It was 8 a.m. last Friday, the first day of the MIAC Indoor Track and Field Championships. Irene Gibson ’15 (Carmel, IN), a talented middle distance runner, sat at her desk deep in thought. Her mind was infiltrated with images of a medieval fantasy world filled with women trying to prove themselves. There was no mind-wandering about her important 600-meter race in the afternoon. Gibson was focused on writing a book, which once finished will be her fifth novel.
“[Writing] is my me time,” Gibson said. “It started as a habit in seventh grade, when I decided I wanted to write my first book. I never really stopped; I think the longest I haven’t written something for fun might have been…two months?”
Such is the life of Irene Gibson. Determined to stand out in all of her endeavors, Gibson led environmental initiatives, took an advanced IB Diploma course load, and developed into one of the top middle distance runners in the state of Indiana, all while writing maintaining her daily novel writing routine.
That was in high school. As Gibson’s current roommate Emma Cederlund ’15 said jokingly, “She [writes] in the morning because she’s not accomplished as it is.” As an upperclassman at Carmel High, one of the 20 largest high schools in the nation, Gibson was hit with loads upon loads of college recruitment letters from state universities and private liberal arts institutions around the country, each vying for her talents. The Marines. Indiana University Bloomington. The list went on and on, and the letters kept getting tossed. “Getting contacted by a lot of schools was actually really annoying,” Gibson said. “I’d just throw them in the recycling bin if they were from Indiana.”
Then one day, Gibson’s younger sister, who was reading a book on colleges, made a subtle comment that Gibson should look at Macalester. Gibson said she was intrigued by Macalester’s description, but when she discovered its Minnesota location, she lost interest. “‘I don’t think I’m going to apply,’” she said at the time. “Then my mom was like, ‘Irene, you realize that’s a really stupid reason to not apply.’”
Upon her mother’s request, Gibson filled out the application, got in contact with track and field head coach Martin Peper and made an April campus visit. To her surprise, she said that she fell in love with Mac. “I always imagined colleges being bigger,” Gibson said. “But I liked [Macalester] a lot. I thought the classes were great and the kids were great.” Gibson had made her decision. She was going to be a Scot.
The ensuing fall, Gibson arrived at Macalester with a sense of purpose. “[Macalester] is a massive opportunity to learn and get so much done,” she said. Early on, Gibson became involved with Ametrica, a campus organization that encourages interaction between domestic and international students through cultural activities. Arriving on campus early for the Ametrica orientation activities, Gibson recalls flying into Minneapolis and waiting in the airport for a group of Scandinavian students who were also in the program. It was in that initial meeting that Gibson met Cederlund.
In the winter, Gibson excitedly began her inaugural collegiate track season. Despite strong competition, Gibson managed to turn in one of the best seasons in Macalester history. During the indoor season, she broke the long-standing women’s record in the 600-meter run, finishing in 1:37.80. “I was surprised more than anything else,” Gibson said. “It was gratifying I guess. It was nice to know that all the hard work pays off.”
Gibson followed up her strong indoor season with impressive performances outdoors. She ran a leg in the team’s school record-breaking 4×400 meter relay team that finished in 3:58.59. Her 800-meter also qualified her for the MIAC Outdoor Championship meet.
So far, her sophomore campaign has been much the same, speedy times and more records broken. At last weekend’s MIAC Indoor Championships, Gibson re-broke the 600-meter record to a 1:37.67 and also helped lower the record-setting 4×400 meter relay time to 4:01.56. Gibson was most proud of the relay result. “The 4×400 is even better because you get to share that experience with other people,” she said. “I think we were ahead by the time I got the baton, and we were way ahead at the end.”
Gibson’s strong performances have earned her praise from opposing coaches around the conference. “Irene has proved to be a very tough competitor,” said St. Thomas head coach Joseph Sweeney. “Her 4×400 leg sparked a great second place performance by her 4×400 relay team, the perfect ending to an impressive meet for Irene.”
This sentiment was echoed by St. Olaf head coach Andrea Gelle. “[Gibson] will be one to keep an eye on this spring,” she said.
With the indoor competition complete, Gibson is looking ahead to the challenges of the outdoor season. She said that her primary goal is to improve on her 800-meter time and to be more mentally prepared for the grueling race.
Gibson doesn’t shy away from admitting that she has her sights on more records. The current 800-meter record time is a 2:12.34 set by Tara McCoy in 2011. Gibson ran a 2:15 in high school, so she believes the record is within her grasp.
Coach Peper agrees, although he said that more endurance training will be integral to Gibson’s success in the 800-meter. He described Gibson as ‘a very classic track and field athlete.’ “[She’s] a fierce competitor, very independent, and yet very cognizant of the team’s needs,” he said. “She has the same competitive spirit I’ve seen in previous high level Mac track/field athletes such as Holly Harris, Susan Brown, Kaela Schramm, etc. To be a MIAC Champion and move on to the ‘Big Show,’ one needs that spirit.”
Peper said that aside from her record-breaking performances, Gibson contributes leadership and organizational skills to the team. “She coordinated the creation of the multiple team music mix CD’s for our practices,” he said. “Generally great music, but I’m not sure about Justin Bieber.”
Despite her impressive list of accomplishments, Gibson is as modest as they come. “When she got home from the MIAC Conference meet, we were going to go out for dinner with her dad, and I asked her how Conference went,” Cederlund said. “She was like, ‘Eh. It was okay.’ Then her dad told me that she broke some record and won stuff, and I was like, ‘Irene, you need to start with that.’” While her competitive drive may be evident on the track, Gibson also displays that ambitious attitude in the classroom. She is an International Studies (I.S.) and Political Science double major with a minor in Religious Studies and a concentration in Middle Eastern Studies and Islamic Civilization.
Jim von Geldern, one of Gibson’s professors, said that he shared a special connection with Gibson because of their common interest in distance running. “It’s always fun to try to see how students blend together their running and their studying,” von Geldern said. “They seem to work very well.”
For her I.S. major, Gibson has taken two classes with von Geldern, Intro to I.S. and Intro to International Human Rights. Last fall, she submitted one of her Intro to I.S. papers on U.S. education policy in Iraq to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Undergraduate Journal of International Studies. They accepted her work, and she was published in their Fall 2012 issue. “She’s got this way of looking at things from a different angle and she follows it up well,” von Geldern said. “As a sophomore, that’s quite an accomplishment. You’re writing a term paper for an introductory class. You don’t think it’s something you’re going to get published.”
Gibson’s interest in Middle Eastern affairs has also led to a story for Minnesota 2020 titled “Study Abroad for Iraq” and a new campus organization, MacHOPE (Macalester Helping Open Peaceful Exchange).
MacHOPE was founded by Gibson and Anne Gavin ’15 to explore educational dialogue between different cultures, namely American and Middle Eastern. “We’re trying to facilitate conversations between post-conflict countries and the United States so we can help humanize the conflict instead of being like, ‘Iraq is …'” Gibson said. “We can be like, ‘Iraqi people, one of which I know and have a connection with …’”
The group is currently working on planning a video conference via Skype between middle school students from Najaf, Iraq and those attending St. Paul Friends School. “Sadly, for their entire lives, these kids have known Iraq as that country we’re at war with,” Gibson said. “If these kids can understand that they’re kids and not just that other country, hopefully that will bode better for the future when we come to misunderstandings. We won’t just go to conflict, we’ll go to connections instead.”
Gibson and Gavin’s work has already received notable recognition. The Clinton Global Initiative recently honored their work and invited them to attend an April convention at Washington University in St. Louis to meet with acclaimed world leaders.
Gibson cited Greg Mortenson, author of the New York Times Bestselling book “Three Cups of Tea” and the founder of the educational charity Pennies for Peace, as her inspiration. Following Mortenson’s example, Gibson hopes to help facilitate education connections between Iraq and the United States. “I think that a lot of issues the United States is having comes from the fact that neither side understands each other as well as we should,” she said.
In her remaining waking hours, Gibson devotes her time to Mac First Aid. Last year, she also was a member of SSERBA (Students for the Safe Exercise of our Right to Bear Arms), which she said was a great experience. “I’m a big fan of exposing yourself to people you normally wouldn’t,” she said. “I think that club was great for hanging out with people like that.” Gibson said that her experience on the track team is similar. “It’s a great way to meet people and have the support of your team,” she said. “When you’re exposed to an athletic team, you get people from all over the place.”
She noted that her appreciation for opposing viewpoints likely stemmed from her upbringing in a highly conservative suburb of Indianapolis. “It was mostly people who didn’t believe what I believed, so I learned how to argue and not trust what someone says,” Gibson said. “When Obama ran first, I wore a little Obama sticker on my shirt and every single person that passed me in the hallway cussed me out.”
Cederlund said that behind the multi-dimensionally talented Gibson is a rational-thinking, psychoanalytic human being. “We jokingly say that she’s the Ice Queen of our group of friends,” Cederlund said. “She’s actually very loving and caring, but she kind of comes off a bit intimidating when you first meet her.”
Cederlund said that she and Gibson push each other in all endeavors. “Right now she’s forcing me to do Lent with her,” Cederlund said. “We’re both giving up sweets and excessive sugar.” With a seemingly endless workload, Gibson said she stays motivated by following her interests and usually getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night.
“I get a lot of energy from wanting to do this,” Gibson said. “I don’t think you should do something if you don’t want to do it. That way when you do something you should do it to the best of your ability.”
“I want people to know about Iraq, so why wouldn’t I try to submit my work to places,” Gibson said. “With track, it’s the same thing. When you’re having a really hard workout, it sucks, it hurts, and it’s terrible. You don’t want to do it. But at the same time, you could be doing homework.”