A team effort
Every time Emma Butts attempts an inward dive, Redbird swimmers hold their collective breath. That’s because the maneuver requires her to face backward before flipping two to three times through the air. Only a few inches separate her head from hitting the board.
“It’s become my favorite type of dive,” said Butts, a senior learning and behavior specialist major who discovered her passion for diving at age 16. That is five to 10 years later than most who compete at the NCAA level. Unlike her teammates, she also does not possess a gymnastics background. None of those factors stopped her from achieving her goal.
“ISU was my dream school because of the education program. When I got in, I was ecstatic, but I also wanted to dive,” she said. “So I texted the diving coach, emailed him, and eventually he said, ‘Yeah we’ll take you.’”
Over three years, Butts has steadily improved for the Redbirds, mastering dives she never expected to have as part of her repertoire. She did so by practicing eight to 20 hours each week throughout each five-month swim and dive season that ran from October through February. Offseason practices bookend the academic years.
Her value on the team extends outside her talents on the board, said head diving coach Phil Hoffmann. “Emma brings a good balance to the team. She models what a student-athlete is. She is focused on being a good teammate and getting better in the water. She is also focused on her school work and her career path,” he said.
Hoffmann also touts Butts’ organizational skills, noting that she helps keep fellow divers, and even him, on schedule. The trait also comes through in her coursework. Assistant Professor Allison Kroesch calls Butts the most proactive and dedicated student in her class.
“I think she has been so successful because she puts forth the effort that it takes for our major, and she is incredibly reflective as well,” Kroesch said. “She genuinely wants to be the best teacher she can possibly be.”
Butts’ interest in special education was sparked around the same time she discovered diving. She was invited to serve as a student leader in gym class for a small group of students with diverse needs. After the first day, she almost quit.
“I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I kept going and after two weeks, I knew I wanted to be a special education teacher,” she said. “Those are the kids I remember, and I hold in my heart. I love them so much. They are the ones who inspired me.”
Butts’ teammate and friend Molly Hill is a swimmer who shares the same major. Also a senior, her accomplishments follow a similar trajectory in the water and in the classroom. Hill began her freshman year on the non-point-scoring swim team. Scott Cameron, the former women’s swimming coach, quickly noticed she was deserving of a promotion.
“Over the next three years she participated in relays, and became a point scorer and a pretty big contributor on our team,” he said. Hill has also offered to compete in different distances and swim strokes based on the needs of the team.
“She’s been very versatile in that respect. She works really hard and she is not afraid to make changes. And in our sport, that’s a huge thing,” Cameron said. Butts and Hill said their backgrounds as educators shine through in the way they talk with teammates.
“We are always the ones who are asking how classes are going, and making sure the other girls are staying organized,” Hill said. While she calls the swim and dive team family, the Department of Special Education made the biggest first impression on the self-proclaimed “homebody” when she was a new freshman.
“I went to my first meeting for special education, and I thought ‘This is my home,’” she said. “I loved all the people here already.”
Hill pursued the urban education sequence within special education. She previously thought she might return to her hometown in the suburbs after graduation. That changed after an urban bus trip to Chicago that was part of a biology teacher education course she took her first semester at Illinois State.
“I immediately thought ‘This is what I want to do,’” she said.
Hill has become passionate about community involvement, an important piece of urban education. She is also working toward earning a civic engagement minor. Outside the classroom, she is a member of Golden Apple, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preparing teachers for serving diverse students, particularly in urban centers. Hill further broadened her perspective by studying abroad in Ireland with Associate Professor Carrie Anna Courtad, and earned a scholarship to help pay for part of the trip.
“Most people who knew me before college would not expect me to go overseas,” she said. “I’ve really been able to step outside my comfort zone here at Illinois State and explore things I didn’t really know I had a passion and a drive for.”
As a freshman, Hill realized her participation in swimming would necessitate a five-year graduation plan. Academic Advisor Janet Caldwell was impressed by the student-athlete’s approach to planning out her academic career.
“She had this vision in front of her. She has a real passion for urban education and individuals who are diverse in every way,” Caldwell said. Hill is earning an ESL endorsement, early childhood education approval and a civic engagement minor.
The 2019-2020 academic year will be the final one as students for Butts and Hill. While they are excited to become professional educators, they plan to enjoy their final semesters as Redbird student-athletes.
“I am going to miss sitting in class and absorbing all of these concepts and having these conversations with these super intelligent professors,” Butts said. “Each and every one of them has helped to make me a better educator.”
Hill agrees, saying her professors were supportive and often impressed by the effort and organization required to successfully balance academics and athletics. But for both Hill and Butts, the experience made them mentally and physically stronger.
“Swim and dive is a group of people who care about you and are pushing you to be better every single day,” Hill said. “We are all in different disciplines, and we are all going to be doing different things after we graduate. But in practice, all that matters is that we are trying to push each other to be the best we can for the team.”