Strong Of Heart: Elizabeth TuckerBy CHRIS MASTERS | 2015
Elizabeth Tucker didn’t play soccer in high school, nor did she rank among the top 100 players in the nation in her prep class. she wasn’t even awarded an athletic scholarship when she enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in 2010. instead, she joined the Fighting Irish women’s soccer program as a “recruited nonscholarship” student-athlete.
Four years later, the actions of the soft-spoken Tucker during her college career said more than her words ever could. As a result, the Jacksonville, Florida, native stamped her place as one of the most successful student-athletes in the history of Fighting Irish athletics.
Less than six months after she crossed the stage at the University’s Commencement Exercises to receive her diploma, Tucker returned to center stage when the former Fighting Irish women’s soccer defender was named the 2014 NCAA Woman of the Year in October 2014 during the annual NCAA Awards Dinner in Indianapolis.
The Notre Dame athletics department is built on five core values: excellence, community, education, faith and tradition. Those five values may never have been on better display at Notre Dame, as neatly packaged into one incomparable individual in Tucker.
Tucker represented the first Notre Dame student-athlete to be selected for the prestigious honor in its 24-year history—and it’s an award Irish vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick considers the most difficult to win anywhere in college athletics. She also was the first soccer player chosen.
“To play college soccer and be a student-athlete at Notre Dame was the gift of a lifetime,” Tucker said. “It made me a stronger, more mature and more aware person going into the real world and for that I will always be grateful. I’m also so thankful to my parents, my coaches, my teammates, my professors and all of those people at Notre Dame who helped me along the way. I’m truly honored and blessed to call myself a student-athlete and a graduate from the University of Notre Dame.”
The NCAA Woman of the Year award honors graduating female student-athletes who participated in NCAA-sanctioned sports and distinguished themselves throughout their collegiate careers in the areas of academic achievement, athletics excellence, service and leadership.
Tucker emerged as the 2014 NCAA Woman of the Year recipient following a rigorous selection process that began in June 2014 when NCAA colleges and universities nominated 446 student-athletes for the award. Conferences selected up to two nominees to represent each of their leagues, with the NCAA Woman of the Year selection committee then choosing the 30 semifinalists (10 each from Division I, II and III) and the nine finalists (three from each division). The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics then voted from among the finalists to determine the winner.
“This was a landmark day for Notre Dame and Fighting Irish athletics,” said Swarbrick. “Elizabeth was a tremendous ambassador for our University and our women’s soccer program during her four years. The contributions she made were almost endless and will live on well after her graduation from Notre Dame. She is selfless, caring, intelligent, competitive and compassionate. In short, Elizabeth is everything we could ever hope to find in a Notre Dame student-athlete.”
Tucker played a critical role in maintaining the standard of excellence of the Notre Dame women’s soccer program during her four years. She helped the Fighting Irish to four consecutive NCAA Championship berths during her career (2010–13), including the 2010 national title and a spot in the 2012 NCAA quarterfinals. In fact, during that run to the 2010 NCAA crown, Tucker scored both goals in a 2-0 Fighting Irish win at No. 6 Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals, as Notre Dame became the lowest-seeded team (No. 4 in its quadrant, No. 13-16 in the 64-team field) to earn the title in the 32-year history of the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship.
A four-year monogram recipient and team captain during her final two seasons with the Fighting Irish, Tucker played in all 92 of Notre Dame’s matches in that four-year span, starting 87 times while finishing with 19 goals and 14 assists. She also earned third-team all-BIG EAST Conference honors and BIG EAST All-Rookie Team accolades in 2010.
In the classroom, Tucker was largely without peer, receiving the 2014 ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year award and a 2014 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, while being named one of five finalists for the 2014 Wooden Citizenship Cup and a candidate for both a Rhodes Scholarship and University valedictorian honors.
Tucker earned her business administration degree from Notre Dame’s top-ranked Mendoza College of Business in May 2014 with a 4.00 grade-point average. An accounting major and theology minor, she received Dean’s List honors all eight semesters. She also was a first-team Capital One Academic All-America selection in 2012 and 2013, making her only the 15th Notre Dame student-athlete in school history to earn first-team Academic All-America honors twice (and just the fourth women’s soccer player to do so).
During her academic career, Tucker received numerous accolades from the Mendoza College of Business, including the 2013 Eugene D. Fanning Scholarship Award, recognizing exceptional achievement in business communication, and the 2012 Notre Dame Accounting Excellence Award, recognizing Mendoza’s top 20 accounting majors. She also earned the 2014 Tara K. Deutsch Award, given to a Notre Dame accountancy senior who displays exemplary social consciousness and devotion to those less fortunate, as well as the 2014 Top Hamilton Award for accountancy for having the highest cumulative GPA.
Said Tucker’s former coach at Notre Dame, Randy Waldrum, “It couldn’t happen to a more worthy person. Liz epitomized all that we understand the University of Notre Dame stands for. She was such an amazing student-athlete, representing the University in a most outstanding way.
“Her commitment to her academics was second to none, her dedication to her teammates on the women’s soccer team was endless and lifelong, and her social awareness and community service represent the vision of Notre Dame—to mold young people to influence and better the world. I’ve not been around many that put their life in such a focused mode in such a young age. Her maturity and her morality are a direct reflection of the guidance of her parents.”
In May 2014, Tucker became the first student-athlete in Notre Dame history to sweep all four of the University’s major athletics honors in the same year—the Byron V. Kanaley Award (senior monogram athlete most exemplary as a student and leader), Francis Patrick O’Connor Award (student-athlete who embodies the true spirit of Notre Dame through contributions to the team), the Community Champion Award (recognizing contributions by student-athletes to the University community and community at large) and the Top Gun Award (highest senior student-athlete GPA).
On campus, Tucker was highly invested in helping younger Notre Dame students reach their goals through the Notre Dame Peer Advisor Program, in which she met with 50 freshmen to discuss their academic progress and social concerns. Within Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Tucker served two years as a teaching assistant in two courses—managerial economics and information technology management.
Tucker also was an active member of two highly regarded Notre Dame student-athlete groups—the Rosenthal Leadership Academy and the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC).
As one of more than 100 student-athletes representing 26 Fighting Irish athletic teams, Tucker participated in the Rosenthal Leadership Academy for two years (2011–12 and 2013–14). The Rosenthal Leadership Academy is one of the nation’s premier leadership development programs in collegiate athletics, developing and enhancing strong leadership on Notre Dame athletic teams by providing emerging and existing leaders with progressive annual programming. Programming specifics and logistics are developed in conjunction with administration and coaches, considering unique needs. A student-athlete is nominated through a peer nomination process, after which the final roster is developed with the consultation of coaches and support staff. Targeted growth areas include self-awareness, commitment to institutional and team goals, empathy and skill building through leadership workshops and retreats.
“I never tried to approach community service as this extra thing, but something where I wondered what I could do in my everyday life to help someone else,” she said.
Tucker also served two years on the Notre Dame Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) board. Along with fellow women’s soccer captain Katie Naughton, Tucker was selected to participate in the 58-member group. To improve the overall experience for student-athletes at Notre Dame, the SAAC works to improve relationships among teams and individuals, encourages involvement in campus and community service projects, and streamlines and promotes efficient communication with the athletics administration to effectively communicate and offer suggestions for programs designed to serve student-athlete needs, all while creating awareness among the campus community about the Notre Dame experience for athletes.
Off the pitch, Tucker donated incredible amounts of time to numerous local, regional and national community service projects, in addition to being an active contributor to several campus groups, both inside and outside the Notre Dame athletics department.
Tucker was closely involved in the Fighting Irish Fight For Life program, which pairs teams and student-athletes with patients in the pediatric hematology/oncology unit at South Bend’s Memorial Hospital, providing the patients and their families with support as they are undergoing treatment for various types of cancers. Tucker personally took an even greater interest in the project, not only spending added time with 11-year-old leukemia patient Maria Bennett but also continuing to remain close friends with Maria and her family long after Tucker’s graduation from Notre Dame.
Said Maria’s mother, Ashley, “Maria never had a sister. I never had a sister. But when I watch those two, it’s kind of like God paired up Maria with a big sister. And Liz never stopped smiling, and it was that smile that pushed Maria through this.”
Tucker also participated in the Adopt-a-Family, Ronald McDonald House, Pediatric Christmas Party and Perley Elementary Tutor programs. She was instrumental in leading meet-and-greet events at local area middle schools, as well as soccer clinics throughout the South Bend area, notably with Michiana Special Olympians.
Tucker was part of the Notre Dame Tax Assistance Program, which annually goes into South Bend and surrounding communities to help low-income and disabled citizens with preparation of tax returns. In 2013, she worked at the program’s busiest center in South Bend, personally preparing approximately 40 federal and state income tax returns. This past spring, Tucker supervised another tax preparation location in the area, helping 45 taxpayers file 91 federal and state returns. She also made several visits to home-bound individuals to assist them in preparing and filing their tax returns.
Tucker closely identified with the culture and faith of Notre Dame, serving as a Eucharistic minister and lector in her residence hall, McGlinn Hall, throughout her four years on campus. She extended her faith beyond the boundaries of the campus as a third-grade catechist (teacher) at Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend in spring 2014.
In an interview for the NCAA website (ncaa.org), Tucker talked about the opportunities she’s received as a college student-athlete and the lessons she’s learned, whether on the fields of competition, in the classroom or in the community. She is now working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company in Chicago, with an eye on pursuing graduate studies—and maybe coaching—in the future.
“It was an incredible experience to play college sports,” Tucker said. “More than anything, it challenged me in ways I never could have been challenged if I had just been a student alone.
“Among other things, I experienced failure so many times, and that is invaluable going into the real world. It’s toughened me up and it’s shown me the potential that I have.
“I think sometimes, especially in college sports, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your world. So every community service thing I did brought me back down to earth and made me realize how much I had to be grateful for.”
Excellence, community, education, faith and tradition. Those five values may never have been on better display at Notre Dame, as neatly packaged into one incomparable individual in Tucker.
*Originally published on strongofheart.nd.edu