Photo of student-athletes Hannah Kassaie (far left), Abigail Wilkov, and Jennifer Ngo
Student-athletes Hannah Kassaie (far left), Abigail Wilkov, and Jennifer Ngo

Game changers: Meet three women student-athletes making history at CWRU

While athletes such as Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky regularly make headlines worldwide for their athletic prowess, women in sport have struggled for decades to get the recognition they deserve. Each February, National Girls and Women in Sports Day (Feb. 7) not only celebrates the influence and accomplishments of women athletes, but honors the uphill battle women have faced, and continue to face, in regard to gender equity. 

This annual observance also recognizes the countless benefits of participating in sports, from camaraderie to enhanced physical and mental wellbeing. Women student-athletes at Case Western Reserve University can speak to those benefits—and they’re making CWRU history in the process. 

The Daily sat down with three such Spartans to discover what inspired them to become athletes, and how their experiences have shaped their time at CWRU.  

Read on to learn more about them. 

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hannah Kassaie hits a ball during a tennis match. Courtesy of the United States Tennis Association.

Hannah Kassaie, tennis

Four-time All-American for the women’s tennis team; qualified for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championship in singles and doubles play after her first two seasons

A third-year nutrition student, Hannah Kassaie has played tennis since age 4 and made her first competitive tournament appearance at around 10 years old. Now, Kassaie is earning accolades at the collegiate level, having been recognized for winning the Elite 90 Award for Division III Women’s Tennis in 2023, which honors the student-athlete with the highest GPA at a national championship site. 

  1. What inspired you to be an athlete?

I watched my dad play tennis growing up so that’s why I wanted to start playing. He’s the one who first taught me tennis, and I always looked up to him. I’ve also loved being active and competing, so tennis has always been a great way for me to de-stress and have fun.

2. Who is your favorite professional woman athlete?

My favorite female athlete and tennis player right now is Ons Jabeur. I love her game style and attitude on- and off-court.

3. What is the best part of being a student-athlete at CWRU?

The best part is definitely the community. Our team is so close and is truly like a family. Spending time with my teammates on- and off-court (even at 6:30 in the morning) has been the best part of my college experience so far. Being able to have such a supportive, inspiring and funny group of friends as teammates is a blessing.

4. Why do you think it’s so valuable for women to compete in sports? What benefits are there to being a woman athlete?

From my experience, being an athlete gives an outlet to destress consistently while also staying healthy. I think competing also helps with dealing with situations under pressure and being independent. In sports, especially tennis, you have to think on your feet and strategize on your own, which can be useful when facing or adapting to different situations in life. 

Abigail WIlkov prepares to dive during a swim meet. Photography by Tim Phillis.

Abigail Wilkov, swimming and diving 

Most decorated diver in the university’s history; earned All-American honors within her first two years

Before becoming a CWRU diver, Abigail Wilkov competed in gymnastics for 15 years. Now a third-year neuroscience and cognitive science student, Wilkov works with The Hidden Opponent, a nonprofit organization that focuses on student-athlete mental health. 

  1. What inspired you to be an athlete?

My parents put me in gymnastics as a child and I have been involved in sports ever since. I think what inspired me to continue with athletics was always striving to improve and competing with myself each day. 

2. Who is your favorite professional woman athlete?

My favorite professional female athlete is Aly Raisman. She is not afraid of being her authentic self, even on the international stage, and had the courage and bravery to speak out about abuse in her sport. 

3. What is the best part of being a student-athlete at CWRU?

I love being a part of a special community that strives for excellence both in the classroom and in sports. It is inspiring to be around so many driven and unique individuals. I also love the coaching and athletic staff. They made it easy to come to practice every day.

4. Why do you think it’s so valuable for women to compete in sports? What benefits are there to being a woman athlete?

It is very important for women to compete in sports because not only does it teach personal skills valuable both in athletics and the real world, but it also teaches teamwork. I have learned how to advocate for myself and how to be courageous and resilient. Women’s sports encourage girls to support each other rather than tearing each other down.

Being a female athlete allows me to challenge myself physically and prove many stereotypes about girls (such as weak or fragile.) wrong. It is empowering to be able to accomplish hard things. 

Jennifer Ngo prepares to hit a ball during a volleyball game. Courtesy of Tim Phillis.

Jennifer Ngo, volleyball

First volleyball player in CWRU history to be named an All-American First Team selection; the University Athletic Association’s Most Valuable Player

An athlete for 15 years and fourth-year economics student, Jennifer Ngo serves as the founder and president of the Black Letterwinning Athlete Coalition (BLAC), which fosters community among minority athletes at CWRU. 

  1. What inspired you to be an athlete?

Honestly, I stumbled into the world of athletics almost on a whim. I decided to try out volleyball just for fun because my older sister was playing it. However, as I got more involved and started to immerse myself in the competitive environment, something clicked. I found myself drawn to the energy of the game, the rush of adrenaline during matches, and the camaraderie among teammates. There’s a unique thrill in pushing yourself to the limit and seeing how far you can go, both physically and mentally.

As I began to understand the importance of discipline and dedication in sports, I discovered a newfound respect for the process. Training became not just about improving my skills, but also about cultivating mental toughness and resilience. I learned the value of hard work, perseverance, and the power of setting and achieving goals. 

2. Who is your favorite professional woman athlete?

Serena Williams stands out as my favorite female athlete because she embodies strength, determination and grace, while breaking barriers and inspiring countless individuals like myself to pursue excellence both on and off the court.

3. What is the best part of being a student-athlete at CWRU?

The best part of being a student-athlete at CWRU is being surrounded by supportive teammates, coaches and staff who foster a culture of excellence on and off the field. I like the opportunity to travel around the country to compete against teams from various regions. Despite the rigorous demands of being a Division III athlete, you can still maintain a balanced lifestyle. I still had the flexibility to pursue my academic interests, participate in extracurricular activities, and cultivate diverse passions and hobbies outside of my sport. This enabled me to develop as a well-rounded individual, equipped with the skills and experiences to apply to all aspects of my life.

Overall, being a student-athlete at CWRU has taught me that there is so much more to life than playing a sport; but there is nothing more important than what sports can teach you about life. Being a student-athlete has allowed me to be part of a community that values academic excellence, athletic achievement, and personal development. It’s an experience that empowers me to thrive both on the field and in the classroom, shaping me into a well-rounded individual who is prepared to face the challenges of the world beyond graduation.

4. Why do you think it’s so valuable for women to compete in sports? What benefits are there to being a woman athlete?

Competing in sports as a Black student-athlete offers invaluable benefits. It not only enhances my physical health but it also fosters my mental resilience and empowerment. Through sports, I’m able to challenge stereotypes and showcase my abilities, while also building strong social connections with teammates and mentors.