Once A Jayhawk, Always A Jayhawk: Liz (Phillips) Dobbins
“Remember your nest; return to it often. And never forget this unique bird that has set you free.”
Vice Chancellor Emeritus David Ambler used to share these words with University of Kansas students at each graduation, urging them to never forget their time as a Jayhawk. Current KU students can remind themselves of his message by running past the mural illustrating his words on the indoor track inside the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center.
Perhaps no Jayhawk represents Ambler’s words, in both its message and placement, than former KU gymnast and golfer Liz Dobbins. Residing with her husband, Kent, the couple lives only a few blocks away from the nest of the Lawrence campus, and, has dedicated her life to health and fitness.
During her undergraduate years at KU from 1971-75, Dobbins competed in gymnastics and golf, and even was a cheerleader for one year. For a female student-athlete so entrenched in Kansas athletics, attending the University of Kansas was not always the clearest option.
“I had a choice of going to one university and being involved in only gymnastics or another university and being involved in only golf,” Dobbins said. “My dad said ‘Hey why don’t you save money by going in-state and do both at KU?’ I said ‘Okay. Dad that sounds good.'”
After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in physical education and minors in biology and dance, Dobbins embarked on a journey to promote health and fitness that would span the next 40 years. She made this decision at an age where most people have no clue what direction to take their lives.
“I knew I wanted to be a physical education teacher and a promoter of health and fitness when I was a freshman in high school,” Dobbins remembered. “I knew I could be a teacher and I was involved in sports, and that was just a natural gravitation for me.”
Her career as a physical educator has led to her working with students ranging in age from preschool to the university level, and has included positions such as physical education teacher, coach and lecturer. Though she said working with each age group gave her joy in different ways and could not name her favorite stop in her career, Dobbins expressed enjoyment in being back in Lawrence and working with college students. Being able to have genuine discussions with her students has helped her fall in love with teaching at the university level.
Since 2009, Dobbins has worked in the University of Kansas’ Health Sport and Exercise Science department as an adjunct lecturer. She lectures on the topics of adaptive physical education, motor development and physical education in the classroom. This year, her 40th year in physical education, she plans to help her group of seniors graduate and then retire from physical education. Her greatest hope is that her students live their passions and make health and wellness a priority. She knows better than anyone the amazing places prioritizing health and wellness can take you.
The students struggling to climb Daisy Hill may want to sit down before learning of Dobbins’ athletic accomplishments. Yes, she played two sports for KU, but that was not even close to the end of her athletic endeavors. Since 1985 Dobbins and her husband have competed in multiple triathlons each year and they have been wildly successful.
“I’ve been 5th, 3rd, and 2nd overall in my age bracket. I haven’t won it yet. I have to keep up with my husband; he’s won a World Championship,” Dobbins said. “I’ve won some National Championships just here in the United States.”
Dobbins has mostly concentrated on the half-Ironman distance, which includes a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and half-marathon run. Both her and her husband’s triathlon success has taken them to places such as Switzerland and Sweden. It is very difficult for Dobbins to travel without fitness being a major part of the experience, even when not travelling for competitions.
“We’re adventure vacationers. Two years ago we biked with the Tour de France. They would let us out of the vans and we would bike the climbs to the top and the Tour would shoot over the top and we would go down after them. It was amazing,” said Dobbins. She humbly admitted, “What took them 30 minutes took me three hours.”
The next year’s trip was to Tanzania. In a natural progression from riding with the Tour de France, Dobbins’ next goal was to climb all 19,000 feet of Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It was pretty amazing. I had no idea what I was in for, except for maybe a slow walk up the mountain. I went with a friend and my cousin. The three of us trucked up with a group of nine. It took 23 people to get nine of us up. They carried all of our tents, everything. It was pretty much taken care of except for us to walk during the day. On Mount Kilimanjaro you go through five different climates, so the nature was pretty impressive,” said Dobbins. “I was okay until around 18,500 feet and then I started getting altitude sickness. I got to the top, touched the top, and came back down.”
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is hard to top, although Dobbins has not yet planned her next trip. It might have to do with her time being occupied by her new position as Vice President of K Club, an organization dedicated to preserving the history of Kansas Athletics. Her responsibilities as VP include helping with membership and overseeing K Club’s just-launched apparel site. Being a former KU student-athlete herself has helped Dobbins understand the importance of her job and K Club as a whole.
“I think it is important for the current student-athletes to know all of the history that went before them,” Dobbins stated. “I think now K Club and what Kansas Athletics is doing has really made history come into life with the student-athletes. They are a lot more aware than when I was going to school.”
Dobbins wants to connect current KU student-athletes to KU Athletics’ past because she wants them to appreciate the university that she fell in love with over 40 years ago and grow to love it as much as she does. There is a reason why she came back to her nest.
“KU was a healthy place for me. It was where I found my identity,” Dobbins said. “Once a Jayhawk Always a Jayhawk has always been my feeling, ever since I was a freshman. I just love KU.”