URBANA — All sports offer an opportunity for a variety of athletes to participate.
In football, players who are big, but not fleet of foot, can play on the line.
In baseball, players who can’t hit the ball have the chance to throw it.
In basketball, players lacking the height to play near the basket can score from three-point range.
In swimming, there are specialists. Some excel in the breaststroke. Some are freestyle standouts. Some are good in the backstroke.
Others are best in the butterfly.
And then there is Gabi Rajic, a junior at Urbana.
She is not only proficient at all the strokes but she is also a standout at all of the distances. She qualified for state in the shortest race, the 50-yard freestyle.
She had the area’s fastest time in the longest race, the 500 free.
Besides advancing to state in two individual events for the third year in a row, Rajic also had the area’s top two finishes at state, placing 14th and 17th.
For her accomplishments, Rajic was selected as The News-Gazette’s Swimmer of the Year.
She takes pride in her overall abilities and prefers to swim all events rather than specialize in a few during the regular season.
“I made a goal for myself that throughout my high school career I would swim every event on the high school board in each season,” Rajic said. “I think it’s boring to only swim the events that you’re good at. You have to spice it up a bit.
“Coach Stephanie (Sherman) was always flexible with what I wanted to swim.”
Rajic not only met the goal of competing in all eight swimming events for the Tigers this fall but she also had noteworthy times.
Among area athletes, Rajic had the quickest times in the 100 free, 100 back, 100 breast and 500 free. She ranked second in the 50 free and 200 individual medley. In the 200 free, she was third, and in the 100 butterfly, she was fifth.
Rajic was taught to swim as a 4-year-old but didn’t join her first local swim club (then known as the Aqua Chiefs) until age 10.
“My parents are from Croatia, and when we would go to Croatia, we would always go to the seaside,” Rajic said. “That’s where I learned to doggy-paddle.
“My dad (Hrabri) got me interested in competitive swimming. Once I started, I didn’t stop.”
She came to swimming after leaving another endeavor.
“I started off with skating,” Rajic said. “Skating looked so cool in a few movies I watched, and it really inspired me.”
She was a quick study and soon moved to advanced levels.
“Once they got more challenging, I got very tentative,” Rajic said. “I hated falling and getting hurt. I would wear butt pads and snow pants to avoid hurting myself. The problem was I was scared and didn’t really have the guts to try.
“I picked swimming because it is almost impossible to get hurt in the water other than the occasional muscle soreness.”
Though she showed some natural ability in the water, Rajic was competing against opponents who had a five- or six-year competitive head start. She remembers well her frustrations upon being elevated from Group 1 (beginners) to Group 2.
“I started the main set with the fastest girl because I thought I had to keep up to not get sent back to Group 1,” Rajic said. “Halfway through, I died out completely. I remember feeling really sad and bummed out that I couldn’t finish the set. I came home crying, thinking maybe swimming wasn’t the right sport either.”
She stuck with it and persevered. By her freshman season at Urbana, Rajic was a two-event sectional champion.
Now, one area where she impresses her teammates is in her willingness to do the tough workouts.
“Gabi really pushed herself,” Ellen Beverly said. “Coach would give her a set and she wouldn’t complain, but do it, trying her best every time, even if the set was extremely difficult.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. When she was promoted to Group 5 (the highest level with the Champaign County YMCA Heat), Rajic still faced her struggles.
“I was the youngest one there at age 12,” she said. “Everybody around me was in high school, and a good number were heading to college.”
She found herself surrounded by a supportive set of teammates during a particularly hard workout conducted by club coach Erich O’Donnell.
“His sets were really hard and sometimes made you fully exhausted,” Rajic said. “I remember being the last one to finish, completely red and worn out. Everybody else finished a good five minutes, if not more, before. So embarrassing.
“As soon as I finished, I looked up and everybody was clapping and smiling at me, saying, ‘Congratulations. You just survived your first Erich’s Monday.’ I was so relieved. I felt like a champ.”
Rajic can relive those memories now, as a 16-year-old. She is one of the Tigers’ leaders, not a hanger-on. Those past experiences helped to define the swimmer she has become. She relishes an intense workload.
Sherman recalled an early-season conversation that revealed the depth of Rajic’s desire.
“About two weeks into practice, she says, ‘Stephanie, no matter if I am tired after school, don’t feel well, act like I don’t want to work hard and get mad, please just push me really hard,’ ” Sherman said. “I agreed and did that all season. She wants to be the best that she can be, and that is really special.”
Rajic doesn’t sacrifice other endeavors for a sport. She plays clarinet in the Urbana band and is a member of the school’s art club. To date, however, swimming is where she is most known.
“There are a couple reasons that make Gabi a really great swimmer,” Sherman said. “The first is that she is very dedicated to the pool and her training. She hates to lose and always expects a lot of pressure on herself.
“The second is she is a really great leader, captain, friend and teammate. There were many days this year she would stay after practice before a meet and help one of her teammates with her starts. She desires for others to be successful and loves to help them be better.
“Too often, athletes are so worried about themselves that they forget about others. Gabi is one of those special girls that has it all.”
Few things top her love of swimming, but if the discussion turns to shopping or fashion, the elation is like a winning lottery ticket.
“I am a huge fashionista,” Rajic said. “I go crazy with Nike shoes. I need a cool bright-colored pair for sectionals and state. It’s a must. I love walking down hallways or the pool deck and having people stare at my shoes.
“Every time we go to Chicago for a swim meet, we have to stop by a big mall or Nordstrom Rack. I like shopping for the whole ensemble, but I’m absolutely crazy with shoes.”
She is much more conservative in the pool.
“My look is pretty boring, compared to my school look,” Rajic said. “I used to get really quirky-looking Nike suits, but they’ve gotten really expensive, so I only own a few now.
“My suits will repeat every week. Sometimes, I will wear really old suits as drag suits (overly large swim suits designed to create resistance or ‘drag’ during a workout). My Urbana teammates would call me ‘homeless’ because the suits are so old and well worn.”
Expect those suits to continue making the rounds. Rajic doesn’t plan to leave the pool anytime soon.
“My high school career is not the last you’ll hear of,” she said. “I am definitely swimming in college. Swimming is a big part of my daily routine, and a life without it would be very boring and simple.”
Rajic has a couple of ideas as far as a future profession, but her interests are far-ranging.
“I want to become a vet,” she said. “I love animals. I could also see myself becoming an artist. When I’m inspired by paintings, I go crazy and draw a lot. I’ve attended numerous art camps, and they help me free my mind and let loose with my imagination.”
Girls' Swimming Athletes of the Year
YEAR NAME SCHOOL
2012 Gabi Rajic Urbana
2011 Audrey Rodawig Centennial
2010 Emma Newman Champaign Central
2009 Lauren Drennan Danville
2008 Lisa Boyce Urbana Uni High
2007 Norah Cetin Centennial
2006 Athena Liao Urbana
2005 Payton Johnson Centennial
2004 Courtney Cozad Centennial
Girls' Swimming Coaches of the Year
2012 Will Barker Champaign Central
2011 Will Barker Champaign Central
Getting to know Gabi Rajic
Why she’s Female Swimmer of the Year: Broke school records in the 50-yard freestyle (24.07 seconds) and the 100 free (52.08), both of which were events in which she qualified for state.
Season highlight: A three-time state qualifier, she had her first top-20 finishes at state, placing 14th in the 100 free (0.17 from the finals) and 17th in the 50 free (0.20 from the finals). She was the only area athlete with two top-20 placements and also had the two best state finishes among area competitors.
A few of my favorite things: Baked homemade macaroni and cheese ... Usain Bolt ... anatomy ... “Mamma Mia!” ... Florence and the Machine ... Chipotle ... A Toyota hybrid, but a silver convertible BMW in my dreams ... babysitting ... On my bucket list, to meet Meryl Streep, to go zip lining and to see the Northern Lights.
About Rajic: “She was voted a junior captain this year, which means people look up to her. She really deserved it. She had no problem making sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to. She kept my senior year fun and exciting because we would always be joking around and trying to stay positive at practice. She made everyone on the team feel welcome even if they may not have been the best swimmer.” — Urbana swimmer Ellen Beverly
All-Area Honorable Mention
NAME SCHOOL YR.
Dominique Allen Urbana Jr.
Emily Bowman Danville Sr.
Marissa Burleson Danville So.
Claire Dickerson Urbana Uni High Fr.
Sara Fundator Champaign Central Sr.
Margaret Goldsmith Champaign Central Sr.
Emma Garcia-Canga Centennial Fr.
Sophie Herr Champaign Central So.
Grace Jackowski Danville Jr.
Marie Jefferson Centennial Sr.
Sarah McGill Champaign Central Sr.
Claire Michael Urbana Uni High Fr.
Remy Miller Centennial Jr.
Madeleine Nelson Urbana Uni High Fr.
Katherine Penwell Champaign Central Sr.
Clare Ramsey Champaign Central Jr.
Sara Regan Centennial Jr.
Audrey Rodawig Centennial Sr.
Madeline Swiersz Danville So.
Kristin Verkler Danville Sr.
Final N-G rankings
1. Central (1)
2. Centennial (2)
3. Danville (3)
4. Uni High (4)
5. Urbana (5)
6. Mahomet-Seymour (6)
7. Clinton (7)
8. Sullivan (8)
9. Tuscola (9)
10. Schlarman (10)