Jill Hollembeak: Points and Parchment

CHICAGO - It is known at DePaul Athletics as “Triple A.” And like its automotive counterpart, its primary purpose is to lend assistance. And for the DePaul women’s basketball team and men’s tennis team, that assistance comes from an affable and articulate ex-world class gymnast.

At age 15, Jill Hollembeak and her cousins made a quilt for for their grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. Hollembeak’s contribution involved a stenciled square that included an image of Earth, with a girl flipping over it. Next to the image were stitched the words “And Jill came tumbling after.”

And she did.

Hollembeak won her first world tumbling title at age 14 and followed that with world titles in 1984 and 1986. She won 11 national titles in power tumbling and platform tumbling along with six world tumbling championships. Hollembeak was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2011.

Hollembeak was born in Rockford, Ill, to a steelworker father and to a mother who “put me and my brother in dance class,” said Hollembeak in a recent interview. “He hated it and I loved it. My mom had read somewhere that dance was good for the school and for kids. She loved the dance and tumbling and I excelled at it.

“I took [gymnastics] seriously, but I also had a family that supported me and gave me the access and the opportunity to be in a sport like gymnastics.”

She capsulizes her passion for gymnastics: “I loved being upside down.”

Her current responsibilities at DePaul, where she has been the Assistant Director of Academic Advising since starting there in 2005, are as dizzying as a long sprint and routine down a tumbling mat.

“I meet with women’s basketball student-athletes at least once per week throughout the year,” Jill said. “They have different needs for different years. At the freshman level, it is all coming at them so fast and they are adjusting to the pace; just like the game is going to move a lot faster, school is going to move a lot faster. I create calendars and do a lot with time management with each of them. And then sophomore year is where they are in the limbo stage. And then junior and senior year they are starting to think about the future a little more. We also do academic advising, such as registering for classes and helping them navigate what they need to be on track for, not only eligibility, but also graduation. And then I help with life skills, such as doing mock job interviewing.”

“I can’t thank her enough and I don’t have enough opportunities to thank her,” said DePaul women’s basketball head coach, Doug Bruno.

The start of what Hollembeak does at DePaul originated in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It was at that time that then-Senior Athletic Director at DePaul, Jean Lenti Ponsetto, was part of an NCAA movement for academic reform. Lenti Ponsetto put together DePaul’s athletic academic advising system, a system that became a national model.

Hollembeak refers to women’s basketball at DePaul as a “top down, bottom up” approach.

“I give all accolades to [Bruno] and the way he runs this program. He demands the very best from [the student-athletes] because if you have this gift and this opportunity, you have to use it. I am fortunate to work in a program that is led certainly by Jean Lenti Ponsetto and how she looks at the big picture, and then Coach Bruno and how he wants them to win in all areas of their lives and he wants them to reach their full potential.”

“The student-athletes see that it is rewarding to be successful, to win a paper or to win a test. That feels good, so they create that within the team, with the seniors demanding it from the freshmen when they come in.”

“The supervision by Jill is the best in the nation,” said Bruno.

And it is a supervision that has provided dividends from year one of Hollembeak’s tenure at DePaul. The women’s basketball team first arrived in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Team Academic Poll in 2005, ranking No. 11. The team cracked the Top 10 in 2009 with a team GPA of 3.455. They finished No. 3 in the poll in 2010 and 2011 with scores of 3.582 and 3.604. They tied for No. 2 in 2012 at 3.625. They were No. 8 in 2013, and they finished No. 3 at 3.622 last year.

Hollembeak got in to academic advising because she “loves being around student-athletes who are seeking excellence and working hard at their craft, and trying to get better each day.”

She recently took a class that measures peoples’ strengths, and one of her strengths was as a maximizer.

“I grew up around people who were trying to achieve their greatest goals, so it is a natural fit for me to want to teach or coach. It made sense for me to look at not just the athletic side, but also the intellectual side and personal side.”

Since 2005, over 100 DePaul women’s basketball student-athletes have been named to the Big East All-Academic Team, and 11 of them have earned I-AAA Scholar-Athlete recognition. Brittany Hrynko and Megan Podkowa were named I-AAA scholar-athletes last year.

Hollembeak understands, not from a spectator’s seat but from competition, what it takes to be successful in the classroom and in sports.

She graduated cum laude from Illinois State University with an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology and Recreation. She was a two-time academic All-America selection. She earned a 4.0 GPA on her way to a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from Illinois State in 2003. She then coached the USA Trampoline and Tumbling team before returning to coach gymnastics at her alma mater, leading the Redbirds to a national ranking of No. 6, the highest ranking in school history.

“I think it is the drill that athletes do who want to be great. I think you take care of the details and the small things, and then the big things just happen. I was internally driven and then I had great shoulders to stand on. I try to meet each student-athlete where they are. What I take from my own motivation and my own success is ‘this worked for me, I wonder what works for you?”

But it’s not all power steering and automatic transmission for DePaul players or its recruits. The players learn over four years what it takes to be successful, and the recruits learn at first blush what to expect should they elect to attend DePaul.

“We are going to lose potential recruits because we don’t make it all bells and whistles,” said Bruno.

“Bruno tells them straight up that education matters at DePaul,” said Hollembeak. “So if you come here, you have to buy into that and you have to be prepared for the demands that he is going to place on you in every area of your life. And whether that is performing dribbling drills, grinding out a paper, or preparing for an exam, it is very similar. You have to put in the time, the energy, the effort, and you have to compete to win the best that you can.

“I meet the recruits as well and I explain to them that there is going to be a lot attention given to them because they are a women’s basketball player, but behind the scenes it is going to be demanding. But it will ultimately be filled with joy because winning is fun.”

Hollembeak saw the sights of Bulgaria, France, Germany, Canada, and Hungary during her tumbling travels. But the most panoramic view she sees these days- with her eyes and her heart - comes every June at DePaul’s graduation when the student-athletes don their caps and gowns.

“It is a really proud moment for me. I am so proud of them because what I know about these women specifically is the work they put in. There is nothing easy about what they do in balancing the demands of the classroom and the demands of Coach Bruno. I get emotional seeing them in their caps and gowns. I am very proud of each and every one of them.”

And this past June, Hollembeak saw Brittany Hrynko, Megan Rogowski, Centrese McGee, and Chanise Jenkins earn their respective degrees. And she saw one other person there too, though not directly: Hollembeak was presented with her doctorate degree in Education.

There is a stenciled quote on a wall on the fourth floor of DePaul’s Academic Center, where Hollembeak works. The quote is attributed to St. Vincent de Paul and it reads: “It is not enough to do good. It must be done well.”

Well done, Jill Hollembeak.

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