Washington University graduate Elizabeth Phillips has continued on the path of service to others that helped earn her the 2012 NCAA Woman of the Year award.
“Liz modeled the capability of putting others first while performing at an elite level individually,” remarked Jeff Stiles, Washington University head cross country/track and field coach. “Some can perform well when they are so focused on self, while others can focus on others, but have nothing left. She made others better in every way, athletically and academically.” Stiles and his wife attended Phillips’ wedding (to a six-time Washington University decathlete All-American Ben Harmon) and remain in close contact. “My wife and I consider her almost family.”
Photo: Elizabeth Phillips and husband Ben Harmon
Graduating first in her high school class, Phillips was accepted by Harvard University and even received a scholarship to attend University of Notre Dame, but was drawn to Washington University. “Obviously the academics were fantastic for biomedical engineering and pre-med, but I also wanted to go where the team culture was positive and team mattered,” she recalled. “WashU was exactly that for me. The combination of strong athletics, a strong school, and a supportive, encouraging coach like Coach Stiles was just what I wanted.”
“The UAA is a group of very strong academic institutions that also focused a lot on athletics, not developing just one side of yourself, but all sides,” Phillips added. “Coach Stiles is aware of the challenges that come with being a student-athlete. Academics come first. At the end of the day, he wanted us to do our best. He taught us things that transferred to the rest of life: perseverance, working with teammates, hard work. He developed those traits so you could apply them in life.”
Undergraduate Career and NCAA Title
Phillips was named the 2012 CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year for women’s Division III cross country/track and field, a 2011 and 2012 CoSIDA first team Academic All-American, and earned UAA All-Academic honors nine times. She garnered UAA Presidential Scholar-Athlete honors in each of her final three seasons, an award that recognizes student athletes who earn first-team All-Association honors and carry a 3.50 or greater cumulative grade point average during their playing season.
In addition, she became the first three-time winner of the NCAA Elite 88 Award (now called Elite 89), honoring the student-athlete participating at every NCAA championship with the highest grade point average. She received her third award at the 2011 NCAA Division III Women’s Cross Country Championship, where the Bears also captured the national title.
“We had a really strong team that year,” Phillips stated. “We were rebuilding when I came in as a freshman, but in those four years, the program had grown into something great.” The Bears had peaked at the right time the previous season to finish second at the 2010 NCAA Division III Women’s Cross Country Championship. “We came of the blue that year and that was very exciting,” she added. “We knew we had a strong team my senior year and working together was an awesome experience.”
Phillips and her team were confident they could win the NCAA title, but knew expectations were high. “We knew we could do it, but we also knew we had to actually put it all together and not just be good on paper,” she recollected. “We were such good friends off the course and we accomplished so much more together than we ever could have by ourselves. It was such an honor to be the first team in program history to win the NCAA title. We all gave everything we possibly could because it was all for one another. I have those memories forever.”
“She made a great program, making everyone around her better,” Stiles said. “The culture she created and influence she had is something you can’t replicate or expect to have all the time. We are just appreciative that we had it. We still see it being passed down and our student-athletes have bought into it. The program is still benefitting from Liz being in our program and it will for years to come.”
She was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania medical program in March of her senior year. “It was an exciting endeavor applying to schools during the cross country season,” she remembered. “I was traveling for cross country and school interviews, putting seven days of school work into four days in St. Louis.”
Woman of the Year
Throughout her time as an undergraduate, Phillips made time to help both the campus and St. Louis communities. She served on the Bears’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), coordinated weekly tutoring for St. Louis youth, and helped collect more than 700 teddy bears to donate to a local children’s hospital.
She volunteered at a local hospital and learned important lessons for her future in medicine. “It was a way for me to let the patients know that someone was thinking about them and the care they received,” she remarked. “I wanted to help patients and get to talk to them. It was nice to be out of the college bubble and in the community, part of something bigger than yourself.”
One of her favorite volunteer activities was “Girls on the Run,” which trains elementary-aged girls to run a five-kilometer race. “Along the way, we got to coach them not only in games and running, but also in life lessons like being positive,” Phillips said. “Twice a week, I was able to do something I really love and encourage girls in positive ways. It was nice to work with children, be part of the community around me, and use running to do that. It was great to see a girl who couldn’t run for 100 meters without walking part of it and then watch her able to run a full five kilometers by the end of the season.”
Being chosen as an NCAA Woman of the Year nominee was overwhelming at times for Phillips. “I was incredible humbled by the entire process,” she recalled. “I was honored to be nominated in the first place. I was really excited to be selected as a finalist and to be able to go to Indianapolis. I loved meeting the other women who were nominated and seeing how accomplished they were. That made me even more glad to be a part of it.”
To say Phillips was not expecting to win the award would be an understatement. “They told all of us to prepare a 30-second acceptance speech and I didn’t even bother to do it,” she laughed. “I was thinking there was no way I would win this. When they said my name, I was so excited and then immediately thought, ‘oh shoot, I didn’t prepare anything to say!’”
Photo courtesy of NCAA
“It was so humbling to be recognized in that way amongst these incredibly talented and passionate women,” Phillips continued. “I needed my coach and my teammates to support me, and my parents to listen to me and support me. I recognized that this was a team effort. Everyone around me made this happen.”
“She was a ferocious competitor in the classroom and out of it, while also being involved with so many things on campus,” Stiles remarked. “As a parent, you want your daughter to grow up like her. She remains unwavering in who she is, even apart from athletics and academics.”
After Washington University
After graduating as Washington University class valedictorian with a 4.0 grade point average in biomedical engineering, Phillips continued her education at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and is now a second-year resident at the University of Washington Emergency Medicine Department.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger. Seattle was my first choice and fortunately, I got my first choice,” she said. “The hospital's mission is focused on underserved patients. You have to know some of everything. Your job is to figure out the diagnosis and how quickly you have to treat them or get them to the appropriate doctor. There is a lot of teamwork and it happens very quickly. We work with a lot of doctors. I love the teamwork.”
According to Stiles, teamwork is something that has always been important to Phillips. “She is so genuine as a person. She was always one of the first people to congratulate people when they finished or had a personal-best time and she did so with great enthusiasm,” he remarked. “She wrote good luck notes to everyone. She may have had a thesis due, but she would take 45 minutes to make sure those notes were written to show her love and appreciation for her teammates.”
“It was really challenging to juggle athletics and academics simultaneously. You are forced to become very good at time management,” Phillips commented. “I couldn’t imagine my college career without athletics. It helped me to balance out my life. When things weren’t going well, I could crush it in a workout. If I had a poor race, I could do well in a course. I never wanted to be a one-dimensional person, but one who could do well in multiple things. Running was challenging, but in some ways, it made things easier. I had to manage my time and prioritize what I needed to do. The same principles work in athletics and academics.”