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By Kristen Leigh Porter
Liz Phillips is always in motion.
On Monday, she ran though the usual 6:30 a.m. workout with her cross country teammates at Washington U. in St. Louis. After finishing up her workout, Phillips jumped on the old mountain bike she has owned since she was in the seventh grade and peddled to a senior design class required for all biomedical engineering majors. Phillips maneuvered around a corner, skidded on a rocky patch and wiped out trying to get to the 8:30 a.m. class in time.
A wayward pebble or two became the rare entity that has slowed Phillips down during her time at Washington-St. Louis.
Saturday, she helped the Bears finish first at the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships in Winneconne, Wis., at the Lake Breeze Golf Club. Wearing bib No. 326, Phillips finished 27th individually in 21:48.79.
The night before, she received the Elite 89 Award, presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site of each of the Association’s 89 championships. Phillips – who also earned the DIII women’s indoor track and field award in 2009 and 2010 – is the first three-time winner.
“She is the true definition of a student-athlete, whether it’s DI, DII or DIII,” said Bears coach Jeff Stiles. “…The only thing I’ve ever had to tell Liz is, ‘Don’t forget to go to bed.’”
In fact, Phillips says she has never gotten less than an ‘A’ on a report card at any point in her schooling. She admits there was a ‘Needs Improvement’ mark in handwriting when she was in grade school.
That long-ago lapse in penmanship hasn’t stopped Phillips from reaching educational stardom. She interviewed at six medical schools – Chicago, Duke, Harvard, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Washington-St. Louis – in four week’s time during the cross country season.
She made a point not to miss a meet, even if that meant hopping on a Greyhound bus after her Vanderbilt interview earlier this season and arriving in Louisville, Ky., at 12:30 a.m., creeping in the hotel room as to not wake a sleeping teammate.
“I’m pretty busy but I think being involved in or doing a lot of different things makes me good at time management,” said Phillips, also a volunteer coach and tutor. “If you’re passionate enough about something you find the time to do it.”
Phillips, who was offered partial scholarship from Notre Dame and chose Washington-St. Louis because she thought she would enjoy the DIII atmosphere, decided to study biomedical engineering because it was a major with a lot of possibilities. Students take a healthy selection of biology, engineering and math courses, as well as freshmen chemistry and physics.
As a junior, Phillips took a “really cool” class in quantitative physiology. Part of the lab work was to dissect a frog, taking out the sciatic nerve in its leg and stimulating it in a nerve chamber to measure the action potential running through it. She now serves as a teaching assistant for the class because she liked it so much.
According to Dr. Frank C.P. Yin, the chairman of the school’s biomedical engineering department who also serves as her academic advisor, Phillips is a standout among the standouts.
“To work at that level in such a tough curriculum and do all the other things she’s done is pretty amazing,” he said. “…I’ll remember her for a long time, as a person and as a student. I’ve never watched her run but have seen her written up in the sports pages and I could tell she was something special.”
Roughly a quarter of biomedical engineering majors go on to professional school, primarily medical school, another quarter work on advanced degrees and the rest enter the work force, Yin said. Phillips, who plans to be a doctor of some sort, has already been accepted at Chicago and Vanderbilt.
“I would let her operate on me today and she hasn’t had a day of med school,” Stiles said.
Phillips has investigated career options in the medical field, including working in a research lab the summer after her sophomore year. Becoming an orthopaedic surgeon is a possibility, as it allows her to combine her interests in math, science and technology while allowing interaction with patients.
“I’ve had teammates who have been told they’d never be able to run again because of a severe injury and it’s the orthopaedic surgeons who give people back their ability to dance or run and to be normal again,” Phillips said. “I try to keep an open mind, they tell you most people get to medical school and change their minds.”
Her nature is evidenced by a team-first attitude on the cross country course. In fact, Phillips said she gets much more enjoyment out of running with her teammates than running alone, that being a part of something greater “makes you want to roll out of bed at 6 a.m. to go to practice.” It also means letting them know how much she cares.
“She always take the time to make cards for everybody for their birthdays or to make them a cake, even though she has the least time out of any of us,” said teammate Jessica Londeree, a first-year grad student studying public health. “She’s a good friend to everybody and she’s always very encouraging.”
Phillips she enjoys creating for others…maybe even more than they enjoy receiving.
“It’s a fun way to let teammates know you care, but I’m not a great artist,” she admitted. “When I make encouraging signs for races – even though it’s not like they’re the most beautiful things in the world – they’re made with love.”
As a team captain, Phillips is usually the main voice heard in team-only huddles. Stiles said he doesn’t know what’s being said, but he trusts her implicitly. He tells himself he can’t expect to coach another Liz Phillips.
“You see all the scandal and all the mumbo jumbo and to have a story to share about a student-athlete like Liz is refreshing,” he said.
Washington U. in St. Louis leads Division III with seven Elite 89 Award selections. (Williams is second with four.) In addition to three-time recipient Liz Phillips, who holds a 4.0 GPA in biomedical engineering, here are the other Bears winners:
2010-11 Women's Basketball: Dani Hoover, 4.0 in Systems Science and Engineering
2009-10 Men's Tennis: Isaac Stein, 3.97 in Biology
2009-10 Women's Basketball: Zoe Unruh, 3.88 in Environmental Studies
2010-11 Women's Golf: Melanie Walsh, 4.0 in English