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Clark and Kirby
Sarah Clark and Stephanie Kirby are two of UNO's student-athletes who have been helped through the annual Women's Walk. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Women's Walk Brings the Benefits to UNO Student-Athletes

by Tim Fitzgerald

In 1985, the UNO women's athletic director, Connie Claussen, had to come up with a way to raise the necessary funds for women's athletics following major budget cuts.  "I got the idea for a women's walk from a fundraising magazine," Claussen said.  "That first year, we had 84 walkers, most of whom were UNO faculty and staff.  We had a $5,000 goal, ended up raising $12,000, and I personally sent thank you notes to anyone who gave $5 or more.  Life was more simple then!"

Following the recent Diet Pepsi/UNO Women's Walk, sending out thank-you notes this year might take Claussen a bit longer.  A record $328,000 was raised by the April 16th event!  Two UNO student-athletes, soccer player Stephanie Kirby and swimmer Sarah Clark, have benefited from the annual walk and were very thankful to the walk participants.

Kirby's intercollegiate soccer playing days ended in the fall of 2003, but a new athletic chapter of her life is just around the corner with the NCAA.  A native of Elkhorn, Neb., Kirby lettered for four years as a Maverick midfielder and has compiled an outstanding list of athletic and academic awards.  She was a four-time All North Central Conference player, a two-time All American and two-time Academic All American.  In 2004, she was named the UNO Student Athlete of the Year and the NCAA Woman of the Year for Nebraska, an award presented to the top student athlete in each state by the NCAA.  She also was named the Omaha World-Herald female athlete of the year and recently was presented the Young Leader Award by the YWCA and UNO's Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs Outstanding Leadership Award.

The list of awards and honors is impressive, but coming out of high school Kirby knew she was taking a big risk by signing to play with a new Maverick team.  "Coming here was one of the biggest risks of my life because the UNO soccer program was only in its third year," she said.  "But I wouldn't have done it any differently, and I'm glad it ended up the way it did.  We won three conference championships and went to the final four twice, so the risk turned out to be a good one."

Kirby said it's been exciting to see the soccer program grow and start a winning tradition.  "Omaha has a lot of soccer talent and there's room for growth here, but I didn't know it would be this great…it's awesome," she said.

Part of her success can be attributed to financial support provided through the annual Women's Walk.  "It's so easy to be thankful, and it has meant so much to me," she said.  "I've seen how hard it is to get through college.  As a student-athlete, you can't work outside that much, and we're very fortunate to be able to focus on sports and school.  I'm very, very thankful for that."

Since graduating in December with a degree in biology, Kirby has been working as an administrative intern in the Maverick athletic department.  "I love it.  I've learned so much and I really couldn't have picked a better athletic department to be a part of," she said. 

The UNO internship has pointed Kirby in a new direction.  She was one of 280 to apply for an NCAA internship and one of only 13 chosen for the positions.  Kirby will move to Indianapolis this spring and start in June as an intern for Division I men's and women's basketball.  "I'm hoping the NCAA experience will answer my questions of whether to stay in athletics," she said.  "I'm very excited about starting something new and looking forward to opening a new chapter in my life."

A new chapter also starts soon for Clark, a swimmer who will graduate in May.  Clark, or more specifically her mother, was attracted to UNO by its swimming pool.  "When I was ten years old, I visited UNO to swim, and my mom thought the pool was a great facility," Clark said.

After graduating from high school in St. Joseph, Mo., she and her mother took an impromptu trip to see the campus and visit with UNO swimming and diving coach Todd Samland.  Clark's college experience wasn't always on the bright side.  "I'm the first in my family to go to college, and when I came to UNO I had no friends or family here," she said.  "I cried every night to my mother on the phone!  I came here with the attitude that I didn't have anything else to learn, and I was just coming to UNO to please my mom."

Her attitude changed when she returned for her sophomore year.  "I came back with the attitude that I could be the best at swimming, and I wanted to prove this to myself and others.  I also made friends and let Todd be my coach," she said.  "Todd took quite a chance with me, and everything has turned out great." 

Clark, who describes herself as very organized and a real goal setter, is one of those rare students who will graduate in four years.  She will receive her degree in business management from the College of Business Administration.  "My junior year I posted my swimming goals over my bed and looked at them every night," she said.  "I also keep a full agenda of work and activities every day."

Just looking at a typical daily schedule for Clark might exhaust many.  She began her day with swimming, sometimes as early as 6 a.m., until 9 a.m.  Classes followed until 12:50 p.m.  Then she participated in a combination of swim practice and weight training until 5:30 p.m., followed immediately by more classes until 8 p.m.

All of the practice and goal setting paid off this season, as Clark set two pool records for personal best times and was named Swimmer of the Year for the North Central Conference.  UNO's swimming and diving team also won the conference title for the first time, beating North Dakota University which had held the swim crown for 23 years.

Even after graduating from UNO in May, Clark will stay connected with UNO's swim program as an assistant coach to Todd Samland next season.  "I've decided to be a swim coach, probably on the high school level," Clark said.  "The best part is being with the kids and showing them how to do something."

Clark also is thankful for the financial contributions of the Women's Walk.  "Without getting this scholarship, there was no possible way that I could afford going to college," she said.  "It has been great to attend college, graduate in four years and to be able to compete for a job in the marketplace."

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