Potential great for former Indiana swimmer
Dick Shoulberg has coached nearly 20 Olympians, but former Indiana star Rachel Zilinskas is shaping into maybe his best swimmer yet.
Zilinskas, a WPIAL and PIAA Class AA champion last year as a freshman, is making a huge impact in her first year at Germantown Academy, a prep school near Philadelphia where Shoulberg has coached since 1969.
She was the only Germantown swimmer to win two individual events at the school's league championships, taking the 100 and 200 freestyle. She won two races against the Peddie School last month — the 200 individual medley and 500 freestyle — leading Academy to victory in a clash of prep school powerhouses. And she has set the new standard in the 100 butterfly at the pool of the school's arch-rival, Penn Charter.
Zilinskas has also been successful in the distance races, winning the 1,500 freestyle at the CeraVe Invitational at Rutgers University by seven seconds after scoring victories in the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle earlier in the meet.
In all, she has qualified for five events at the 2012 U.S Olympic Trials.
"I hate to put a piano on Rachel's back, but she has the potential to be the greatest swimmer ever produced by Germantown Academy," Shoulberg said. "She's willing to put in the time, and has the technique, talent and temperament to make it happen. She's very gifted."
"Coach Shoulberg is always kidding me that I'm going to make him famous," Zilinskas responds, "like he's not famous already"
Zilinskas was WPIAL and state champion in the 200 individual medley as a freshman at Indiana a year ago. But she wanted greater challenges and enrolled last fall at Germantown Academy, which attracts swimmers from around the world, including Japan, Israel and Bosnia.
The 16-year-old is training year-round with the USA Swimming club at Germantown. Previously, she was a member of the USA Swimming club at Fox Chapel, where practice was not nearly as demanding.
"Fox Chapel has an outstanding program but nothing like this," she said. "I'm practicing close to 30 hours a week. Before, I probably practiced 12 to 15. I'm doing a lot more dry-land training, too. I practice every morning, seven days a week. We take long training trips and are only rested (training tapered to conserve energy) two meets a year."
Zilinskas is ranked first in the nation in the 1,650 freestyle among girls aged 15 by USA Swimming. She is ranked second in the 1,000 freestyle and sixth in the 500 freestyle.
Her ranking in the 1,650 freestyle is based upon her time from last year's USA Swimming Sectional Championships in Rockville, Md., where she won in 16 minutes, 8.83 seconds.
Shoulberg expects her to face a stiff test at the trials in 16 months.
"There's nothing like the Olympic Trials in terms of pressure," he said. "You never know how any swimmer is going to react until they actually compete there."
Zilinskas is inspired by what she has seen at Germantown Academy, located just outside of Philadelphia. Several notable swimmers are Germantown alumni, including the late Fran Crippen. The open-water champion died during a competition in October in the United Arab Emerites. His sister, Maddie, also went to Germantown and was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team.
"A lot of swimmers returned for Fran Crippen's funeral," Zilinskas said. "I looked up at one point and saw seven (former) Olympians on the pool deck. I knew then that this is where I wanted to be."
Zilinskas' family has made sacrifices so that Rachel can attend Germantown Academy. Susan Zilinskas moved with her daughter and is sharing an apartment with her. The rest of the family remained in Indiana, where a smaller house was purchased in order to help finance the move.
Mark Zilinskas, Rachel's father, is the football coach at Indiana.
"We have another daughter in college and a son in seventh grade," Susan Zilinskas said. "It's been rough for my son, but he's proud of his sister and wants the best for her. We had a family discussion and thought long and hard before doing this."
Shoulberg credits Zilinskas' family for the swimmer's character.
"She's made a smooth transition and is doing well athletically and academically," Shoulberg said. "I am very impressed with the way she has been raised."