MACOMB, Ill. - Men's swimming and diving student-athlete and aspiring mathematics teacher Josh Davis walked across the stage last weekend and received his diploma from Western Illinois with the rest of the 2013 graduating class. But he is different from the rest.
Shortly after his 13th birthday and during a time where he was considering leaving the swim team due to bullying, Davis was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS). It is a type of Pervasive Developmental Disorder that is considered an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which are neurodevelopmental disorders. Individuals with AS can struggle within the spheres of social interaction and speech, however, the syndrome is often accompanied by a unique gift and the ability to intensely focus on one task at a time.
Davis is no exception as he excels in the field of mathematics. Following the fall semester, he boasted a 3.969 grade point average and was awarded with several academic accolades in the spring. The Normal, Ill. native earned the highest level of academic distinction Summa Cum Laude upon graduation, was selected as the Departmental Scholar for Mathematics, was chosen to serve as a Commencement Marshal, was recognized as a Honor Scholar, earned College Scholar recognition from the Centennial Honors College and received his baccalaureate degree in Mathematics along with minors in Physics and Computer Science.
"I think that one of the advantages to Asperger's is that I am able to focus on one topic at a time, stay focused on it and follow through with it until the job is done," Davis said. "It is harder to multi-task, but it’s been really helpful for me to understand that what I do best is mathematics, study the Bible, worship Christ and follow Him. I know that He has gifted me in mathematics. You can't call a syndrome a weakness, but there are things that some people would see as a weaknesses. Really my weaknesses are their strengths but their weaknesses are my strengths."
Also during his time at Western, he was named to the 2013 Summit League Swimming and Diving Academic All-League Team, selected as a Winter/Spring Academic All-Summit League Distinguished Scholar in 2012 and 2011 and placed on the 2010-11 Summit League Commissioner's List of Academic Excellence.
In the water, Davis entered the record books notching Western Illinois 'Top 10' times in 400 IM as a freshman and 200 breast as a senior. His teammates also voted him 'Most Dedicated' on two occasions, and he is known as a swimmer who puts the team’s best interests before his own.
"Josh has been a very versatile student-athlete for us," swimming and diving head coach Greg Naumann said. "What I have been most pleased about with Josh is the fact that he was always willing to fill in whatever gaps we had at a meet or for the year. He was particularly good about looking forward to the next season to see where he was going to have to focus his training on during the summer. His willingness to be flexible on what he trained and events he competed in is pretty extraordinary given the Asperger's. I do believe that Josh believed he wasn’t any different than other swimmers on the team. He trained as hard as and sometimes harder than any other member of our team, and he always asked to have the workouts be even harder."
It was a long journey to get where Davis is now. Following his diagnosis, he and his parents worked to integrate him back into the public school setting with the aim of helping him reach his goal of swimming collegiately. He attended Essential Learning Systems for a period of nine months at Learning for Tomorrow in order to retrain his brain. The program allowed him to strengthen his reading comprehension skills and also improve his social interactions in preparation for the transition from home school to Cornerstone Christian Academy.
"It was a struggle readjusting, but my parents continued to pray for me, and I continued to pray that the Lord would give me the strength to continue to go to school," Davis said. "I think that swimming has been the best thing that has helped me with the Asperger's because I've gotten to know teammates and my coaches haven't given up on me. They knew that I had potential."
As a junior in high school, Davis underwent a series of neurological testing that medically confirmed that he had AS. This did not stop him from performing at a high level academically and in the pool - high enough a level to attract the attention of former coach Sean Raffile and earn a scholarship to swim at Western Illinois.
"When I came here I really felt the Lord's presence and knew that the team needed some rebuilding,” Davis said. “I just really liked the program here and I think the team has been really good to me at times, even though sometimes it is harder for them to understand my personality. I think I've really overcome a lot. Sometimes I don't even think about it anymore. I don't feel sorry for myself."
Davis has embraced the fact that though AS makes him different than others and causes some uncommon encounters, he has been given tremendous gifts in the area of mathematics and his focus. His work ethic, positive attitude and faith in Christ to guide him down the right paths combined with his mathematic talents have allowed him to develop into a quality Leatherneck student-athlete.
"Getting to know Josh over the past four years has been a highlight for me," said Assistant Athletics Director for Academic Services and Senior Women's Administrator, Lisa Melz-Jennings. "People often think student-athletes come from a 'one size fits all' mold. Josh is the type of person who helps us see the color in our world. I am proud of his academic achievements and accomplishments as a Leatherneck letter winner."
Davis' mathematical talents helped him secure a summer internship with State Farm Insurance Company in Bloomington, Ill. in the Information Technology and Systems Department. He will be dealing with computers and also using algorithms, a step-by-step procedure for calculations, to assist with research. For example, he may be conducting research on hail damage to roofs.
In the fall of 2013, Davis will begin graduate school at Illinois State University. He will pursue a Master's of Science in Mathematics and work 18 to 20 hours per week as a teacher's assistant in the Mathematics department.
"Josh is a shining example for Fighting Leatherneck athletics," Director of Athletics Dr. Tim Van Alstine said. "He embodies the Western way by excelling in the classroom and pushing himself to do his very best athletically. I am proud of him for overcoming his diagnosis to achieve much in both areas and believe that he will continue to accomplish great things at his internship at State Farm, as a teacher's assistant and graduate student at Illinois State and in his desired career as a math teacher. Western Illinois Athletics has and will continue to welcome and support each and every student-athlete, and provide them with the tools necessary to reach their goals."