Illinois swim & dive seniors pioneer program to present, future success

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Photo courtesy of @illiniwswim Facebook

Illinois swim and dive seniors pose for a photo with flowers in hand during senior day at the ARC on Saturday. Alongside team effort, the seniors’ contributions lead to a successful season.

By Jonathan Alday, Staff Writer

After a turbulent and shortened 2020-2021 season, the Illinois swim & dive team found itself at a crossroads. 

How would the team react to the adversity and challenge of handling competition during an ever-changing global pandemic? 

Its response: The Illini have had a historic 2021-2022 season, sitting at 5-3, one of their most successful seasons in recent records.

While the success can be attributed to a collective dedication to the team, there is one group of individuals who have been putting in the work for four years: the swim & dive senior class.

For Abby Cabush, Sidney Kennedy, Emily Bolger, Abby Martin, Taylor Shegos, Lauren Partridge, Caroline Hippen, Maddy Crosby and Kaylee Heimes, their collective vision for the program began as early as their recruitment trips.

“I was drawn to (Illinois because of) the improvement factor,” Shegos said. “All the coaches were inspired to change the program and get on the map as a team.”

While that recruitment class all had the same goals, the most looming obstacle at the time was meeting the other commitments.

Each senior had a memory of their first interactions with teammates during official visits and their first week on campus as freshmen. 

From first impressions of Cabush’s energy to Heimes’ wide-eyed excitement to be an Illini to reactions to Kennedy’s swimming motion, each swimmer and diver presented a unique and diverse identity to the team.

While participating in physicals, a popcorn party at Memorial Stadium, watermelon-eating contests and the Block I class photo, the group quickly bonded and embraced their responsibilities and expectations as a class.

The culture that developed has been clear since then, athletically and academically.

“I picked Illinois because (head coach) Sue (Novitsky) has, as well as the school, a great balance between academics and swimming,” Cabush said. “There is an expectation of excellence in everything.”  

There are key points of program growth over the last three seasons: the Illini’s win over Nebraska last year and the overall growing confidence of the team.

“We hadn’t beaten Nebraska in our time here,” Kennedy said. “It was extremely close; it really showed us that we can be competitive in the conference.” 

Being able to prove your competitiveness, especially in a conference like the Big Ten, is paramount for post-season success in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.

“I know that as a freshman I came in wanting to go to NCAAs, but I never felt like I could vocalize that,” Cabush said. “Being a senior now, the dynamic of the team is different. Even the freshmen are saying, ‘We want to go to NCAAs.’”

Leading by example has been a key to this shift. Seniors began staying on campus throughout the summer, training, bonding and competing together. This model for success has been paramount in developing this revamped culture.

“The dancing thing became a hallmark of the end of warmups as a way to have fun and loosen up,” Kennedy said.

These developed traditions of dancing at the end of warmups, traveling together and supporting other athletic programs from afar, has grown their confidence in themselves and in each other.

Regardless of the outcome of the rest of the season, each senior is proud of the gains the team has made and knows that there’s so much they have left to give to the program.

“This group of seniors wanted to leave a legacy,” Partridge said. “We’ve done a good job of building this team from the bottom.”

They all recognized, however, that their success isn’t without help. 

They all thanked their parents, Sara Hurst from the Federation of Christian Athletes, Anne Danbury and the rest of the sports medicine and nutritional staff for supporting them througout their careers. “I have, sadly, had a lot of time with the sports medicine department,” Kennedy said. “I’m very thankful for all the people I’ve worked with there. I would not be swimming right now without them.”

They thanked teammates, past and present, for their impact on their growth as teammates and leaders, as well as coaches, professors and athletic administrators.

“It’s been an indescribable opportunity to represent Illinois,” said Martin, a fourth-generation Illini.

While the seniors reminisce over the last four years and look ahead to futures in law, higher education, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and more, the team knows that their season is just getting started. 

“We’re a loaded gun right now,” Heimes said.

 

@JonathanAlday7

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