. And I think that, as a whole, NC State has shown me how capable I am of whatever I put my mind to. Like I said, this wasn’t on my radar before I came to college here, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”