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A recurring series on WGLT's Sound Ideas about the central Illinois athletes who do incredible things, even after the game is over.

Beyond Sports: IWU grad Ellen Gilbert contends for top female student-athlete honor

IWU's Ellen Gilbert was named the top swimmer in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin in 2022.
Illinois Wesleyan athletics
Illinois Wesleyan University's Ellen Gilbert was named the top swimmer in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin in 2022.

Ellen Gilbert doesn't wait for much. The recent Illinois Wesleyan University swimmer usually dives right in.

The spring graduate was a candidate for the NCAA’s female student-athlete of the year after she was named the inaugural 2021-22 Division III Commissioner Association's Region VIII Women's Sport Student-Athlete of the Year. The award is based on academic achievement, athletics excellence, service and leadership.

The College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin also selected Gilbert as its Woman of the Year.

Gilbert was a standout swimmer at IWU and an academic All-American.

Gilbert also served two internships that she said helped guide her career path to helping others. That could be as a teacher, counselor, therapist or combination of the three.

Ellen Gilbert
Illinois Wesleyan athletics
Ellen Gilbert

In this edition of Beyond Sports, Gilbert explains what the recognition means to her.

“I’m not sure what to say, because it’s a very big honor,” Gilbert said. “I know so may incredible female athletes both at Wesleyan and at other schools, around the country. To have my name listed among them is really cool and very humbling.”

Family connection

Gilbert figured she would need to learn to keep boundaries with her brother, Tommy, who was one of her swim coaches at IWU. But Gilbert said her brother, whose about 10 years older, made it easy.

“It was like swimming for any great coach, but I get to hang out with him outside of practice, too,” she said. “We have fun together, but he has fun with everyone on the team.”

Gilbert called it a "gift" to have her brother there for some of the team’s bigger meets. “Being able to share that with him after all we’ve been through together these last few years was real, real special,” she said.

Everything they had been through included the COVID pandemic, which meant her bid to compete in multiple events at the 2020 NCAA Division III championships was dashed. But simply getting in the pool was sometimes a challenge. While training back home in Northbrook for a 2021 season that was still in doubt because of the pandemic, she had to shuttle between two facilities because pools in her area had time limits on the single swim lanes that were available.

“We were all just using whatever resources we had available to us and what I had was a lane of water here and there,” Gilbert said. “I had worked very hard all year and I didn’t want to lose that, so I just did what I could to make the most of my situation.”

Gilbert placed in the top five in Division III nationally in the 100- and 200- meter butterfly that season.


Gilbert said some of her most formative moments in college involved two internships at nonprofits. One was as a employment counselor with Marcfirst, an agency in Normal that helps people with developmental disabilities. The other internship was as a mental health educator at Project Oz, a nonprofit human service agency in Bloomington.

Gilbert said she wanted young people struggling with mental health to understand they are not alone. “It’s OK to speak up and it’s OK to get help," she said. "That’s very important and whatever career I end up in, I know that’s going to continue to be a big part of my message.”

Gilbert has started her first job post-graduation — as teacher at Milestones Early Learning Center & Preschool in Bloomington.

The NCAA will announce its student-athlete of the year finalists in October and name the winners at the annual convention in January.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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