Urbana Uni High's Rajic takes two titles

Urbana Uni High's Rajic takes two titles

EVANSTON — Every time her head bobbed out of the water as she approached the final turn of the 100-yard breaststroke at Saturday’s state championships, Ema Rajic could hear the deafening screams around her and see her sister and two coaches waving their arms on the pool’s deck, urging her to speed up.

With 25 yards to go, though, she easily could have coasted.

The Urbana Uni High junior won the race in 1 minute, 0.77 second, 2.13 seconds ahead of runner-up Valerie Tarazi, winning her second state title and breaking her second state record of the day.

“With her, I knew that she had the strength and endurance that I didn’t think anyone could match at the state meet,” coach Dave Young said, “so when she did have a little bit of a lead at the 50, again I felt like she was going to bring it home and felt like she was going to pull away. It was just a great day for her.”

Hours earlier, Rajic walked past the hallway just outside the pool where she sat two years earlier and cried after not making the finals in the 200 individual medley as a freshman. Then and there, she decided that her state meet wouldn’t end in any sort of disappointment, as it had when she came away with a second- and a third-place finish a year ago.

“I just took a moment to reflect how far I’ve come, and then I thought of last year,” Rajic said. “I thought of third place, and I thought, ‘No, my time of getting third place or under is over.’ ”

She came through on her promise. Her first win of the day, though, wasn’t as comfortable as her second.

Heading into the final leg of the 200 IM, defending state champion Alexis Yager touched the wall a hundredth of a second after Rajic. Her confidence, though, never wavered.

“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is normal,’ ” Rajic said. “I expected this to happen. And on the freestyle, I was like, ‘I came so far, and I’m not about to give this up on the last 28 seconds of the race.’ I literally just laid everything I had out there on the last 25 yards.”

Her thighs burned with every kick, and her throat began to sting as she took quick, deep breaths. And she pulled away, finishing the state record she set a week ago in 2:00.27.

“It was almost like watching a college championship race,” Young said. “It’s crazy. ... Everybody’s packed right on top of each other; it’s as noisy as any basketball environment.”

She celebrated, but she wasn’t exhausted.

By the time she stepped behind the blocks for the 100 breaststroke, she was relaxed. She looked up at her small section of friends and family in the crowd and started dancing to the music pumping through the headphones affixed over her ears.

The race was over shortly after she dove into the pool, although she didn’t know it.

“When I got through that first 50, I didn’t think I was first,” she said. “I think on that last 25, that’s when I knew I was first and I wasn’t racing for time, I wasn’t racing for a title anymore.”

By the time she hit the wall, she had etched her name, once again, into state history, with a year to go in her high school career.

Hours after the race, though, medals in tow, the enormity of her accomplishments had yet to take root.

“It definitely has not sunken in yet,” Rajic said. “I’m just kind of treating it like a normal meet. I don’t know why, but I just can’t come to terms with it quite yet.”