Laura Barito, a 22-time All-American in swimming and track, two-time NCAA national champion and mechanical engineering graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology, is the 2011 NCAA Woman of the Year.

Barito, a native of Arkadelphia, Ark., accepted the prestigious NCAA honor at the 21st annual NCAA Woman of the Year awards program Sunday evening in Indianapolis. The award honors female student-athletes who have distinguished themselves throughout their collegiate careers in academic achievement, athletic excellence, community service and leadership.

"It definitely puts together everything that I’ve been striving to do for, not even the last four years, but my entire life,” said Barito, who was enveloped in a bear hug by parents Barbara and Tom Barito after her name was announced as the 2011 NCAA Woman of the Year. “I never really expected to be recognized for the stuff that I’ve done ... it always just seemed like it made sense, this was what I am supposed to be doing.

“I think it’s a really neat thing the NCAA is doing recognizing these [women] for what they’re doing.”

Barito earned NCAA titles in swimming (50-yard freestyle) and track (400-meter hurdles) at Stevens Institute, a Division III school in Hoboken, N.J.  She said jokingly that “swim meets and track meets never made me this nervous” as she accepted the 2011 NCAA Woman of the Year award.

Barito, an eight-time Empire 8 conference record holder in swimming was named Conference Athlete of the Week six times in the sport. She also earned Conference Athlete of the Week three times in track, was a four-time Empire 8 champion in track and was the hurdle/sprint team captain. Additionally, she competed in cross country and earned all-conference honors in that sport. She was a nutrition representative and service leader for both the track and swimming teams. Selected twice as Stevens Athlete of the Year, Barito was also named Empire 8 Swimmer of the Year during her career.

“Not a lot of people expected a lot out of me,” Barito said. “I came from a small town in Arkansas, so it was kind of me just going out on a limb expecting I could do something with my college experience in athletics. I think if you have a gift or you have a talent, go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Because not a lot of people were telling me I could.”  

In her community service work, Barito volunteered as a server at a local homeless shelter and tutored underprivileged school children. At her church, she was a member of the worship band, a greeter and a member of the college ministry team. On campus, she was a freshman orientation leader, a mentor for incoming freshmen, and a member of Stevens Institute’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

The mathematics enthusiast appeared on Stevens Institute’s President’s List from 2007 to 2011 and was named a College Swimming Coaches Association of America Scholar All-American from 2008 to 2011. CoSIDA/Capital One named Barito to the Academic All-America First Team and the Empire 8 named her a Senior Scholar winner.  She was also a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society and Pi Tau Sigma Mechanical Engineering Honor Society.

“Academics definitely came first with me and I was looking for an engineering program with a swim team I could swim for and make a difference,” Barito said. “Division III athletes are really unique, I think, because they’re doing it for the love of the game…It was just a great experience overall.”

Barito is currently in graduate school at the University of Delaware, pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and bio-mechanics. Though she is only in her first year of research, Barito is working on projects that involve the knees, including knee replacements and knee implants. She is also in training for the U.S. Swimming nationals in December.

“Being a student-athlete definitely taught me even more discipline and hard work than I learned even just getting to college through high school and it’s definitely carried with me now,” she said. “I’m still in school, I’m still training, I’m still an athlete, so not much has changed. ... It’s allowed me to do a lot of things I never thought that I could do.”

Program host Lisa Salters, an ESPN reporter and former Penn State basketball student-athlete, called Barito and the other finalists honored Sunday “amazing and awe-inspiring.”

The NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics selected Barito as this year’s NCAA Woman of the Year.  A committee of representatives from NCAA schools and conferences selected the nine finalists from a group of 30 honorees. Those individuals were identified from a pool of 142 conference nominees. A record 471 nominations by NCAA-member colleges and universities were initially received this summer.

To be eligible for the award, a female student-athlete must have completed intercollegiate eligibility in her primary sport by the end of the 2011 spring season, graduated no later than the end of the summer 2011 term and achieved a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 2.5. Barito is the ninth swimming student-athlete to be named NCAA Woman of the Year since the program began in 1991. Last year’s NCAA Woman of the Year was Justine Schluntz, a former swimmer from the University of Arizona.