Oct. 14, 2005
The dreams of young children often include larger-than-life thoughts of flying high with the birds. Illinois's Beth Vrdsky is working hard to make that dream come true.
Vrdsky's high grade point average, which goes along with a standout Big Ten volleyball career, is quite an accomplishment in itself, but that wasn't enough for the Illinois junior. "I've always had an interest in the military," she said. "It's always something I've wanted to do." The 20-year-old was inspired in her early years by the movie Top Gun, and is a war movie buff who once received a model F-15 Strike Eagle as a Christmas gift.
In high school, after Vrdsky had gone through the process of being recruited and choosing a university, she was more than comfortable with her commitment to the University of Illinois and the Fighting Illini volleyball team. "The academic program is so great, and I fell in love with the team and the coaches. It just felt perfect," said Vrdsky. But there was still more work to done, and more decisions to be made.
"I had heard about the Air Force ROTC program, and asked (Coach) Don (Hardin) if he could check into it for me. He knew some people over there, and I was able to meet with them and I just loved it. I decided to do it," she said.
Hardin, who was formerly enlisted in the Air Force himself, contacted Colonel Robert Lindner, who oversees the ROTC program at Illinois. Colonel Lindner was thrilled to welcome Beth to his group, even knowing that she would have to re-arrange her commitments while she was in season. "We actually encourage people like Beth, who are multi-talented and as especially driven as she is," he said.
With her commitment to the armed forces, Vrdsky has an abundance of support from both her family in Downers Grove, and her family at the University of Illinois. "My Mom gets a little nervous, like any mom would," she said, "but my family is very proud. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II, so they think it's a very honorable thing to do, and they support me in anything that I want to do."
Those closest to her at Illinois have been equally supportive. "Don was actually really excited about my interest in the program," Vrdsky said. "He completely supported me and helped me in any way he could."
"When I first joined the program it was decided that volleyball comes first, and I do have to miss things for volleyball because of the traveling," she said. "But some of my ROTC friends are my best of friends, and they are really supportive and know why I have to miss."
An ROTC cadet participates in physical training every Tuesday and Thursday, has an hour and a half of classroom work twice a week, and a leadership lab on Thursday afternoons. Because of her commitment to a club within ROTC, Vrdsky also has commitments on Sunday afternoons. This is all on top of her full course load.
During the season, Vrdsky is excused from physical training, and when she travels, alternate arrangements are made so she can fill her Thursday afternoon leadership requirement.
"Beth attends class every week, and not only fulfills all of the other objectives, but exceeds them," said Lindner. "She's pretty much the normal ROTC cadet - wears the uniform every Thursday, comes to class on Thursdays when she's not out of town, and she's handling everything amazingly well."
Her fellow cadets agree, and look to Vrdsky as an inspiration, according to Lindner. "Her schedule is so jam-packed, and she rises to the top of everything she touches," he said. "Scholastically, she's got a super high GPA, she's an amazing volleyball player, and she's at the top of her peer group here in the cadet wing, who wouldn't say that's inspirational? Everything she does is an example to the newer cadets coming into the program, and she creates an excitement here in the cadet wing. Her enthusiasm and her attitude are so infectious."
Over the summer, Vrdsky went to field training, which is four weeks of boot camp, at Tyndell Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. There, the core value of leadership was reinforced. "It was extermely mentally and physically challenging," she said, "but it was one of the best experiences of my life. I wouldn't want to do it again but I learned so much."
What she has learned from the program about leadership, teamwork, and fitness, she has translated to the court to benefit the Illini volleyball team. "I picked up things during field training that will help my team and help make me a better player," said the libero.
"It also flows back the other way," says the colonel. "Leadership qualities she learns just from being a scholar-athlete are also helping her become the best Air Force officer we could hope to produce here."
Vrdsky does admit that she has to sacrifice other activities because of her commitments. "Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed," she admits, "but I use my time wisely and just do the best I can. The hardest thing is that I want to do so much, but I have to remember that I have to balance my time."
Not surprisingly, Vrdsky prefers to be busy, and thrives in pressure situations. "If anything I think it helps me because I know I have to get things done and it keeps me on track with my studies," she said.
When she graduates, Beth's life will transition quickly from being a college student to being commissioned as an active duty Air Force officer. Her parents will pin gold bars on her shoulder upon graduation from the university, and she will be a second lieutenant assigned to a program of specialty. Vrdsky hopes to be accepted into the pilot training program, which only accepts a small number of applicants into flight school. Factors including grade point average, field training scores and recommendations all determine whether a cadet is accepted into the program. Col. Lindner believes Vrdsky has an excellent chance of being accepted.
Lindner wants nothing more than to see his cadets succeed, and has high hopes for Vrdsky. "I just want to see her maintain who she is, and keep racking up these amazing accomplishments," he said.
The Academic All-Big Ten selection has high expectations for herself, and that translates into high expectations of her team. "A Big Ten championship has been on my mind since I committed, and I would love for that to happen" Vrdsky said. "Personally I'd really love to be able to support my team the best I can, and just make sure I'm there for the hitters at all times. I just want to play my personal best for them."