Ema Rajic is a fast study

Ema Rajic is a fast study

URBANA — Ema Rajic is among the best swimmers in Champaign-Urbana history. The Uni High senior embraces her success in the pool, and has no regrets about focusing much of her time as a high schooler on perfecting her craft.

It's easy to see why. Rajic is finishing her prep career as a four-time state champion, most recently defending her titles in the 200-yard individual medley and 100 breaststroke last month. She's taken part in the Olympic Trials and Phillips 66 National Championships. She'll be part of the California women's swim and dive team in less than a year.

And she's now a four-time News-Gazette All-Area girls' Swimmer of the Year.

But swimming alone does not define the constantly busy and always-determined Rajic.

She'll major in molecular and cellular biology at Cal. She frequently has Food Network on television, if her schedule allows viewing time. She enjoys hitting up T.J. Maxx with her mother. And her love for oceans may rival that of the life forms living in them.

Yes, Rajic will go down in the C-U swimming record books as an all-time great. But there's life beyond the pool for the girl who's spent so many hours within it.

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Rajic may never have soared off a starting block or perfected her flip turns if some of her early athletic ventures had played out differently. As a young child, Rajic was immersed in the worlds of ballet and ice skating.

"Neither of those really stuck," she said. "I always liked ballet, but I don't really know with the ice skating."

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Rajic's decision to attend Uni High also wasn't so straightforward. Her sister, Gabi, competed at Urbana and won N-G Swimmer of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013 before going on to swim at Indiana.

Urbana is also where Ema could have wound up.

"Going to Uni is definitely about the academics. That's number one," Rajic said. "And once they got a new coach (Dave Young), that's when I was like, 'Maybe I should do high school swimming.' "

Rajic doesn't feel her pool life would have changed much if she was a Tiger instead of an Illinek. But as for her interests outside the water, that's a different story entirely.

"Uni has a lot of really incredible opportunities that I think no other school in the state can match," Rajic said of the 257-student campus nestled at the heart of the University of Illinois. "I definitely wouldn't have been doing my biology research things. Maybe I wouldn't have liked math as much, or bio as much."

Another thing Rajic is not sure about is if Gabi was sad Ema would not follow directly in her footsteps at Urbana once the latter selected Uni High.

"If she was disappointed, she hid it well," Ema Rajic said. "She didn't want to go to Uni. When I said, 'Oh, my God, I got accepted to Uni,' she was like, 'OK, cool.' "

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Biology is a subject Ema Rajic finds truly fascinating. But she was leaning toward a math focus coming into Uni High. She credits the faculty, specifically biology teacher David Stone, for showing her all the sphere of biology had to offer.

"I think the combination of having living things but not actually working on humans, more on animals or cells, I think that's just really interesting," Rajic said. "Things that grow and die, that process is just really cool."

Rajic said she can get lost in the internet as a result of Googling one biology-related item, only to see something else that piques her curiosity. In addition to molecular and cellular biology, which she describes as focusing on "small-scale things," Rajic is also interested in studying genetics and biotech.

She also recently stumbled upon CRISPR-Cas9, a technology yourgenome.org describes as one that "enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence."

"This guy did it a few weeks ago for the first time," Rajic said. "He was the first guy to do it, and he edited out some gene and it was the talk of Twitter — at least my Twitter feed."

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Speaking of the social media platform, Rajic follows several handles that focus on ocean photography. She's interested in the creatures occupying the world's largest bodies of water, at least partially because oceans hold a special place in her heart.

Rajic's family is originally from Croatia, and past visits to the country included time at a beachside apartment on the Adriatic Sea. Likewise, Cal's campus will provide her easy access to the Pacific Ocean.

"That's kind of my happy place," Rajic said of large water masses. "Whenever I'm there, I feel not stressed at all. I feel at peace. It's like my zen mode."

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Athletics don't lead the hierarchy at Uni High, no matter how good a competitor is. As such, much of Rajic's free time is filled with schoolwork. And most of her days are wrapped up in swimming.

Rajic has been able to meet like-minded students through coach Will Barker's Champaign HEAT club swim team, working alongside athletes from places like Danville and Mattoon. Still, there is a void created by spending so much time within a single activity.

"It's always been a difficult relationship. Because there's a lot of times where I'd rather be going to a basketball game or going to a party and I can't because I have morning practice," Rajic said. "I love swimming and I wouldn't trade my past experiences with it for anything else, but at the same time I miss out on a lot of things. It does make me feel very alone, I guess."

That's a major reason Rajic is looking forward to making the trip west, as her fellow Bear swimmers will be on the same athletic track as her.

"I think at Cal it'll feel a little more friendly or relaxed because everyone's doing it, and I'll have my team that I'm studying with and eating dinner with," she said. "So I'm looking forward to that aspect of being with people a lot because, right now, I'm just kind of on my own."

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Selecting Cal, where Rajic signed to swim last month, was an easy choice. In addition to being a leading institution in the study of CRISPR-Cas9, Cal offers a women's swim unit that just clicked with Rajic.

"The team is just so funny. They're just great," she said. "On my recruiting trip, I just had the best time. They just kind of welcomed me with open arms and I was able to be myself at like full mode, and they just completely accepted it. And I think that's really cool because not a lot of teams do that."

What exactly is Rajic like when she's being herself?

"I'm a very weird person. I'm very funky," she said with a laugh. "I can be very hyper or I can be (down)."

And so, with her time at Uni High getting closer to rearview mirror status, Rajic can reflect on a journey that had several forks in the road, but ultimately gave her a clear vision for what she wants to do both in the water and beyond it.

"I'm definitely going to be very grateful for everyone who has supported me or shared this experience with me," she said. "I'm so thankful for the people I have in my life, especially my coaches and my team, and I wouldn't trade the world for them. So I think in five and 10 years, I'd be pretty happy looking back on it. There's nothing I regret."

Meet Ema Rajic

Why she's Swimmer of the Year: Rajic's dominant high school career, which included four All-Area Swimmer of the Year honors, ended with two more state titles. She defended her crowns in the 200-yard individual medley (2:00.74) and 100 breaststroke (1:01.35) and will now take her talents to college at California while eyeing a spot in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Season highlights: "Breaking the pool record in the 200 freestyle medley relay with my team. We weren't expecting it, and we just came in and we wanted to get the state cut. And we ended up winning it and getting the pool record, and those pool records, they were really hard records to break, so it was really cool doing it."

A few of my favorites: I need concert tickets to see Migos. ... Before I compete, I eat pasta. ... In my dream career, I would be some kind of scientist or researcher. My favorite subject to study in school is biology. ... My favorite athlete is Rebecca Soni. ... My favorite TV show is "Friends." ... My first job was as a research intern at the Uni High lab. ... If I could have dinner with any three people from any time period, I would choose Barack Obama, Natalie Coughlin and Michael Phelps.

Three things on my bucket list: Learn how to surf, get Scuba certified and be able to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal on my own.