Illini Swimmer Hein Uses ROTC to Boost Leadership

Illini Swimmer Hein Uses ROTC to Boost Leadership

By Sean McDevitt

A Division I student-athlete has a tremendously demanding schedule. There’s classwork and tutoring along with practice, travel, and competition. Add in a highly technical major, such as Engineering, and the coursework is arduous for students and particularly so for student-athletes. Now add in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, better known as ROTC, to the mix with their additional requirements for Military Science classes and Leadership Laboratories.

If that sounds like an impossible schedule, you haven’t met University of Illinois swimmer .

“The path that I was supposed to be going down.”

Her typical day starts with a two-hour swim practice at 6:00 AM. During the day she heads to her classes and, depending on the day, has two or five lectures to attend. In the afternoon, a second swim practice is scheduled for two or three hours. After practice, it’s studying, doing homework and, perhaps, preparing for a leadership lab for ROTC. If she’s lucky, she gets to bed early to do it all over again.

As you can see, managing her time is incredibly important.

“I’ve always had a strong sense of time management,” said Hein. “I’ve been swimming and doing school since I was in high school and middle school. So, I’m used to having a lot of work on my plate. And adding in ROTC was a different element that I wasn’t necessarily used to, but I adjusted really fast and it’s still a challenge. I have to sacrifice a lot sometimes, but I know that it will be worth it for my future. So, it’s nothing hard that I don’t want to do.”

Molly Hein’s older sister Stephanie was also a member of the University of Illinois Swim and Dive team. Graduating in 2016, she earned Academic All-Big Ten honors her junior and senior years where she studied molecular cellular biology.

It was her sister’s influence that made Illinois an option to continue her swimming career and get a world-class education. However, the ability to add ROTC to her curriculum made the difference.

“I’ve always kind of had an inkling towards serving in the military,” Hein said. “I’d see people in uniform and I’d feel this sense of pride. I thought about going to West Point for a little bit, but I realized that wasn’t really the path I wanted. Everything fell into place with swimming and engineering here. And then really late in the game during my senior year of high school, I found out that I could actually swim and do ROTC together here at the U of I. It was just a really great opportunity for me. I knew it was the path that I was supposed to be going down.”

“It’s two different worlds…”

Once a week, ROTC has leadership labs. A leadership lab is the most training heavy event of the week. It involves drill and ceremony marching as well as infantry style tactics and missions. Underclassmen run through the missions and juniors lead them with hands-on direct level leadership. Seniors plan all the training for the juniors to execute. Upperclassmen receive a lot of experience leading a diverse group of people and how to lead them in potentially stressful situations.

In athletics, the saying “senior leadership” is thrown around a lot. With Hein, it’s two-fold with the Swim and Dive team and ROTC and both are just as important and unsurprisingly complementary.

“As a senior on the swim and dive team, I’ve got a leadership responsibility,” Hein said. “The underclassmen really look up to us as a senior class and that ties into everything I’ve learned through ROTC about leadership. The whole point of ROTC is to develop you to be a leader. You’re going to lead soldiers when you graduate. So it’s a huge thing. I like to take the lessons I learn in ROTC and see how I can apply them to swimming.

“It tests my ability as a leader to get to know different groups of people and lead them as a group of swimmers versus a group of people who are going to be in the military. It’s two different worlds and it’s a challenge to test my leadership abilities in both worlds and bring them together. I feel like it helps me develop as a leader in a way that maybe my peers aren’t.”

“I’m so proud to be a student-athlete here”

Doing it all is second nature to the future second lieutenant. With hard work and dedication in the classroom, in the pool, and with ROTC there’s nothing she can’t accomplish.

“The end goal of ROTC is to commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, which is a big responsibility to take on,” Hein said. “So that’s just a huge weight to hold and fairly important to realize that it’s serious stuff. You just want to be the best you can be and care about your people and hopefully they’ll care for you.”

It was the University of Illinois that was able to provide Hein everything she wanted with exceptional academics, the ability to pursue ROTC, and to be one of the busiest student-athletes on campus.

“I’m so proud to be a student athlete here,” said Hein. “It’s a great experience. This school and the athletic department are just fantastic and I’m going to be an Illini forever and I’m so happy that I’m able to say that.”

Originally published at on October 29, 2019.