N-G All Area boys' Swimmer of the Year | Centennial's Alex Shilts

N-G All Area boys' Swimmer of the Year | Centennial's Alex Shilts

CHAMPAIGN — When Alex Shilts was in second grade, his young life was forever changed by two important events.

The first was a decision to take up swimming. Shilts was asthmatic, and doctors said this sport in particular would allow him to stay active while working around that issue.

But there was another reason Shilts decided at that time to become an athlete of the pool.

He'd just been diagnosed with dyslexia.

This disorder causes individuals to struggle with reading and spelling, the result of those afflicted having trouble "matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make," according to The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Doctors told Shilts that swimming had proven a positive experience for others with dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD.

This was an effective outlet for multi-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who found structure in swimming after being diagnosed with ADHD at age 9.

"I swam for a summer team at Indian Acres," Shilts said, "and I just fell in love with the sport, and I've been swimming since then."

That final thought doesn't fairly sum up what The News-Gazette's boys' Swimmer of the Year has done in the pool.

The Centennial junior qualified for the 2018 state meet in the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 butterfly while also swimming a leg on the Chargers' state-advancing 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay teams.

This marked the third time in as many seasons Shilts had raced on the Illinois prep scene's biggest stage, while also leading Centennial to its first team sectional championship since 2007.

It's only fitting, then, that Shilts' success in the pool has strong ties to the disorder that pushed him toward swimming in the first place.

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In Shilts' opening moments of elementary school, no signs existed that he'd soon hit an academic wall.

That falls in line with the experiences of other dyslexics. As The Yale Center describes it, "Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader."

That was evident to Michael Marks, a tutor at The Reading Group who eventually worked with Shilts for several years.

"His first few years, kindergarten and first grade, he was doing really well," Marks said. "And then things started to plummet. It really affected his self-esteem, his outlook, his attitude toward school."

The Reading Group is a Champaign-based organization that offers one-on-one instruction to both children and adults, offering specialists in areas including reading slowness and learning disabilities.

Shilts' mother, Helena, was introduced to Marks and The Reading Group shortly after Alex's diagnosis.

"I really enjoyed being part of it," Shilts said. "I ended up falling in love with learning. I was finally able to catch up and even excel and understand what I was learning more than before."

Marks said dyslexics often don't have that breakthrough moment when reading comprehension becomes crystal-clear. Progress is more subtle, and Marks likes to focus on a combination of smaller victories with his pupils.

But both Shilts and Marks agreed that a key example of Shilts' growth came when he could comfortably read a book from start to finish. Shilts found this success in a fantasy series called "The Secrets of Droon," which details the adventures of three children who find a portal to the titular magical world.

"That's when we felt, 'Whoa, this is exciting,'" Marks said. "He worked his way through the series and was excited to do that. All that hard work was really paying off."

* * *

While swimming isn't exactly a sport filled with reading exercises, the mindset Shilts developed in combating dyslexia serves him well in the water.

But Shilts initially wasn't enamored with one particular aspect of the sport: the butterfly stroke.

Shilts' area-best time of 51.91 seconds moved him to the state meet in that event, but one couldn't have guessed right off the bat that Shilts would thrive as a butterfly artist.

"I thought (my summer team coach) meant I had to breathe every single stroke of butterfly," Shilts said. "And I didn't like that. Once I figured out I didn't have to ... I loved it."

With that speed bump out of the way, Shilts was finding his groove in the pool while also making improvements in the classroom.

Marks saw Shilts' sport of choice as a perfect match for a youngster with dyslexia, given the mental approach required to face both ventures.

"He's part of a team, but it's an individual effort, so that carried over beautifully to the reading, the spelling and the writing," Marks said. "The sense of, 'OK, I'm doing this, I'm accomplishing this and I can do things at my own pace.'"

Fittingly, Shilts has spent much of high school ahead of both teammates and opponents as far as swimming pace is concerned.

Shilts said his dyslexia is not a frequent topic of conversation with his fellow Chargers, and first-year Centennial coach Courtney Lehmann noted that Shilts is just one of the guys at any practice or meet.

"There were maybe a couple times where he needed a little more time (with a workout), where he got ahead of himself," Lehmann said. "But other than that, he's the same as everyone else on the team."

Shilts is hopeful he can swim at the college level, too, after one more year with the Chargers.

He'd offer an inspiring story, considering how well his pool career has gone thus far while learning to live with dyslexia.

"I admire his hard work," Lehmann said. "I know he is brilliant and very smart, but even having that to battle, it's that much more rewarding."

* * *

"Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader."

Looking at some of Shilts' non-athletic exploits, it's easy to see just how well this applies to the soft-spoken young man.

For starters, he's fluent in two languages — English and Portuguese. His mother is originally from Brazil, and the two chat in both tongues at home.

In addition to desiring a stint in college swimming, Shilts also wishes to attend school on the engineering track, though he's not set on a specific field.

"I've always liked building, and I like physics," Shilts said. "I used to build with Legos and Lego robotics when I was younger."

And then there's Shilts' books-on-tape history. Shilts acknowledged this technology helped him as he first started getting a handle on his dyslexia, but even that doesn't explain how one of his listening choices was a work by the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

"It was a little book on tape about the brief history of time," Shilts said. "It was a children's book that was based on physics."

So Shilts' future is certainly a bright one. After being diagnosed with dyslexia, he could have turned his back on school. He could've avoided such activities as swimming.

Instead, Shilts is making the most of the opportunities in front of him — and the best may be yet to come.

"It means a lot because ... I just thought there was something wrong with me," he said. "That I was never going to be able to go back to normal like everyone else. But, eventually, I was able to."