Valerie Tarazi watched her club teammates compete against top swimmers at the Junior National Swimming Championships in Irvine, California at 13 years old and was determined to join them in the pool the next year.
Tarazi, now 18, has swam in the Junior Nationals every year since. On Tuesday, the Auburn-bound swimmer will make her fifth and final appearance in the country's premiere swimming event for swimmers ages 18 and younger.
Tarazi will return to the William Woollett, Jr. Aquatic Center in Irvine for the Junior Nationals and swim in the 100 and 200 breaststroke, 200 individual medley and 50 freestyle.
If her times are good enough, Tarazi has a chance at making the U.S. Junior National Team, which will be announced during the first week of September. To make Team USA, you either need a top-100 time in the world or one of the two fastest times in your event.
The Prairie Ridge graduate recently set two records at the Illinois Senior State Championships. Tarazi swam a personal-best 2:35.01 in the 200 breaststroke, beating the previous best time of 2:35.41, and broke the record in the 100 breaststroke with a time of 1:11.54.
Setting those two records without being fully rested was a surprise to Tarazi.
"It was just really encouraging, especially going into (Junior Nationals)," Tarazi said. "I don’t think I’ve gone a best time in the middle of the season since I was 12 years old, so I was really excited about that. I was wearing an old suit, and I wasn’t expecting those times. They were really good."
Since the high school season ended, Tarazi began training with the Glenview Titan Aquatic Club and former Junior National coach Steve Iida.
Tarazi practices with the GTAC eight or nine times a week, with sessions lasting up to 90 minutes. Not all of their work is in the pool, with dryland training to help with power and explosive movements. She also weight trains at the Davis Speed Center twice a week.
Iida has taken Tarazi and her teammates to big-name events across the country, some of which included former Olympians. Three weeks ago, Tarazi competed against 2016 Summer Olympic Games bronze medalist Katie Meili.
"She beat me by a lot," Tarazi said.
Tarazi has known Iida for many years and had the available time this summer to drive back and forth to Glenview twice a day.
"His motto is basically, ‘Work smarter, not harder,'" Tarazi said. "I’m working just as hard, but the kind of training that we’re doing is very specific to my events. For the 200 breaststroke, we do a lot of pace work, specifically breaking down your race to segments. We focus on the little things in my races."
Tarazi is most encouraged by her improvement in the 200 breaststroke.
"We really worked my aerobic system, getting myself basically in the best shape, so I can finish the races really strong," Tarazi said. "That was one of my main goals: really just to get in tip-top shape. We work on the strategy of my races, how fast I want to go at it and see if I can, as we like to say, 'Hang on for dear life.'"
Tarazi leaves Monday for Junior Nationals, with competition starting Tuesday. She'll then be in Hawaii with family before returning home on Aug. 14. She leaves for Auburn the next morning.
Making her fifth appearance at Junior Nationals, Tarazi feels confident.
"Some years I haven’t been as confident, just because I didn’t know who was going to be there, or I was worried about other things," Tarazi said. "I’m kind of like the old veteran now and I kind of know what to expect. I’ve been at the pool and I feel good in the water, so we'll see what happens."
Making Team USA would be a dream come true for Tarazi.
"It’s been my goal for five years to be on Team USA," Tarazi said. "It’s something really special where the culture of the team is that you’re working for Team USA, not yourself. I’ve just got to race my race, stay in my own lane, and not focus on what other people are doing."