Green swimming ghosts.
That was the image Prairie Grove’s Valerie Tarazi pictured in her head before competing in a national swimming competition. It wasn’t so much the image but just a way to distract her from what was at hand.
“I do better when I don’t focus,” Tarazi said. “I can’t think of anything about swimming.”
Tarazi swam at the Speedo Junior National Championships on July 20 to Aug. 3 in Irvine, California. She placed 27th in the 100-meter (long course) breaststroke with a time of 1:12.54.
After being a spectator at nationals, the move to competing this year was a huge step.
“Last year, I went to go watch,” Tarazi said. “The fact that I was actually there on deck with everyone was amazing.”
Amazing and daunting for the 14-year-old, who will be a freshman at Prairie Ridge. She will swim for the Crystal Lake co-op team that also includes Crystal Lake Central and Crystal Lake South. Tarazi already has reached state qualifying times in seven of the eight individual high school events.
“It was a little intimidating considering I was younger than everyone,” Tarazi said. “Everyone there was so fast.”
What Tarazi found was that whether you were 14 or 18, the goal was the same for everyone – qualifying for the Olympic team trials in 2016.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Tarazi said. “We’re all just shooting for the same thing. Being there helped my confidence that I could actually get to trials.”
Tarazi qualified for nationals with a 1:12.49 in the 100 breaststroke at the Central Zone Championships on July 17 to 20 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, exactly a second faster than the junior national qualifying time. The meet included swimmers from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Also in Iowa, Tarazi qualified in eight events and competed in seven. She made the D finals in the 200 individual medley and 200 breaststroke and the B finals in the 100 breaststroke.
Her 100 breaststroke time places her 64th all time in the event for 13-14-year-old girls, according to USA Swimming.
Tarazi also competed at the Illinois Age Group Championships on July 24 to 27 in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. She won the 200 IM in 2:20.4 and placed third in the 50 freestyle (27.4). She did not compete in breaststroke because of the upcoming national meet.
If there was any disappointment at nationals, it was how close Tarazi came to qualifying for a breaststroke final. She missed it by less than two-tenths of a second. Considering her swimming in zones and state the previous two weeks, Tarazi was more than content.
“I was really surprised that I was able to match my time after swimming back-to-back weekends,” Tarazi said. “When I found out I missed it by so little it was a little hard.”
Tarazi swims for the Barrington Swim Club with coach Rob Emary. Also swimming at nationals for Barrington were Kirsten Jacobsen and Maggie Emary, both in freestyle events.
Now Rob Emary and Tarazi are focused on getting to the Olympic trials in 2016.
“We discuss that regularly, how we’re going to move forward,” Tarazi said. “We have a strict training plan for how we’ll get to trials.”
Rob Emary, who has coached Tarazi the past two years, said her work ethic is one of the biggest factors in her success.
“I think (Tarazi’s) really come a long way from someone who was just a raw talent,” Rob Emary said. “Swimming at the level she is at, it’s pretty much indicative of how hard she’s worked.”
Add in commitment and a willingness to learn.
“One of the things that separates her out is she’s just relentless with her dedication,” Rob Emary said. “She not only wants to do well, but is coachable.”
That dedication has forced Tarazi to make some sacrifices. She has played softball on the Crystal Lake Tidal Waves the past few years. After playing with them in a World Series this summer, she decided to devote herself solely to swimming.
“I love softball and I still do,” Tarazi said. “It was holding me back going from swimming to softball.”