All-Area Swimmer of the Year: Urbana's Gabi Rajic
URBANA — Practice it once or twice.
Chances are the proper pronunciation will not come out of your mouth.
Gabi Rajic doesn’t mind. She’s dealt with people trying to say her last name correctly her whole life.
It’s not Rag-ic. Or Rah-jeese.
More like Ha-Rish.
Say it quickly.
Roll the tongue at a rapid rate. Much like the way the Urbana senior and daughter of Croatian parents rolls off a smooth swimming stroke in the pool.
So, how often is the last name of one of the most accomplished swimmers to walk the hallways off Race Street pronounced incorrectly?
“All the time,” Rajic said with a laugh. “I think every time I swam at sectionals or any big meet, they’d come and find me first before they announced my name.”
Rajic doesn’t have the easiest last name for PA announcers to handle. But with the way The News-Gazette’s two-time All-Area Girls’ Swimmer of the Year fared this fall for the Tigers, they had plenty of practice.
Rajic qualified for her fourth state meet in both the 50-yard freestyle and 100 freestyle. Unlike her previous three trips to the northern Chicago suburbs, she returned home with a state medal. Rajic placed fifth in the 100 freestyle with a time of 51.52 seconds and added a ninth-place finish in the 50 freestyle (23.89).
Aside from placing at state for the first time, Rajic had other fond memories of her time in the pool at New Trier High School.
St. Charles East had essentially its entire team at the state meet. Seeing Rajic in orange and black prompted one of St. Charles East’s swimmers to strike up a conversation with Rajic since St. Charles East’s school colors are also orange and black. The simple connection supplied Rajic with an additional set of supporters she didn’t expect upon making the trek to Winnetka.
“They looked at me and said, ‘Are you by yourself?’ ” Rajic said. “They were kind of confused. They said, ‘Well, we’re going to adopt you today.’ So every time I swam I had a pack of 20 girls behind my lane, and their coaches took splits and followed me. They were a really huge help, and it was really nice to have a big crowd that I didn’t even know come and cheer for me.”
Urbana coach Stephanie Sherman said it was a sight to see.
“During both her races, they were at the end of her line cheering loud,” Sherman said. “It was encouraging to see high school girls step out of what they are comfortable with and be kind to someone else.”
Rajic’s fifth-place finish in the 100 freestyle was the highest in any event by an Urbana swimmer at state since Athena Liao placed fourth in the 100 butterfly at the 2006 state meet. Future swimmers who dive into the Urbana Aquatic Center will look at Rajic’s accomplishments and try to better them.
Fine by Rajic, who quickly credits Sherman for developing her into a top-notch swimmer.
“A lot of people, especially in Chicago, don’t see the downstate swimmers in the same light,” Rajic said. “My coaches have turned that around. Stephanie really turned that around to show people that, ‘Hey, Urbana was here, and we can place at state.’ She’s a person that’s been here for a while and will continue to be here. All of her swimmers will grow a lot, and I think she was the main reason that I did so well. Her presence really helps Urbana as a whole, especially the swim team.”
Rajic always displayed talent in the pool. Getting a later start on swimming — she didn’t begin until she was 10 — played a part in not getting burnt out on the sport, according to Rajic.
“I started at a sensitive age, but I’ve been able to improve every year,” she said. “With every coach and harder set, I’ve gotten better.”
It all culminated this season. Not only with her accomplishments at state, but her success during the regular season.
“I felt like this year I really pushed it outside my boundaries, and I think I was able to show a lot of people, especially myself, that I’m capable of way more than what I think I am,” Rajic said. “Freshman year was a very fun year. It was a new way to look at how everything goes. I wasn’t really sure how state went and what went on, so that was cool to see that. Sophomore year was kind of my lull year. That was the year where I really had to find myself and where I had to realize that I really have to push myself at practice to get to where I want. Junior and senior year, I feel like I buckled down, knew what I had to do and just got to work.”
She’ll continue to work in the pool, even with her prep career done. She still swims for the Champaign Heat program and will continue her relentless pace in the water in preparation for college swimming.
Rajic said she plans to decide soon about what her next swim team will be. She has narrowed her options down to either Indiana or Emory University in Atlanta, where she plans to major either in biology or pre-veterinary.
“I feel like it will definitely be a different aspect in college,” Rajic said. “You look at high school sports, and a lot of people mainly look at soccer, football and basketball. Swimming is a sport that not many people look at, which I think is a shame. When you go to the high school state meet, there are so many people who support swimming, and I don’t think you see that at the smaller meets. In college, when I went and visited these places, everyone had a lot more respect for the swimmers than what you’d see in high school. Having people that are just as good or better than me to swim with, and knowing that other people will come out and support the team, is another thing I’ll be really excited for.”
One thing Sherman isn’t excited about is replacing a swimmer of Rajic’s quality and the type of person she is. But the high school career she put together brings immense pride to Rajic’s coach, who knows her pupil’s swimming days are far from done.
“She truly is the best around,” Sherman said. “She works hard every day, and her success shows that. I feel very proud of her and her accomplishments, and also blessed to have been able to coach here these last four years. She is one special young lady.”
Area Honorable Mention
NAME SCHOOL YR.
Dominique Allen Urbana Sr.
Lily Bales Sullivan So.
Anita Bera Centennial Fr.
Marissa Burleson Danville Jr.
Taylor Campbell Tuscola Jr.
Jia Curry-Bild Urbana Uni High Sr.
Claire Dickerson Urbana Uni High So.
Taylor Donelson Clinton Sr.
Preslie Fletcher Oakwood Jr.
Meghan Fritchey St. Thomas More So.
Emma Garcia-Canga Centennial So.
Alivia Hay Mahomet-Seymour So.
Allison Herman Mahomet-Seymour Jr.
Sophie Herr Champaign Central Jr.
Grace Jackowski Danville Sr.
Sarah Lee Urbana Uni High So.
Claire Michael Urbana Uni High Jr.
Hannah Miles Clinton Sr.
Anica Miller Champaign Central So.
Lauren Monahan Urbana Uni High Fr.
Madeleine Nelson Urbana Uni High So.
Clare Ramsey Champaign Central Sr.
Sara Regan Centennial Sr.
Brynna Sentel Sullivan Fr.
Alison Slaughter Urbana Jr.
Madeline Swiersz Danville Jr.