Randy York’s N-Sider
In the West entrance to Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, one trophy is the focal point the minute you walk in the front door that welcomes each student-athlete and every visitor to the Dick and Peg Herman Family Student-Life Complex. It’s the NCAA Top 10 Trophy, the most prestigious individual award the organization presents at the Honors Celebration following its annual convention. Last January, Nebraska’s own Mary Weatherholt received that honor in San Diego, and if the instincts of NU senior management staffers Dennis Leblanc (Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics) and Keith Zimmer (Associate Athletic Director for Life Skills) are right, another stellar Nebraska student-athlete has a chance to join the 17 Huskers who already have received the esteemed honor. The list includes the likes of such Huskers as Sarah Pavan, a Biochemistry major and All-America volleyball player in 2008; Richelle Simpson, a French and International Studies major and All-America gymnast in 2006; and Nancy Metcalf, an Advertising major and 2002 All-America volleyball player who went on to play in the Olympics.
It is an elite club to be sure, but one that Nebraska gymnast Emily Wong realistically could join later this year. She has all the credentials it takes to differentiate 10 male and female student-athletes from a list of 450,000 potential candidates who compete in the three divisions of the NCAA. “When you think of Top 10 Award winners, you think of Emily Wong,” Leblanc told me Monday. “The NCAA Top 10 Award really embodies what we’re looking for as a student-athlete. Emily Wong is exactly why we do the type of work that we do. She’s not in a sport that generates revenue, but is a classic case of someone who competes athletically because it completes her as a person. At this point of her life, it maxed her out on who she could be.”
Wong Competed Entire Season with Heavy Heart
In a year of nationally prominent talent from across the country, Wong last week won the 2014 American Athletic Inc. Award, which has been presented annually to the nation’s top female gymnast for 60 years. She cemented her position among the nation’s top all-around student-athletes after dedicating the 2013-14 season to her late father who died shortly before her season started. “She competed all season with a heavy heart, but she never lost an all-around competition throughout the regular season,” said Nebraska Women’s Gymnastics Coach Dan Kendig. “Not trying to make this bigger than it is, but Emily is one of the most incredible human beings I have ever been around.” As a two-time National Coach of the Year with nine teams that made the Super Six, Kendig said Wong “is one of the few that I’ve ever coached who has come in and done exactly what they’re supposed to do with a great attitude every single day. In four years, she might have been down one time. Her family is unbelievable, her smile contagious and her laugh can’t help but warm everyone who hears it.”
During one Husker women’s meet, Francis Allen, Nebraska’s two-time men’s Olympic coach, three-time NCAA Coach of the Year and eight-time National Coach of the Year, walked over to Nebraska’s top athletic administrators. “That young lady, you need to clone her,” Allen said. And here’s the best news. He wasn’t just talking about cloning an athlete. He was talking about cloning a student, a person, and a leader who has influenced teammates and opponents since she first stepped foot on UNL’s campus from Grand Forks, N.D.
Leblanc: Wong’s Desire Fuels Her Inner Drive
Leblanc has been around long enough to know all 17 of Nebraska’s nation-leading Top 10 Award winners. “You can put Emily Wong right in there with those other individuals who have won the award,” he said. “She has won every award you can win here and just won the very top national award you can win as a female gymnast. She has all the credentials, whether you’re looking at community service, academics or athletics. To top it all off, as talented as she is as an athlete and as gifted as she is as a student, she has what every coach is looking for in a college athlete – the desire to be the absolute best you can be in every aspect of life. We have a truly special person with a burning desire that goes beyond potential. Whoever hires her is getting one of our very best.”
Like Leblanc, Zimmer has worked for Nebraska’s Department of Athletics for a quarter century. “I think Emily Wong would have to be one of the strongest applicants for the NCAA Top 10 Award,” Zimmer told me Monday. “Emily is right in line with the high level of success needed to be able to achieve the highest individual honor the NCAA bestows. She’s our Female Student-Athlete of the Year with a 3.927 GPA and wants to be become a physical therapist. She’s a 16-time All-American (after earning two more Sunday in all-around and floor exercise at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala.), plus a second-team Academic All-American, a great community ambassador and one of the best-ever female student-athletes in the history of Nebraska Athletics.
Zimmer: Wong Deserves to Be Among the Elite
“I don’t know anyone who would not want to champion Emily for this lofty award,” Zimmer said. “She’s won everything at the highest level, athletically, academically and leadership-wise. She embodies everything that Nebraska tries to produce. What better way to celebrate who she is and what she stands for than trying to help her join the elite ranks of everyone who competes for the NCAA Top 10 Award. She definitely qualifies. You don’t factor in adversity, but I don’t know how you couldn’t in her case. She was so close to her family and lost her dad unexpectedly shortly before her senior season began. It takes All-American character to go along with her All-American spirit. When you think about the amount of focus and precision it takes to be an All-American gymnast and to stay on that path with the personal loss that she went through…it’s just amazing what she was able to accomplish and makes everything all the more impressive.”
Count Kendig among those wowed by Wong’s determination and leadership. One of Wong’s brothers has a friend who was so moved by Emily’s ability to focus through adversity that he wrote Nebraska’s Director of Athletics a letter to communicate how he impressed he was. “He played baseball with Emily’s brother and complimented Nebraska for beating Michigan in a tough meet because Emily competed so tough herself,” Kendig said.
Kendig: Wong Reached Out to the Community
“If you know anything about the Wong family, you’re not just friends with one Wong. Your friends with all of them,” Kendig said. “They were all so close, and that’s how she grew up. I don’t know if anyone has ever heard her say a bad word about anyone. She helped lead team Bible Study for four consecutive springs and four consecutive falls. Her faith is unbelievable. I think it gives her the confidence for everything she takes on. She volunteers at schools, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, the Salvation Army. You name it, and she’s there…People City Mission, Adopt a Child, Operation Christmas, Diaper Drives, Boo at the Zoo, Bras for a Cause. She’s a YMCA Big Sister and a four-year member of FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes). You can count on her in the community just like you can in the classroom and on the floor. Emily’s story, her success and her ability to do everything she’s done to impact so many, including our school, our sport and the community, I just don’t know what else she could possibly do.”
If you’re looking for the ultimate kicker that separates Wong from others, talk to Linda Young, an Associate Professor of Practice. She’s taught Wong as a student. “You would love to have an entire classroom with students like Emily Wong,” Young said. “She just has such a high level of commitment, integrity, and maturity. She’s actively engaged in learning and not satisfied with just knowing the course material for the exam.”
Entire Team, Coaches Attended Dad’s Funeral
Last fall, Wong was shocked by her father John’s rapid decline after having a stroke. She drove 560 miles to Grand Forks and was gone for almost two weeks. “She never left the hospital the first week she was there,” Kendig said. “Finally, when her dad was getting near the end, Emily climbed into the hospital bed with John. That’s how close she was to her father (who owned and worked in a Chinese Restaurant with Karen, his wife and Emily’s mother). When he died, our whole gymnastics team and coaching staff rented a bus and went to Grand Forks to support Emily. She does everything the right way, and we all wanted to show her our respect.”
We end with Professor Young’s story about Emily Wong setting high goals and expectations for her own performance in the classroom. “When Emily’s dad died, she was absent from class for several weeks, but she did all she could to stay on top of her coursework,” Young said. “Upon her return to campus, she scored 100 percent on an exam in a course I teach. Even with all the demands she had catching up to her classroom responsibilities, she made sure she got it done. We had 28 students in the class, and I think it’s important to point out that she was the only one to score an A on that exam.”
Professor: Wong Will Succeed Professionally
Young recognized early that a young lady who competes in a sport that craves perfection has all the qualities to strive for perfection in other areas. “She will be very successful in her professional and personal life,” Young predicted. “I’m 100 percent confident that Emily will succeed in whatever direction her future takes her. She has the work ethic and determination to meet the demands of a physical therapy program. Her patients and clients will be fortunate to have someone of her caliber providing their physical therapy care.”
Wong finds it hard to put into words the impact intercollegiate athletics has had on her life. “It’s been a true blessing to be a part of this university,” she said. “I’ve grown so much as a person and grown physically and mentally as a gymnast.” She achieved A-pluses in physics, biology, chemistry, scientific Greek and Latin, statistical methods, biopsychology, you name it. She tackles the subject like she masters the all-around. “My classes challenged me intellectually,” she said. “I had to learn discipline in the classroom to make sure I stayed on top of things in gymnastics.”
Emily Appreciative of Great Internal Support
“The university has supplied so many resources. Tutors and academic advisors help you stay on track and want you to succeed,” she said. “I could not be more appreciative than I am for the way they encourage all of us athletes. Intercollegiate athletics has helped me grow stronger in my mental capacity and that, in turn, has helped me in other aspects of my life. We all know what kind of hard work and determination it takes to be a collegiate athlete. The mental attitude I’ve learned here is so much stronger than it was when I came here. It’s helped me gain so much confidence in myself and yet stay true to who I am.”
Friendships formed and the people she’s met have become like a second family. The support system was, in two of Emily’s own words, truly amazing. “With the passing of my father, I could not have made it without the support of my team and coaches and everyone in the Athletic Department. My entire team and coaches came to my hometown to be there for me as I was going through the hardest time of my life. I don’t’ know if they will ever know how much it meant to me.”
Guess What? There Really is No Place like Nebraska
The experience introduced Emily Wong to other “truly great people who will stand by you through everything,” Wong said. “The impact student-athletes have in this community was eye opening. The fans and support we have is incredible. Giving back to the community is fantastic. I don’t remember a time I didn’t have a smile on my face after reaching out and trying to help others, and we all know how much the people we helped have had an impact on us. They helped us understand what was important in life and showed us how little things could make a huge difference. I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve been blessed with. I’ve made lifelong friendships and memories that will never be forgotten, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to represent the University of Nebraska both in the gym and outside the gym. There’s no place like it!”
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