Class Acts: Stevenson's O'Donnell excels in water, classroom

  • Stevenson's Maddy O'Donnell swims the 100-yard freestyle during the girls state swimming meet. She is a member of the IHSA Academic All-State team.

      Stevenson's Maddy O'Donnell swims the 100-yard freestyle during the girls state swimming meet. She is a member of the IHSA Academic All-State team. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Updated 4/29/2020 2:26 PM

Maddy O'Donnell gained a love for swimming at an early age.

It also didn't take her long to gain a passion for giving back.


O'Donnell, a Stevenson senior, jumped in the pool during a vacation at her grandparents' condo in Florida at the age of 6.

"It was during the 2008 Summer Olympics and Michael Phelps was winning gold medals," O'Donnell said. "I just wanted to be in the pool and my parents were always very encouraging of that."

A member of the highly successful Stevenson girls swimming and water polo teams, O'Donnell also came across what she hopes will turn into her life's work when her eight-year old sister Maggie was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.

"A lot of people in my family have diabetes," Maddy said. "It's very personal to me."

So personal that she will study biology and environmental science at Hope College in Holland Mich., heading toward the premed track with the goal being to become an endocrinologist, which in layman's terms is a diabetes specialist.

There's no question she's become a special high school student-athlete, so special that she was named a member of the IHSA's Academic All-State team.

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She carries a GPA of 4.59 and has an ACT score of 33. She is a National Merit semifinalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and a USA Water Polo Academic All-American. She scored a 1,530 of a possible 1,600 on the SAT.

"Maddy O'Donnell is a very gifted young lady, academically as well as athletically," said Stevenson girls water polo coach Jeff Wimer. "Maddy is one of the hardest working and determined student-athletes I've coached. Maddy is respected and very well liked among all of her peers. She is fun loving and down to earth."

And an accomplished athlete.

During the 2019 fall season she qualified for the state finals in three freestyle races and swam in one relay. The previous year she swam in three relays at state, and as a sophomore her 400-meter relay team won an 11th-place medal.

In water polo, with O'Donnell in the front lines as an attacker, Stevenson won the IHSA state championship in 2018 and repeated as state champs in 2019.


"I really love my teammates and being in the water," said O'Donnell, who plans to swim in college. "And there's just something about swimming and working toward goals. It's something I really enjoy doing and we have a really special team."

O'Donnell says she's learned valuable life lessons through her involvement in swimming and water polo.

"Swimming and water polo have transformed me as a person," she said. "I have learned to push myself harder than I ever thought, and being a captain has taught me leadership and responsibility. Additionally, learning how to bounce back from a bad race or close game has taught me to recover from failure in and out of the pool."

Managing her time has also become important for O'Donnell, a Lincolnshire resident who is the daughter of Tom and Mary Claire O'Donnell and who also has a freshman brother, Liam.

"Time management is a really important aspect to balancing two sports and classes," said O'Donnell, who ran cross country, played soccer and did gymnastics when she was younger.

O'Donnell is appreciative of everyone who has helped her along the way, especially Wimer.

"He's always been super encouraging of me in both sports," she said. "He cares so much and you can see that in the way he connects with the team. He encourages us to be good people in and out of the water."

And that's definitely something Maddy O'Donnell has become.

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