Nov. 5, 2012
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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Claire Till’s life has always revolved around two things; basketball and the Iowa Hawkeyes. Her skills on the court were obvious at an early age. She grew up in Black and Gold, dreaming of one day running through the Carver-Hawkeye Arena tunnel in a Hawkeye uniform. The journey to intertwine her two passions was full of lessons and hardships, but Till is now living out her dream.
Till, a freshman guard on the UI women’s basketball team, has an infant photo that sums up how the first 18 years of her life.
“I have a picture of when I was a baby,” Till said. “The hoops on the floor at Carver are lowered to the ground. I could barely crawl, but I was already hanging around the hoops wearing Iowa gear.”
Till grew up in a Hawkeye family. They would make frequent trips from her hometown of Dubuque to Iowa City for basketball games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Her love for the program grew as quickly as her basketball skills.
“I went to Iowa camps for as long as I can remember,” Till said. “I’ve been a fan of this program my entire life. Playing basketball at Iowa was my top goal and it had always been like that.”
Her love for the program grew even stronger in 2000, when Lisa Bluder and her staff took over the Hawkeye program. Till’s mother, Shelley, was college teammates with assistant coach Jenni Fitzgerald and associate head coach Jan Jensen at Drake.
“I have a ton of pictures with me and the coaches when I was growing up,” Till said. “I have pigtails in one of the pictures and I’m with (current director of basketball operations) Abby Emmert, when she was a player. I just loved being around the team.”
When Till entered high school, the thought of Division I basketball was a reality. She averaged nearly 13 points as a freshman and led her high school team to a conference title and state tournament appearance. But as her career developed, so did a constant knee injury.
Till struggled through a reoccurring problem throughout high school and eventually had three surgeries. She was only able to play 17 games as a sophomore and battled consistent pain during her junior season.
“Once I accepted I instantly started crying. I was shaking because I was so excited. My mom was screaming in the background. It was a surreal moment. I was so blessed the day coach Bluder called me and asked me to be a part of her family.”
UI freshman Claire Till
“The injury was just nagging for three years,” Till said. “I could play off and on for about three years, but I needed to get it fixed if I was going to play college basketball.”
Till showed flashes of her talent despite playing through a serious injury. She had received some Division I offers, but the offer she had always waited for wasn’t on the table, yet.
“I had other offers,” Till said. “I just wanted to wait it out until I knew what was going to happen with Iowa.”
Between her junior and senior seasons of high school, Till was healthy enough to start playing AAU basketball again and attended some collegiate camps. She received an invitation to Iowa’s elite camp in June, but the result wasn’t what she had hoped.
“I talked with all the coaches and they essentially told me that a scholarship wasn’t going to happen at that time,” Till said. “They told me how much they cared about me as a person and wanted to see me succeed. That was a real emotional point.”
Till still had a chance to play Division I basketball and knew a solid summer on the AAU circuit could help fulfill that dream.
“I told my mom that I was still going to play my heart out that summer,” Till said. Till, finally healthy enough to showcase her skills, played her heart out at the Nike National Tournament. After the first day of play, ESPNHoopGurlz.com mentioned Till as a player to watch during the tournament.
“It was the best tournament our AAU group had put together, as a team,” Till said. “Everyone on the team gained a lot of exposure and that tournament was the turning point of my career.”
After a successful summer of AAU ball, coaches across the country saw what a healthy Till could do on the court. In August, before the start of her senior year of high school, she received a phone call from Bluder.
“I had no idea what to expect when I picked up the phone,” Till said. “Coach Bluder was explaining their scholarship situation and I began to get nervous. Then, she asked me if I wanted to be on the team.”
Those nervous feelings turned to tears as Till realized her lifelong dream had just become a reality.
“Once I accepted I instantly started crying,” Till said. “I was shaking because I was so excited. My mom was screaming in the background. It was a surreal moment. I was so blessed the day coach Bluder called me and asked me to be a part of her family.”
Nearly three months later, she still gets a little emotional talking about that fateful phone call. Till’s not shy in hiding her Hawkeye pride.
“It was the best moment of my entire life,” Till said. “Knowing everything I had put in, all the hard work up until that point was for that one goal. I wanted to get to Iowa and play basketball there. Knowing that I accomplished that goal is an amazing feeling.”
Till has worn the No. 3 Hawkeye uniform with her name across the back a few times and ran out of the tunnel for the first time during the Black and Gold Blowout. A lesser person would stop setting goals after achieving the one they had worked towards their entire life. That’s not Till’s style.
“Now that I’m here, I want to make an impact,” Till said. “I want to do whatever I can to help this team succeed.”
Till still looks at the picture of her crawling on the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor from time to time as a reminder of the dream she has now fulfilled. Eighteen years later, Till is running up and down that same court wearing Black and Gold gear.
She might be missing the pigtails, but that Hawkeye heart is stronger than ever.