By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
With only seven full days of class left, Rachel Zilinskas finally has time to reflect upon what’s been a terrific, eye-opening senior year.
Not only did she finish a lengthy but exciting college recruiting process to choose NCAA Champion Georgia as her home for the next four years, but her high school swim team completed the year as overall team champion at the prestigious Eastern Scholastic Meet. She won all of her events and finished her high school career as an 11-time gold medalist.
Zilinskas will spend most of Friday (today) preparing for her senior prom, a rite of passage she’s been looking forward to for weeks and something that she said helps her maintain a balance between swimming and life.
After that, graduation is in June, and then she’s heading to Indianapolis later this summer for the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships to swim toward a spot on this year’s FINA World Championship team competing in Barcelona, Spain.
Beyond that, she’ll take a vacation with her family (which she says will probably be their last together for a while once she leaves for college) and before she knows it, it will be time to head to Athens, Ga., to start the next chapter of her life.
“It's been a crazy year, a lot different with all of my training partners having graduated,” said Zilinskas, who will graduate from the prestigious Germantown Academy June 15. “The year started out a little shaky, but I finally feel like I'm hitting my stride again.
“I had a couple of minor medical issues, and then the college process took a lot out of me. Plus, I had to step up as the leader of a whole new training group. So, it was a difficult adjustment to my training, but I put a lot of hard work in this year. The highlight would definitely have to be anchoring the 400 free relay that broke not just the prep school record, but the overall national high school record. It’s been a great year.”
Last weekend, at the Arena Grand Prix event in Mesa, Ariz., Zilinskas made another great memory against some of the best talent in the United States by finishing fifth in the 800 freestyle and sixth in the 400 freestyle. She said while the results weren’t what she was hoping for, the overall experience was positive in that she’s worked really hard and knows things will pay off and develop over the long haul.
Before that, she spent time training at Junior National Team camp – missing a good bit of class and time with her classmates. She said she’s definitely experiencing some senioritis, and while it’s been a great ride, she’s ready to move forward with the next part of her life as a swimmer and college student.
“I have a lot going on with swimming, so you could say I'm ready to be done (with school), which is an exciting thought, but there's a lot I'm nervous about for the future,” Zilinskas said. “It's kind of an unnerving feeling.
“Going to Georgia will be a stepping stone in my career for sure. But in that respect, Germantown will forever be a part of me, and I owe coach (Dick) Shoulberg and everyone at GA for making me a better swimmer and a better person. I plan on coming back to visit and train with GA throughout my career at Georgia.”
Zilinskas said her journey over the past year – starting shortly after she experienced a disappointing but educational Olympic Trials last summer in Omaha – has been a revelation of sorts for her in and out of the water.
She experienced a growth and maturity – becoming a team leader and someone others looked up to – that not only gave her a new perspective but also a greater sense of confidence in herself.
She went from swimming behind Arthur Frayler in her lane to leading a lane with all younger kids. She learned how to become a leader, and was voted team captain, so she had to learn to become a positive example, especially when things didn’t go her way.
She said she also learned a lot about the most important thing you can do to be there for others, and by taking care of yourself and ensuring you have a positive attitude, you are able to be a person others can depend on.
It’s been a learning experience that she said was difficult to accept at first but has helped her develop into the person and swimmer she is today – and she wouldn’t trade a single growing pain she experienced along the way. She said she credits her amazing support system – her family, coaches and friends, in particular – for helping her make the transformation.
“I didn't reach my goal of qualifying for the finals (in her events), so I was obviously disappointed, but I learned so much about myself,” Zilinskas said. “The whole year leading up to Trials, I was training so hard and so fast. I was in the best physical shape to swim really fast in Omaha, but I wasn't prepared mentally.
“After Trials, dealing with the disappointment was rough. It was really a blow to my confidence, but sometimes you have to go through those low points to figure out what you can do to improve yourself. It's not always going to be smooth sailing, and you have to learn to adjust.”
To keep her training and competition schedule fresh, Zilinskas said she plans to continue to compete in open water competitions (including next month’s Open Water National Championships in Castaic Lake, Calif.) as they are something she truly enjoys.
It also keeps her life in balance, another great lesson she said she’s learned over the past year and plans to continue to maintain once she starts her next life at Georgia.
“Open water swimming is truly a different sport entirely,” Zilinskas said. “I love the trips. The races are intense, but the days leading up to the meet are relaxing, and the sites of the races are usually pretty beautiful. It's different and fun.
“It's all about balance, which isn't an easy thing to achieve. I continuously work to achieve a balance so I'm as happy as I can be and working in all areas of my life - academics, family, social - not just swimming!”