Every college student tries to find his or her niche once they step onto the campus of their choice. Their search for the perfect school is over, they hope, leaving them time to focus on the many goals and aspirations ahead of them. Gustavus Adolphus junior Sarah Willis seems to be one such student. Starting out slowly and testing the waters a bit, Sarah has blossomed into a rare three-sport athlete here at Gustavus.
Growing up in the rural Minnesota town of Willmar, Sarah was always active. Whether it involved athletics such as basketball, skiing, and softball, or other areas such as playing the flute and piccolo and being involved in girl scouts, Sarah has done her best to take advantage of all that life has to offer. Through her experiences, Sarah has realized that working alongside athletics was something she truly enjoyed, and she ventured out into the world to find a school that could challenge her academically as well as athletically.
Upon graduation she began touring colleges, first looking at Minnesota State— Mankato, and then driving a few miles further to see what Gustavus had to offer. After stepping foot on campus, she said the choice was easy, Gustavus was where she wanted to be. Sarah said that, “the friendly atmosphere, high-level academics, and the nordic ski team all played a large role” in her choice to become a Gustie.
Gustavus has a long-standing tradition of success in women’s athletics and Sarah took full advantage of the opportunities around her by competing on the varsity softball and nordic ski teams during her first year on campus. By taking part in these activities Sarah learned what every successful college student learns: the importance of time management. This concept that seems so simple to many high school athletes becomes a much larger issue once that athlete reaches the college level. More importance is placed on each class as well as each sport, but Sarah has responded to the challenge by posting a G.P.A. above a 3.5 while majoring in health and fitness with a minor in coaching. With all of these responsibilities, she still finds time for “the occasional movie” but many of her days are scheduled out in the same way: attend class, head to practice, eat dinner, finish up any homework, and then get as much sleep as possible, because when you are truly dedicated and compete in a virtual never-ending season, health is of the utmost importance.
Once at college, she saw the advantages of keeping in peak physical condition year-round and decided to “wing it” and join the cross country team during her sophomore year. She described the transition between cross country and nordic skiing as “easy” because “cross-country running and cross-country skiing use many of the same core muscle groups.” This decision began her streak as a three-sport athlete at Gustavus, completing the trifecta alongside nordic skiing and softball.
By continually pushing herself to be her best, Sarah has become one of the school’s top nordic skiers, one of the top six runners on the women’s cross country team, as well as a contributor on the softball diamond. Her cross county and nordic skiing coach Jed Friedrich has enjoyed working with Sarah. He states, “Sarah is one of the hardest workers I have ever coached. She’s dedicated, coachable, and has a phenomenal work ethic.” He added, “She has gone from a soft-spoken first year student, to a vocal leader and has really come out of her shell to set a great example for her teammates.”
A stress fracture in her foot suffered this summer has helped to boost Sarah’s performance this season. Due to the injury she was unable to do as much running as she usually does, but as Coach Friedrich said, “She kept on working. She roller-skied more than ever, and because of her hard work, she dropped two minutes on her cross country running.”
With her passion for learning and the knowledge she has gained during her time at Gustavus, Sarah hopes to attend graduate school at Northern Michigan University and get her masters degree in the field of exercise science. She is also looking to continue her quest to become a coach. The abilities she possesses combined with her future degree may be the ticket to achieving her ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic coach. If things go according to plan, she will get this opportunity in the sport she loves, nordic skiing.
As hard as she works during the school year, a summer vacation seems like a dream come true, but her summers are just as busy as the school year as she continues to push herself to become the best. When asked to describe her average summer, she responded, “I roller-ski a lot to keep in shape for the ski season, and run on off days to maintain my endurance that I need for cross country.” In addition to that she said, “I’m also on a traveling softball team in the summer,” which takes up more of her free time.
Sarah has gotten consistently better in each of her three sports during her years at Gustavus. She has raised her batting average in softball from .200 to .231 in her first two years on the team and has dropped nearly a minute off of her personal bests in cross country from 25:41 in her sophomore year to 24:45 in her junior year. In nordic skiing she has seen her success escalate as well as she recently placed seventh overall at the Capitol Square Sprints where she raced against a field that consisted of mainly touring professionals. Her previous best had been a 20th place finish last year at the Central Regional Championships.
This season, Sarah is currently the first alternate in her region to qualify for the NCAA Championships in nordic skiing. The top 10 skiers are invited and Sarah is sitting on the bubble in eleventh. This is more impressive when her competition is taken into consideration. She has to compete with scholarship athletes from Division I schools on a regular basis because there is no separation between Divisions I, II, and III in nordic skiing. Within the region there are also three skiers who have gone to the World Championships, including two skiers with Olympic experience.
Sarah is a prime example of what a liberal arts education can do for a person. She mentioned “Gustavus offers a great selection of majors, and the professors and coaches that work together do what is best for the student-athlete by being flexible and understanding.” And when asked about her thoughts in regards to her choice to enroll at Gustavus, she responded, “it’s perfect, I couldn’t imagine being anyplace else!”