New Madison West athletic director Devon Peterson strives to enhance the student-athlete experience
Devon Peterson began understanding the benefits of being a student-athlete as a high school sophomore.
She said she was more athlete than student at the time. But through the encouragement of her coaches, the swimmer and water polo player at Poway High School in southern California learned how sports could help her succeed in school.
The swimming pool, in essence, became a classroom for her.
Her leadership abilities grew and her academic performance flourished. She understood how working hard and doing well in school could open avenues. She could see the long-term health rewards in being active. She realized how furthering her education and competing in athletics could go hand-in-hand.
“The opportunities are endless,” said Peterson, a 2015 Indiana University graduate who was on the school’s women’s water polo team from 2012 to ’15.
That is a message the 25-year-old Peterson is attempting to convey in her first year as Madison West athletic director as she and Regents coaches try to make a difference as mentors to their student-athletes.
“It’s my passion that wakes me up every day,” she said. “It’s what I can do for our student-athletes. I’m a product of that student-athlete experience.”
It is a philosophy she believes the students will relate to because, as she said, “I speak from a place of authenticity.” She hopes participation as student-athletes can serve as the switch that ignites those opportunities for their futures.
“Their fight on the field, in the pool or on a court can help guide them into being a great contributor to society,” Peterson said.
She has put forward a “One West House” idea, making the athletic field of play an extension of the classroom and seeking to have all the school’s student-athletes feel they are part of West athletics.
Peterson was named the athletic director in June, selected from a pool of more than 20 candidates, and began work in July. The program had seen some turmoil at the athletic director’s spot in recent years. Greg Valaskey had served as interim athletic director since last March, replacing Torrance Hill, who stepped down in February after being on the job less than a year.
Peterson, who envisioned becoming a college athletic director one day, was intrigued when she saw the opening at West.
When Peterson was hired, Madison West principal Karen Boran said Peterson impressed “due to her communication skills, her ability to articulate a long-term vision … and her passion for working with student-athletes. Devon has experience in a similar high school to West in San Diego, she has sought out challenges and leadership opportunities in her school and in her career choices and has demonstrated the ability to articulate and implement systems in athletics.”
Peterson said similar student bodies at her high school near San Diego and at West made her feel at home on the West campus. She worked after college in the NCAA office (with academics and eligibility issues) and for the Indiana athletics department (as an assistant director of compliance/rules education and assistant director of service learning and community engagement). Those jobs gave her background in various administrative duties, including eligibility and game-day management.
Administrators hope Peterson can bring stability to a job that has seen frequent turnover and turmoil in the past three years, with the hiring and departures of Sandy Botham, Charles Seils and Hill.
“I’m hoping to build a career and home here,” Peterson said. “Madison is the perfect place to do that.”
Madison Memorial athletic director Jeremy Schlitz, who also is the Madison school district athletic director and was part of the interview process that led to Peterson’s hiring, said Peterson is articulate and bright and has nicely handled the challenges of her first fall sports season.
“Things are going really well,” Schlitz said. “We are about 10 weeks in, and she is asking the right people the right questions, setting up systems and getting feedback.”
Schlitz said the district’s athletic directors work together; Peterson said she appreciates the support she’s received, including from Boran and Schlitz.
That she is young and female — about 13 percent of the athletic directors at 511 WIAA high schools are female — has had no bearing on her job. She said no one has asked about her age, noting, “I have the experience of a much older person.”
Peterson acknowledged she faces a learning curve while navigating long work weeks doing what athletic directors do. She has had to juggle practice schedules and sites due to facility renovation and one gym being used by the Red Cross to help flooding victims; she has coaches to hire; and, this week, she’s had homecoming activities at the forefront.
She has found watching the West teams compete and seeing the coaches making a difference for their student-athletes to be most rewarding, while meeting the demands of student-athletes, parents, coaches and teachers to be the most challenging.
“I’m giving my full effort every day,” she said. “I’m putting my heart and soul into it to make it a better day for our student-athletes.”