Everyone knows the classic story: as a sophomore in high school, Michael Jordan is rejected from his varsity basketball team and spends the rest of the year working on his game to prove to the coach he was indeed good enough. Not only does he go on to make the team his junior year but also manages to become the greatest basketball player in NBA history.
Although not of Jordan’s magnitude, senior Joseph Elsakr has a similar story right here on Duke’s cross country team.
Known by friends and coaches alike as Joey, Elsakr is a senior biomedical engineering major who hails from Daytona Beach, Fla. Although he seems like any normal Duke student at first, there’s more to him than meets the eye.
Elsakr attended Spruce Creek High School and lettered in cross country all four years, as well as playing an undefeated tennis season. Although his cross country accomplishments were impressive, they were far from the jaw-dropping times seen in most Division I schools, such as Duke.
Elsakr, however, still made a point of trying to gain a spot on the team at Duke, sending head coach Norm Ogilvie his personal records in hopes that he could be a practice runner for the team. “When he first came to me, he didn’t have any credentials that would suggest he could be a Division I runner,” Ogilvie said. “He clearly wasn’t ready to run at the Division I level.”
This rejection sees only two types of reactions: the determination that one is not good enough and never will be good enough, or that one is not good enough yet. Elsakr arrived at the second conclusion and began training—alone.
“Generally, that’s sort of a brushoff and you never see the kid again, but Joey was different,” Ogilvie said. “He worked really hard on his own [and] he did a lot of miles in the forest on his own.”
Elsakr dedicated all of his down time to either studying or running. With the help of a college coach back home in Daytona Beach, Elsakr began a rigorous running schedule along the trails of the Duke Forest. Although he befriended several fellow runners, most of his workouts were a lonely business.
“Basically I was running about 80 miles a week, and I’d do workouts once or twice a week on the track,” Elsakr said.
After a little more than a semester of training, Elsakr went back to Ogilvie and sought his approval to run for the track team. Although Joey had improved a great deal, Ogilvie still did not believe Elsakr’s times matched up with those of the Division I level.
“I knew it’d be tough to improve a lot on my own, especially with the adjusting [to college], but at the same time I knew it was possible and I knew that I really wanted to do it,” Elsakr said.
At the end of his freshman year and after many hours of training, Ogilive let Elsakr practice with the track team. By the time cross country season rolled around, Ogilvie found Elsakr his much sought after spot on the team.
“This [was] not a gift in any way, he’s earned his way onto the team,” Ogilvie said. “He raced his way onto the team.”
Elsakr made sure not to squander his chance, working even harder his sophomore year to improve his times and run his way to the top of the team. He ran a 26:33 at the IC4A Championships, helping Duke to its third straight IC4A victory.
“My long time goal was to be top seven on the cross country team because those are the guys who run at regionals and nationals,” Elsakr said.
His hard work showed, as he cut 46 seconds off of his 8k time from his sophomore to junior year. Still, his goal of being in the top seven had yet to be accomplished, as he could not crack into the team’s top runners. That frustration, similar to his rejection as a freshman, did not deter Joey—it motivated him.
As one of four seniors on the team this year, Elsakr is now in the top eight, with one race left to push his way into the top seven and be able to run in the NCAA Southeast Regional.
“This year he’s become a legitimate member of the team,” Ogilvie said. “He’s gone out and earned his way onto the ACC cross country squad for the first time.”
Whether or not Elsakr accomplishes his goal this Saturday at the ACC Championships in Blacksburg, Va., he will leave a lasting image on the cross country team, as both a senior leader and as an inspiration to anyone who has been rejected.
“If there’s something a freshman or anyone can take away from this story, it’s that the most important thing is long-term improvement and that you always have to keep that in mind when you’re training,” Elsakr said.
Beyond his athletic success, Elsakr was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll as a junior, despite having a notoriously difficult major.
“Joey’s done a great job, no doubt about it. You’d like to have a kid like that on your team every year if you could,” Ogilvie said. “The good thing about Joey is his story is so easy to tell.”
Coaches do not have kids like Joey on their teams every year—especially in Division I athletics where full scholarships and recruitment find the biggest and best across the nation with little room for walk-ons to succeed. But it is the few that squeak through, the Jordans, the Rudys and the Elsakrs that have the biggest impact on a team. Luckily for Ogilvie and the team, graduation certainly does not mean goodbye.
“Knowing Joey, he’ll come back to visit from time to time” Ogilvie said. “Joey will be a model story for years.”