Former Nebraska triple jumper Angela Mercurio has been named the 2019 NCAA Woman of the Year honoree, making her the first Big Ten athlete to do so. Among the finalists was 3-time NCAA Division III champion Hannah Orbach-Mandel from Kenyon.
Mercurio is the first active Big Ten athlete to win the award in the 29-year old history of the program, though Cornhusker volleyball player Billie Winsett-Fletcher received the award in 1996 when Nebraska was transitioning from the defunct Big Eight conference to the Big 12 Conference.
“Every single woman in this room — and those who aren’t — all of you are so inspiring to me personally,” Mercurio said as she accepted the award. “To overcome all of the adversity that we’ve had to overcome and to still keep fighting through and claiming our space and knowing that we belong in our sports and on our campuses and on stages and at podiums, at the Olympics … it’s amazing and inspiring.”
Mercurio, who double majored in biochemistry and women’s and gender studies, was a Big Ten champion indoors in the triple jump and was named a second-team All-American by USTFCCCA three times. She represented her native Canada internationally at the 2015 Pan American Junior Athletic Championships and the 2017 World University Games. Her accomplishments came after a noteworthy career that almost wasn’t: as a senior in high school, Mercurio began to experience pain in her knee, and shortly before starting her freshman year at Nebraska, doctors discovered a tumor and diagnosed her with pigmented villonodular synovitis. One doctor told her she would never compete again in track and said she might never walk again, but Mercurio began competing in March of her freshman year, just three months after surgery.
She also has been named a recipient of an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, Big Ten postgraduate scholarship, and an inaugural recipient of the Rose Bowl Game Keith Jackson Postgraduate Scholarship named after the legendary broadcaster.
Orbach-Mandel, the Kenyon swimmer who was also named a finalist for this award, won 3 NCAA relay titles in her 4-year career at Kenyon. As a junior in 2018, she finished 2nd nationally in the 500 free and won 8 NCAC conference titles. She was named the recipient of Kenyon’s North Coast Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete Award. Orbach-Mandel was twice-named a CoSIDA Google Cloud Academic All-American, and a was a 4-time CSCAA Scholar All-American. She was also a 3-time member of the NCAA Academic Honor Roll, a member of the Kenyon Merit List, and was inducted to both the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society and Pi Mu Epsilon mathematics honor society. Additionally, Orbach-Mandel was awarded an NCAA post-graduate scholarship, a prestigious scholarship that is only awarded to a maximum of 126 student-athletes every year.
Swimmers & Divers have won the NCAA Woman of the Year award 12 times, more than any other sport. That includes, most recently, MIT swimmer Margaret Guo.
More on Mercurio, courtesy NCAA:
Mercurio graduated from Nebraska in May. For her biochemistry major, she completed a 300-hour research project in which she studied the effect of cellular kinases VRK1 and VRK2 on foreign DNA transfection and BAF localization. She performed at exceptional levels academically, earning two second-team Google Cloud Academic All-America honors, three Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Awards, and five U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic honors. Looking forward, Mercurio said she may choose to pursue a career in women’s health after her experience in college becoming certified as a doula, a woman who provides continuous emotional, physical and mental support to women during labor and childbirth.
“I started researching that because I found out that the maternal mortality rate for black women in the U.S. is disproportionate, actually comparable to undeveloped countries but in a really medically developed place, so I was trying to figure out how can this be fixed,” Mercurio said.
“So I found this and thought this seemed like a good way — not necessarily to solve all the problems — but for a woman to have someone with her during this most important time that can be stressful and traumatic, someone who can alleviate that and prevent that from happening, seemed like something every woman should have or at least have the option to pursue.”
Mercurio has begun applying to medical schools and has been named a recipient of an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and Big Ten postgraduate scholarship. She recently also was named an inaugural recipient of the Rose Bowl Game Keith Jackson Postgraduate Scholarship.
“Applying to medical school is a stressful process because I applied in the summer and I may not find out where I get in until next May, so that whole time you’re stressed, wondering if you’re good enough to get in,” Mercurio said. “These scholarships indicate that there are people who believe in my ability to be a doctor and follow my next dream, and the recognition of that has been a good confidence boost that I can do this next step.”
As a senior in high school, Mercurio began to experience pain in her knee, and shortly before starting her freshman year at Nebraska, doctors discovered a tumor and diagnosed her with pigmented villonodular synovitis. One doctor told her she would never compete again in track and said she might never walk again, but Mercurio began competing in March of her freshman year, just three months after surgery.
She went on to win a Big Ten triple jump championship in indoor track and field and garnered three second-team USTFCCCA All-America accolades. After years of trying to qualify to represent her country, she competed for Team Canada twice in international competition, including the 2015 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships and the 2017 World University Games.
“It was an amazing cultural experience as well as athletics experience, and just to know that I had somehow overcome all the times I’d fallen short, and to be able to put that jersey on and be announced as representing Team Canada, it was really amazing,” Mercurio said.
Beyond academic coursework and athletics, Mercurio spent her spare time supporting her classmates and her community. She served as a teaching assistant in three classes at Nebraska and interned at the YWCA in 2018, where she helped plan a STEM-focused curriculum and facilitated a STEM club for girls that met weekly. In addition, she served as a peer mentor in a campus Athlete2Athlete program. Mercurio also started a group for black female student-athletes to create a community of acceptance and empowerment at Nebraska. She said the need for the minority student-athlete group became apparent after a friend returned from a job fair and noted that every recruiter had turned away from her to speak with a white teammate.
“In sports, once you get on the track, the field, the court, it’s skill for skill, talent for talent. Once you have that opportunity, the color of your skin doesn’t dictate the outcome. That experience taught us that the real world may not be that way,” Mercurio said. “Nebraska listened to our group, and it’s now a department-wide program for all student-athletes of all minority identities. It taught me that every single person needs a place where their voice is heard, where they are validated and understood and can be themselves.”
Her most significant volunteer work was in the medical field, including a clinic abroad in India in 2017 and a local clinic in Lincoln called the People’s City Mission. She also spoke with women at a pregnancy shelter in Omaha, educating them about the options available to them in health care.
For her contributions to her campus, Mercurio was awarded a 2019 Sam Foltz 27 Hero Leadership Award, presented to student-athletes in recognition of academic achievement, mentoring and leadership.
“To receive that award that was named after him and be recognized by my peers as a good leader was rewarding. But it’s important to me to be able to show other girls what to aspire to,” Mercurio said.
“I feel really responsible now, holding this Woman of the Year trophy, to pay it forward to girls everywhere. I wouldn’t be here without sports, and I wouldn’t be who I am without sports. I know that for a fact. And I want every girl to have the opportunity to dream of being here.”