When Kankakee Valley’s Brittany Stepp began swimming she was not good at entering the water from the starting platform.
She was laughably bad.
Peers and coaches described it as a frog’s leap. By the time she came back to the surface, her competitors were halfway to the other end, while she had progressed only a few feet.
“Looking back now, it was probably pretty funny to watch,” Stepp said. “(Running) was natural the way I fell into it. I was one of the top runners in sixth grade and never even ran before. It was more of a natural thing, like I was born to be a runner.”
Running, despite her asthma, has grown on the distance standout, so much that she stopped playing soccer after her freshman year to run cross country again.
In all three of her sports -- cross country, swimming and track -- Stepp has put in serious hours fueled by self-motivation to get better and better with time.
It’s senior year now, and by the end of it all she’ll have had Lane Lewallen as a head coach or assistant for 10 consecutive sports seasons. She also hopes the end of the run will leave her with no regrets, even though she’s sure it will leave Lewallen in tears.
“I always have this mindset that I tell myself, ‘You can do it, you can get better, you can run with that girl in front of you.’” Stepp said. “I tell myself I can do it, and it makes me better throughout the season.”
Stepp also has to remind herself to breathe. Her asthma complicates everything, and she finds herself short of breath at times. She uses an inhaler in the morning, a different one before races and has a third on hand as a rescue inhaler.
“It depends on the weather a lot,” Stepp said. “If it’s humid, we use it a lot.”
Last week Stepp was K.V.’s top runner at the North White Invitational, finishing seventh overall in a deep field. With Michelle Kent off to an academic-intensive academy, Stepp will fight with teammates for the No. 1 spot for the Kougars.
Stepp joined the ranks of runners after hearing her sixth grade teacher, Lewallen, speak so highly of his cross country and track athletes. She tried it, succeeded and arrived on the track in the spring of her freshman year to run with Lewallen’s girls.
Now she’s part of a senior class that includes Allison Rockley and Kaylin Orsburn. The group went to semistate in cross country as sophomores and secured Northwest Crossroads Conference and sectional titles in past years.
As a sophomore, Stepp did cross country with Lewallen as the head coach and was on the swim team where Lewallen was an assistant.
“With as many sports as I’ve coached Brittany in, as well as having her in sixth grade as a teacher, she might as well be part of my family, as blessed as I’ve been to work with her,” Lewallen said. “We have trust, and that’s something that’s very important between a coach and an athlete.”
Lewallen said Stepp is the consummate teammate. She’s been "Miss Consistency" with her improvement despite a nagging hip ailment and the asthma. She’s always been in the cross country team’s top five runners.
“She’s very talented, very much a gamer when it’s meet time, and she performs really well,” Lewallen said. “To be all-conference on some level in track, swimming and cross country is quite remarkable.”
Stepp won the 800-meter run at the Kankakee Valley Sectional last track season as the Kougars won their third consecutive sectional title.
She’s also a tireless worker outside of the realm of athletics. She’s in a Wednesday youth group and teaches 3-year-olds at Sunday school each week. Stepp busses tables at Marti’s Place, a restaurant in Hebron, 10 to 20 hours a week and has to find balance with academics, athletics and work. The honor student is waiting to be accepted at St. Joseph’s in Rensselaer.
“It’s really fun working with the children,” Stepp said. “I want to major in education and teach preschool. I love art, I like to draw, and people tell me I should be a librarian because I read so many books.”
After a summer that included the top overall finish by a female at the July 4 Fireworks 5K in Hebron, Stepp realizes each of the annual big meets is going to be part of a long list of lasts.
“It is going to be bittersweet,” Stepp said. “The whole team gets along. We run with each other and push each other. When you get beat by one of your teammates it just makes you want to try harder.”