Of the 460,000 athletes competing in three levels of NCAA sports, only a small fraction of them will get to compete beyond college — and most of them are men making the jump from Division I to the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball.
This spring, Washington University in St. Louis, whose teams participate in Division III, has two athletes — both women — who have a shot at continuing professional athletic careers.
Women athletes turning pro: virtually impossible at any level. Absolutely possible because of what they’ve learned at WashU.
Both Melissa Gilkey, a three-time All-American women’s basketball player, and Lillie Toaspern, a two-time All-American women’s soccer midfielder, are record-setting athletes whose achievements have kept the Sports Information staff busy.
And now both have opportunities to continue playing the sports they love — and get paid for it.
Gilkey, who distinguished herself in the Women’s Overseas Basketball Combine in Tampa in April in conjunction with the Women’s Final Four, is headed to Europe to play professionally this summer. Toaspern has signed with the reserve squad of the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and is already working out with the team.
“Our athletes are students first who learn how to juggle a tough academic course load with athletic competition — the very embodiment of what Division III athletics stand for,” said Josh Whitman, the John M. Schael Director of Athletics. “Usually the payoff for Washington University athletes is admission to top professional schools, jobs in the public or private sector or the security of starting their own companies.
“When, however, students like Melissa and Lillie come along — students who match exceptional athletic talent with drive and continuing ambition — we will do everything we can to encourage them. Our mission is to empower our students to realize their dreams, no matter where those dreams may take them. We are so proud of Melissa and Lillie.”
For Toaspern, who grew up in Denver, Colorado, with posters of Mia Hamm on her wall, simply getting to play soccer in college was her dream. But after exiting the field for the last time as a senior last fall, she couldn’t bear not playing a sport that had been part of her life since age 4.
“The week after the soccer season ended, I had a bit of an existential crisis when I realized I no longer had soccer in my life,” Toaspern said. “So I began taking steps to fix that.”
With the help of the athletics staff, Toaspern made a highlight video and entered the NWSL draft in January. She wasn’t selected but she was offered preseason tryouts with franchises in Houston, upstate New York and Chicago. She chose the latter.
She went to Red Stars preseason training camp in March and was allowed to return to the university to finish her course work in anthropology in Arts & Sciences where she will earn her degree in global health and environment.
The day after her last class April 24, Toaspern rejoined the team in Chicago and began workouts with every intention of making the roster. With the women’s World Cup this summer — and with some members of the Red Stars vying for spots on national teams in the United States, Canada and New Zealand — there’s a good chance Toaspern will have an opportunity to prove herself worthy of a permanent roster spot. When the door opens, she’ll be ready for it.
“It’s kind of crazy,” she said, laughing. “I’m following my passion, so that’s pretty incredible. My parents have been very supportive, so that helps a lot. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”
Both women will participate in Commencement ceremonies May 15. Toaspern will return for Senior Week to join Gilkey and the Class of 2015 in the festivities that lead up to graduation day.
Gilkey, for her part, will concentrate on basketball full time after graduation and look to sign with a professional team in June or July. She’ll then depart for international competition. Her performance at the April overseas combine — where she was the only Division III athlete and earned a selection as a top-20 prospect — has virtually assured her a spot on a European roster.
“Once I started playing, all the nerves went away,” Gilkey said. “It definitely was worth going down there. I didn’t know what to expect because there were some pretty prominent college players competing for a spot, too. But once you’re out there, you just shake off the nerves and play.”
Gilkey, who will earn a dual degree in economics and strategy and in marketing from Olin Business School, isn’t worried about the risk-return of going overseas to play basketball. When she is finished with her pro career, Gilkey will have a job waiting for her with a company called Protiviti, the global consulting firm she interned with last summer in San Francisco.
“When they assured me the job offer would be waiting for me, it was a no-brainer decision,” she said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to even have a job right out of college. To have an opportunity to pursue one of my dreams first — that’s amazing.”
Both women say participating in athletics at Washington University has made all the difference as they embark upon life’s next big adventure.
“WashU does a really good job of supporting its students in everything that we do,” Toaspern said. “The classes are hard, but it’s not a competitive thing. Everyone works together to do the best they can instead of tearing each other down.
“When I couldn’t figure out classes, there was always someone there to help, on my team or in my classes or among my friends, and that made me feel like I could do anything,” Toaspern said.
Said Gilkey: “There wasn’t a basketball practice that we didn’t improve something or I didn’t learn something. We were always on the move.
“It’s the kind of lesson that you don’t quickly forget — using every day, every practice, every moment to its fullest.”