O’Fallon senior Natalie Edwards realized a childhood dream recently when she verbally committed to the University of Illinois swimming program.
Edwards, 18, the daughter of Rick and Mary Beth Edwards, of O’Fallon, chose the Illini over Providence and Nebraska-Omaha. New York University and Butler also were interested.
“I was contacted by a lot of different schools – big schools and small schools,” Edwards said. “Illinois, Providence and Nebraska-Omaha were the three I took official visits to. I just really loved Illinois and it was the best fit for me academically and athletically. I’m really excited because I’ll in the Big Ten next year.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always dreamed of swimming Division I, and that’s why I kind of eliminated the smaller schools in the process. U of I became an opportunity for me and I was so excited. It’s always been one of my big dreams.”
Edwards, a state-meet qualifier in the 500-yard freestyle and a member of the Panthers’ 200-yard medley relay team that qualified for state, will major in business.
“I definitely think academics was a big part because I’m going to major in business, and they have one of the top 15 programs in the country,” Edwards said. “That played a huge part in it. I really loved the coaches and the team. They made me feel very welcome.”
Edwards will sign her national letter of intent April 12. College coaches are prohibited from discussing incoming athletes until the letter is signed. The Illini are coached by Sue Novitsky.
Edwards’ favorite event is the 200 IM, which utilizes the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. She said her best time in the event is 2:10.05.
“I’m also a backstroker or a 200 freestyler,” she said. “But I think the 200 IM, I’m still improving in that and it’s one of my best events.”
Edwards began taking swimming lessons at the O’Fallon YMCA at age 3.
“I loved it and went through the levels really fast,” Edwards said. “They recommended me joining a swim team, so I swam for the O’Fallon Breakers summer team when I was 7. Then when I was 10, I joined the year-round team, the Seals in Belleville. Then my freshman year I moved to the Edwardsville Breakers.
“When I first moved to swimming year-round, I just really liked it. It was still fun then and that’s when I realized I loved the competition and thought I could do well in the sport.”
Edwards, whose coach at O’Fallon the last two years has been Suzanne Gibson, said her long-range goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
“That’s always been a big dream of mine,” she said. “And then shorter-term, I definitely want to (compete) in the Big Ten Conference and hopefully at some point make NCAA cuts as well. Because U of I is such a big school, I’ll have to work extra-hard to make an impact.”
Mascoutah sophomore Cole Junker placed ninth in the 100 backstroke with a time of 51.41 on Feb. 25 at the boys state meet at New Trier High School.
Other metro-east swimmers who qualified for the state-tournament preliminaries in the sectional were Columbia freshman Carter Nelson in the 100 and 200 freestyle, Belleville East junior Logan Theiss in the 100 backstroke, Junker in the 200 individual medley, Alton freshman Noah Clancy in the 100 back and Collinsville senior Vinnie O’Connor in the 50 freestyle.