Gophers’ Regan Pittman fills life’s ‘water bucket’ by influencing others

Life is like slowly filling a water bucket. The liquid inside represents memories, passions and experiences. Occasionally, the bucket’s metal walls are punctured by moments of adversity and uncertainty. 

When life’s armor is pierced, Gophers volleyball player Regan Pittman patches the holes by bringing joy to others. She creates smiles through her love for kids and the outdoors.

While studying at the University of Minnesota, Pittman’s academic adviser and professor inspired her to apply for a job with the Three Rivers Park District. When she was hired as an outdoor educator, the Gophers’ star had no idea how much the job would change her life. 

“They asked for an interview, and they were like, ‘wow, this girl, she could really have something special with the outdoors and teaching the youth and can add a lot of value to the team,’” Pittman said. “I’m really appreciative that they took that chance and allowed me to prove who I am.”

While teaching, Pittman treasures seeing kids smile and enjoy the outdoors. She remembers every special moment vividly, including a blistering hot summer day in 2018. Pittman was running a portable rock climbing wall activity and set up the course for a child with functional needs.

“He had some things that he had to overcome in terms of climbing the rock wall. And, at first, we put him on a route that wasn’t made for that because it was really busy, it was hot,” she said. “And he just came off the wall after taking like two or three steps crying and really upset, so I asked them to come back.”

Pittman spent the next 30 minutes rearranging the course for him. She adapted the climbing path and made sure the activity suited his strengths. When the child returned, he was ready to conquer the challenge. That time, nothing was going to stand in his way.

“I put him on an easier route and he climbed all the way up the rock wall and hit the buzzer so hard, which usually when you’re working with kids this long, it’s really annoying,” Pittman said. “But it was a moment where I adapted to this individual’s needs and he was able to have the result that he wanted. It shows how much perseverance kids and people with disabilities have. [They] don’t allow it to limit them.”

A Kid At Heart

Pittman, a 6-foot-5 college volleyball player, towers over the students she teaches. However, once children meet her, they realize she is a kid at heart. Pittman’s energetic and playful personality helps her connect with young students. Nick Sacco, an outdoor recreation specialist for the Three Rivers Park District, saw kids gravitate to Pittman during outdoor activities.

“Once they see her personality and this tall women act like a little kid, it’s very endearing. It’s just very rapport-building,” Sacco said. “She is able to be very playful and I think for any person to see that, but especially a person that is literally a fourth of her size, it is a very big deal.”

Whether Pittman is teaching kids about fishing, rock climbing, or log rolling, she always makes kids smile. Sacco remembers the excitement she created during a long rolling activity. After rolling over and over, the children quickly became bored. Once this happened, instructors taught them a new trick.

Students grabbed the log and two staff members rotated it with their hands. Once that happened, kids went underwater and shot back out. Children were laughing and joking with Pittman during the activity. After seeing all of them having fun, Regan decided she wanted to give it a shot herself. Two staff members rotated the log and Pittman slid underneath the water.

“The leverage that she had against our arms working was pretty hilarious. She was underwater longer than most people, but she would still come out smiling. And I think that’s a great example of who Regan is,” Sacco said. “Other people might be like, oh, I can’t do this because I’m too tall, or too big, or whatever. Regan was like, nope, I’m awesome and I’m going to keep doing it and I’m going to have fun and smile, even if I have to stay underwater longer than other people.”

Pittman is also very passionate about women’s sports programming. After noticing a low amount of girls in the organization’s “Extreme Fishing” camp, Regan asked Sacco if she could help.

“She was like, ‘Nick, there are not enough girls in extreme fish camp. What can we do about that?’ And I said, ‘you know, we tried in the past to do an extreme fish for girls and it didn’t really fill,’” Sacco recalled. “Then, Regan said, ‘well, I’ll push it on social media and we will get it to fill.’ So, long story short, we’re running an extreme fishing camp for girls this year, which I’m excited about.”

Each year, Pittman advocates for causes and groups that are important to her. She is very passionate about women’s programming and the organization’s partnership with Special Olympics. In his role with the Three Rivers Park District, Sacco has witnessed Pittman connect with a wide range of different people.

“She has kind of an infectious charisma and personality that people gravitate toward, and then, it spreads in a good way, unlike COVID,” Sacco said.

‘Regan, Keep Running.’

Pittman’s passion for youth development and volunteerism blossomed in her hometown of Spring Hill, Kansas. Throughout her younger years, Regan worked with Special Olympics and mentored athletes across sports. Pittman was always there for her friends, even after difficult practices of her own.

“There was this kid who was a runner and he would only run if I was running next to him. He would run like two miles. I just got done with my own practice and I’m dead tired,” Pittman said. “He would look at me [and say], ‘Regan, keep running.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t keep up.’ So that’s kind of what inspired it all.”

To this day, Pittman remembers all of the values she learned from athletes back home. She has also continued her work with Special Olympics through a partnership with the Three Rivers Park District. While volunteering at Special Olympics events, Pittman has learned important lessons she carries with her every day.

“I have always found working with [Special Olympics] has really helped me develop as an individual and a person in terms of compassion, trust, and vulnerability because they need you in order to learn the tools to succeed,” she said.

Any time Pittman is facing the pressure and demands of being a high-profile college athlete, she always turns to her love for kids and the outdoors. Those special moments patch any holes in life’s water bucket.

“It truly is incredible [to impact kids]. It makes me do what I want to do. Constantly, as an athlete, you have all of these things you have to meet and responsibilities,” Pittman said. “Sometimes you feel like you have a water bucket that you’re slowly filling, and sometimes, you feel like you get a hole here and there, but those moments kind of clog the holes up for a little bit.”

Like many athletes, Pittman is navigating the mental and physical challenges of playing college sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions make it difficult for Pittman to completely fill her bucket. She misses the feeling of working with kids in person. It is something she can’t wait to experience once life is normal again.

“Reflecting upon the experience I have been able to have prior to COVID has really helped get me through this time because it is really hard to be playing a season during a pandemic. I think every athlete can attest to that,” Pittman said. “Just the ability to know that once the pandemic is over, or once I’m done with college, that I’ll have the opportunity to do what fills my bucket again, I think it will really bring me joy and continue to allow me to enjoy volleyball.”

Hitting the Road

Pittman is one of the most versatile and impactful players on the Gophers’ volleyball team. Her performance and leadership have guided No. 5 Minnesota to a 9-1 start in Big Ten play. Off the court, Pittman is finishing her master’s degree in youth development leadership.

Once her playing days are over, she hopes to combine her passions for volleyball and youth development. Pittman dreams of launching a traveling volleyball camp and leadership business.

“My dream after college is to live in a van and do traveling volleyball camps as well as a leadership camp in terms of how to develop young individuals to be good teammates,” Pittman said. “Hopefully once I’m done playing in the NCAA, I’m available to market my name and get that going right after college.”

No matter what the future holds, Pittman knows she wants to keep influencing the lives of kids. For now, she is focused on being a role model for young Gopher volleyball fans. Every time Pittman walks on the court in her maroon and gold jersey, she wants kids to know what is possible.

“My biggest message that I want kids to realize is that you don’t have to be a certain person to do what you want,” Pittman said. “It’s just the ability to work hard and find something that is in your passion and also what makes you happy. Just keep continuing to push and you will eventually get what you want.”

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