Huntley grad with autism thrives in track at Upper Iowa University

Through her years growing up, Serianna Dehmlow developed an ability to surround herself with successful people.

Jennifer Dehmlow calls it her daughter’s “knack for networking.”

Serianna often hung out with good kids from solid families. One of her best friends since she attended Huntley’s Heineman Middle School was Heather Baldacci, who earned the honor of Huntley’s valedictorian for the Class of 2017.

So when Serianna, a junior at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, FaceTimed recently, Jennifer was amused, but not shocked, with whom she wound up talking to.

“She said, ‘I want to introduce you to somebody,’ ” Jennifer said. “I talked for about 15 minutes to the president of the university [Dr. William R. Duffy II]. It’s crazy. I’m not surprised. Everyone she ever put herself around are phenomenal kids themselves.”

Serianna Dehmlow is a rarity. She is a high-functioning woman with autism competing as an NCAA Division II athlete. Dehmlow was one of the Peacocks’ top women’s cross country runners in the fall and holds the school record for the 10,000 meters (41:54.20), which she broke twice last spring.

Friends appreciate what she has overcome, as well as her running prowess and gregarious nature.

“She has a very positive energy. She’s very energetic and very talkative,” said Maddie Brownrigg, a Lincoln-Way Central graduate and close friend. “She’s very caring and has a kind heart. She worries about everyone and wants to make sure everyone on the team is OK.”

Serianna’s twin brother, Steele, has Asperger syndrome, which is considered on the autism spectrum. He attends Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri.

Jennifer marvels at how far her daughter has progressed since early childhood. When Serianna wanted to compete in college, Jennifer told her they would figure something out. Peacocks coach Nate Rucker communicates closely with the Dehmlows to keep things running smoothly.

“She’s a very interesting girl,” Jennifer said. “Everybody that ever meets her or has been around her … she’s just amazing and complex, all at the same time. What she’s come from and where she is now, you’d be floored. You’d be absolutely floored. She’s amazing.”

Serianna benefited from individualized education programs through elementary and middle schools. IEPs give special needs students the resources requisite for them to better succeed, whether it was a person helping, a special computer or extra time on tests.

“As I went on, I improved my grades, and they put me in normal classes,” Serianna said. “I was a very shy girl in elementary and somewhat middle school. I started to make friends and talk a little more. My communication skills improved. I was blessed with a lot of teammates in college who helped me get through the good and bad times. If it weren’t for my teammates, including Madison Brownrigg, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

Dehmlow is anything but shy now. Along with classes and running, she volunteers at a nursing home, the Fayette Community Library and the Fayette Community Church, is a captain for Upper Iowa’s annual giving day, is part of Upper Iowa’s Student Philanthropy Club and a member of the Peer Educator Program, which helps mentor incoming freshmen.

Dehmlow is majoring in communications in mass media and also is interested in film acting. The NCAA decided recently to suspend spring sports seasons but also announced it would grant those athletes eligibility relief, so Dehmlow could have two more seasons with Upper Iowa track if she chooses.

Huntley girls assistant track and field coach Brad Gallaugher worked with the Red Raiders’ distance runners. Gallaugher chuckles when recalling how Dehmlow, an avid weight lifter, wanted to end every practice.

“She’s really strong,” Gallaugher said. “At the end of every practice, it was, ‘Can I give them the gun show, coach?’ And she’d [flex] ‘Pow!’ give it to them. It was funny. She was always taking notes. I’d come out with a quote, and she’d say, ‘Where’d you get that?’ She’d come over with her phone and add it to her notes.”

Dehmlow is 5-foot-2, 125 pounds and may look more like a sprinter than a distance runner. The Dehmlows are neighbors with Gary Swanson, who converted his garage into a gym where many area athletes, not only Huntley students, often come and work out.

Craig Dehmlow, Serianna's father, was a longtime lifter himself, which is where Serianna thinks she first got interested.

Unlike most distance runners, Dehmlow proudly reels off her weight room bests – 125-pound bench press, 270 squat, 220 deadlift, 135 power clean. She took the gun show to college practices, although Brownrigg said now those are mostly confined to the weight room.

“She loves lifting. As a distance runner, I don’t like lifting,” Brownrigg said. “I thought [the gun show] was kind of funny. I was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I understand [now] why she was doing it. She can lift a lot of weight.”

Dehmlow thinks the lifting keeps her from getting hurt.

“I like to show everyone how strong I am,” Dehmlow said. “I started lifting before I started running. I was injury-prone. I’m not built like other distance runners. I’m pure muscle.”

Gallaugher appreciated Dehmlow’s attentiveness. When he gave the girls an inspirational quote, Dehmlow would come over with her phone and add it to her notes.

“Autistic kids find something they love, and that’s all they talk about,” Gallaugher said. “That’s where she’s at. She’s high-functioning. She was always taking notes. [Rucker] knew what he was getting. I asked her mom, ‘Is she ready to go away and handle this?’ She said, ‘I feel good about where she’s going. They’re going to take good care of her.’ ”

Jennifer Dehmlow (then Jennifer Ward) took second in the Class 2A discus at the 1988 IHSA Girls Track and Field State Meet. Serianna picked up some of her mother’s competitiveness.

“Track, with her autism, unlike other sports where you have to understand the game, was easy. You just run,” Jennifer said. “She doesn’t have to think, she just runs. In college, the coach and I have a little struggle because she doesn’t understand strategy. She doesn’t understand when someone passes her, you need to kick it up a little bit and pass her back.”

Still, Serianna has the 10,000-meter school record (41:54.20) and was usually in the Peacocks’ top four in cross country races. She is thriving through sports, although she requires a little more attention than her teammates.

“Verbally and socially you could probably tell [she is autistic],” Jennifer said. “The more you’re embedded in her life, they definitely see regressions in certain situations. It’d be like having a little sister around, you want to be sure she’s OK.

“All those [Upper Iowa] girls take care of her. I’ve been very blessed, especially with Coach [Rucker] too. It’s been a very good experience, and in another year, we go on to the next chapter.”

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