Former Hawkeye runner Sarah (Arens) Wilhelmi now works to build bridges between college athletes and Team USA Olympians and Paralympians.
Emily Nelson
courtesy of Sarah Wilhelmi; Reggie Morrow

Suffering an injury just before a championship race can be devastating for an athlete. But this scenario had a silver lining for University of Iowa distance runner Sarah Wilhelmi: Instead of competing, she pitched in with the management side of the 2000 Big Ten track and field championships.

“That absolutely was a turning point for me,” Wilhelmi says. “I had so many majors my freshman year. But that opportunity to work behind the scenes and experience the energy and excitement of putting on an event like that made me think, ‘This is a business I want to keep exploring.’”

Wilhelmi says the experience helped launch a career in sports that led to her current position as senior director of collegiate partnerships for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“To have a job that mixes my two passions of college sport and Olympic and Paralympic sport exceeds my expectations,” Wilhelmi says. “At Iowa, you’re encouraged to dream big and go see what you can do. I get to live the lessons I was taught there, and I feel so fortunate.”

Sarah Wilhelmi running during her days as a University of Iowa athlete

Sarah Wilhelmi came to the University of Iowa to compete as a distance runner, but after suffering an injury, she helped out with the management side of the 2000 Big Ten track and field championships, which influenced her career path. (Photo by Reggie Morrow.)

Wilhelmi, who graduated from Iowa with a BBA in finance in 2003 and an MA in health and sport studies (athletics administration) in 2005, grew up on a century farm outside the northwest Iowa town of Remsen. A standout performance at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, her junior year put her on the radar of many college track coaches, including those at Iowa.

While Wilhelmi tried to decide where to enroll, her mom gave her a piece of advice.

“She said to me, ‘Sarah, the most important decision here is what school do you want on your diploma?’” Wilhelmi says. “And I wanted the University of Iowa on my diploma.”

Wilhelmi credits much of her success to the mentors she found at Iowa who provided her first college sports employment opportunities, including Bob Bowlsby, former Iowa athletic director; Fred Mims, former associate athletic director; Paula Jantz, former senior associate athletic director for sports administration and operations; and especially Christine Grant, director of Iowa women’s athletics from 1973 to 2000.

“I was so fortunate to have Dr. Grant, the godmother of Title IX and women’s sports, as my thesis adviser,” Wilhelmi says. “I remember being in her office and her giving me not only life advice, but teaching me about the evolution of women’s sports and how to protect it. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on Title IX during its 50th anniversary year, and I can’t stress enough how much I want to continue protecting this space so my girls can play whatever sports they want.”

It was also Grant who encouraged Wilhelmi to apply for internships with the United States Olympic Committee—which later led to a staff position during the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece—and the NCAA in membership services.

Personal tragedy struck twice during Wilhelmi’s time at Iowa. Her brother died in a four-wheeler accident and then her fiancé died of cancer.

“In both those times, the Hawkeye family gave me a hug and helped me keep standing,” Wilhelmi says. “I learned perseverance, but I didn’t do it alone. I was fortunate to have my teammates, (former Iowa track and field) Coach (Layne) Anderson, and caring administrators in my life—they helped me go from being totally broken to getting me back on track and keep pushing through the hard pieces of the puzzle.”

“At Iowa, you’re encouraged to dream big and go see what you can do. I get to live the lessons I was taught there, and I feel so fortunate.”

Sarah Wilhelmi
senior director of collegiate partnerships for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and 2003 and 2005 Iowa graduate

Wilhelmi says all her college and internship experiences prepared her well for the jobs she has held since: assistant director of compliance services at Stanford University, associate commissioner for governance and institutional services for the West Coast Conference, and, since 2016, senior director of collegiate partnerships with the USOPC.

“I’m the first one to hold the position, and it’s been rewarding to build from scratch this bridge between the college landscape and Team USA,” Wilhelmi says. “It’s been rewarding to see what can grow from a space that previously didn’t exist.”

There is still a lot of work to do, Wilhelmi says, but she is proud of the strides that have been made in making the road smoother for Team USA athletes to further their educations and excel in their sports.

Hawks go for gold in sports careers

University of Iowa students and an instructor stand at the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado, holding a Hawkeyes flag with a Tigerhawk logo on it, and a lit torch

University of Iowa sport and recreation management students spent a week learning about many aspects of a career with the Olympics—and lived like an Olympian in the process.

Among a few of the initiatives Wilhelmi has spearheaded has been the development of the USOPC Collegiate Advisory Council to advocate for Olympic/Paralympic sport needs at the college level and launching the Para-College Inclusion Project to grow adaptive sport opportunities in universities and colleges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilhelmi cultivated the USOPC College Sports Sustainability Think Tank, which led the USOPC and NCAA to sign a cooperation agreement in March 2022 intended to pilot new collaborative efforts, including testing joint support of Olympic sport management and shared promotion of Olympic and Paralympic sports at the college level.

Wilhelmi has two pieces of advice for current and future University of Iowa students: stay curious and never underestimate the power of a Hawkeye.

“Iowa gives you the courage and the tools to be curious and, through that, to grow and develop,” Wilhelmi says.

As for the power of Hawkeyes, Wilhelmi says she has experienced it time and again. For example, one of the first members of the USOPC Collegiate Advisory Committee was Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bowlsby, who was director of athletics at Iowa when Wilhelmi was a student.

“My husband (Chris) is a Penn State alumnus, and he always comments how there are Hawkeyes everywhere,” Wilhelmi says. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because we are proud, and also friendly. There’s a genuine desire to make connections with each other and help each other.”