After a turbulent and shortened 2020-2021 season, the Illinois swim & dive team was at a crossroads.
How would the team respond to the adversity and challenge of dealing with competition during an ever-changing global pandemic?
His response: The Illini have had a historic 2021-2022 season, with 5-3, one of their most successful seasons in recent records.
While the success can be attributed to a collective commitment to the team, there is one group of individuals who have been working for four years: the seniors swim and dive.
For Abby Cabush, Sidney Kennedy, Emily Bolger, Abby Martin, Taylor Shegos, Lauren Partridge, Caroline Hippen, Maddy Crosby and Kaylee Heimes, their shared vision for the program began during their recruiting journeys.
“I was drawn to (Illinois because of) the enhancement factor,” Shegos said. “All the coaches were inspired to change the program and get on the map as a team.”
While that recruiting class all had the same goals, the biggest 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 a freshman.
From first impressions of Cabush’s energy to Heimes’ wide-eyed excitement at being an Illini to reactions to Kennedy’s swim move, each swimmer and diver presented a unique and diverse identity to the team.
As they participated in physical exercises, a Memorial Stadium popcorn party, 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 has evolved has been apparent ever since, both athletically and academically.
“I chose Illinois because (head coach) Sue (Novitsky) like the school has a good balance between academics and swimming,” Cabush said. “Excellence is expected in everything.”
There are key points to the program’s growth over the past 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 at the conference.”
Being able to prove your competitiveness, especially in a conference like the Big Ten, is paramount to post-season success in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.
“I know I came in as a freshman to go to NCAAs, but I never felt like I could express that,” Cabush said. “As a senior now, the dynamics of the team are different. Even the freshmen say, ‘We want to go to NCAAs.’”
Leading by example was a key to this shift. Seniors began staying on campus all summer, training, bonding, and competing together. This model for success has been paramount in developing this renewed culture.
“The dancing thing became a hallmark of the end of the warm-up as a way to have fun and loosen up,” Kennedy said.
These developed traditions of dancing at the end of the warm-up, traveling together and supporting other distance athletic programs have increased their confidence in themselves and in each other.
Regardless of the outcome of the rest of the season, every senior is proud of the gains the team has made and knows that they still have so much to offer to the program.
“This group of seniors wanted to leave a legacy,” Partridge said. “We’ve done a good job building this team from the bottom up.”
However, they all acknowledged that their success is not without help.
They all thanked their parents, Sara Hurst of the Federation of Christian Athletes, Anne Danbury and the rest of the sports medicine and nutrition staff for their support throughout their careers. “Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of time with the sports medicine department,” Kennedy said. “I am very grateful for all the people I worked with there. Without them I wouldn’t be swimming right now.”
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 was an indescribable opportunity to represent Illinois,” said Martin, a fourth-generation Illini.
As the seniors reminisce about the past four years and look ahead to futures in law, higher education, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and more, the team knows their season has just begun.
“We’re a loaded gun now,” Heimes said.