For the longest time, Ellie Pickford thought she would be competing in gymnastics in college. It was Pickford’s sport of choice growing up, and she did it for 15 years.
“But in the ninth grade, I had to give myself a reality check,” the recent Gilroy High graduate said. “I wasn’t at the level where I needed to be if I was going to do gymnastics in college, and I wasn’t going to get there.”
Pickford wasn’t going to earn a scholarship in swimming, either, though she was terrific in that sport as well. Enter water polo, a sport that maximized all of Pickford’s unique talents.
Combining adept swimming skills with physicality and shotmaking ability, Pickford put together an outstanding career at Gilroy High and for her Pacific Valley Premier club team. Her feats in the pool didn’t go unnoticed, as Pickford signed a letter of intent to play for the Division I program Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on March 2, which happened to be her birthday. Talk about a birthday wish coming true.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “(When I started playing water polo) I never thought I was going to be good enough to play at a high level, especially to play at a D1 (college). It was a shock to me.”
Ryan Pryor, the former VMI coach who recruited Pickford to the university, was no doubt impressed with Pickford’s talents outside the pool. In addition to finishing high school with a weighted 4.47 GPA, Pickford served in leadership roles in Gilroy High’s Interact Club, Associated Student Body, California Scholarship Federation and a handful of other clubs.
“Not only is Ellie an excellent athlete, she’s an outstanding student,” Pryor said in a press release. “She’s the total package—extremely athletic, fiercely competitive, dedicated and of course, a true student of the game. She’s going to make an immediate impact on our team.”
Pickford will be going to a team that is coming off three consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament berths and at 12-1 was off to the best start in program history before the season was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pryor has since moved on to coach another program, but Pickford didn’t seem too fazed about the departure.
“It’s definitely hard when the coach that recruited you resigns before you get there. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve already received a bunch of emails saying they’re doing everything they can to find the best replacement possible,” she said. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Pickford’s water polo ascent has been a rapid one. She only started playing the sport in her freshman year after her dad, Doug, the Gilroy High water polo and swim coach, convinced her to give the sport a shot.
“Honestly, the first day (of practice) I had the most fun going off the diving board,” she said. “He kept giving me the ball to throw, and I didn’t want to do it.”
It didn’t take long for Ellie to gain a love and appreciation for water polo, which led to huge improvement in the pool. By her sophomore year, she was already one of the best players in the league. In her junior and senior seasons, Pickford earned league division Player of the Year honors.
Once Pickford puts her mind to something, she fights tooth and nail to achieve it. To wit: as a fifth-grader, Pickford set a goal to one day become a high school valedictorian. Even though that didn’t happen for the recent Gilroy High graduate—she finished second with a 4.47 weighted GPA for the class of 2020—Pickford has a résumé second to none.
She will major in mechanical engineering at VMI after spending four years in Gilroy High’s Biomedical Sciences Academy. Pickford earned plenty of accolades in her swimming career, earning multiple team titles with Gilroy’s 200-yard freestyle relay teams to go along with individual championships in the butterfly and freestyle events.
In water polo, Pickford combined an ability to physically punish opponents while possessing a deft and powerful shot. During the 2019 Junior Olympics water polo tournament, Pickford approached Pryor and other coaches who were in attendance to gain information about possibly playing college water polo. But Pickford never thought any of them would offer her a spot on their team.
“I figured in college I would play club or intramurals, or nothing at all,” she said. “But throughout JO’s (Junior Olympics) I was updating coaches on how I was doing. Coach Pryor was the one that responded and kept an open line of communication. Eventually, things got a little more serious.”
Pickford went on a recruiting visit to VMI in late January and stayed there for two to three days, during which time she was able to spend time with the players on the team.
“It felt like I belonged, and all the girls seemed to be a lot like me,” she said. “It made me think, ‘OK, maybe it’s not such a crazy idea that I can go to a military institute.’ I realized how much being at VMI could boost me academically and athletically.”
At VMI, Pickford will undertake a combination of military and academic training (she doesn’t plan on commissioning for active service once she graduates). A military institute/college is definitely not for everyone, as first-year cadets must be prepared mentally and physically as every hour of the day is accounted for—literally. it could be a terrific match for Pickford, who is a noted perfectionist.
“I have very high standards for myself, and VMI has the highest standards to follow,” she said.