Tokyo Calympian: Ema Rajic, Swimming, Croatia

The current top breaststroker on Cal Women's Swimming will be racing in her first Olympic Games

One of eight 2021 Tokyo Calympians who are current Cal student-athletes, rising senior Ema Rajic will compete in her first Olympic Games while representing Croatia.

Ema Rajic

Sport: Swimming

Events: 50m Free, 100m Breast

Nation: Croatia

Hometown: Urbana, Illinois (born there when her Croatian father was getting his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois)

Olympic Appearance: 1st

Age: 21 (February 24, 2000)

Cal connection: Cal Rising Senior (Molecular & Cell Biology major)

Cal accomplishments: As the breaststroke swimmer, Ema Rajic was a part of the 2019 NCAA winning 400y Medley Relay relay. Rajic also contributed heavily to Cal’s team Pac-12 title in 2021. She also owns the Cal school record for 100y Breast.

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Rajic holds dual citizenship between USA and Croatia. She only switched officially to swim for Croatia after being at Cal and met former Croatian Calympian Duje Draganja, a 2018 Cal Athletics Hall of Fame inductee. She talked about her journey to represent Croatia with Total Croatia News.

How did you decide to swim for Croatia? What was the process like? 

My sister was the first one thinking about swimming for Croatia but never really got around to it. I thought about it as well but I wasn’t sure how to start the process to do that. One day during practice at Cal, Croatian and Cal legend Duje Draganje walked through the door, and soon enough, he was giving me advice on how to transition into Croatian Swimming. I filed for a different Sport Nationality through FINA and got it pretty soon after. That summer I made the national team and the world's team as well. I wouldn’t have gotten into Croatian swimming without Teri or Duje especially. My family has been incredibly supportive as well, my mom especially. She was the one driving me around in Zagreb to practice and always being a shoulder to lean on. My aunt Sanja has been so supportive too. She’s always just a text away and always cooked my favorite food whenever I’m over. My entire family has just been so supportive. They came to watch me swim when I was trying to qualify for Worlds and actually watched me qualify too. We had a nice coffee afterward and it meant the world to me. I’ll never forget going home and just start crying from joy and relief.

In the same interview, she also had nothing but great things to say about her Cal experience.

Can you describe how it is living in California? 

Going to Cal has been the best decision I have ever made. For school, it’s one of the world’s leading programs in genetics and genomics (my major). For swimming, it’s obviously one of the best swimming schools not only in the country but has so much success internationally as well. This really gave me the confidence to come here and not only just make it thru such a rigorous program, but succeed way beyond my imagination. Obviously couldn’t have done any of this without my coaches and my team, they’ve always been so supportive and always there to cheer me on. 

Rajic quickly set the Cal breaststroke record after arriving on campus and has reset that a couple of times. Sure, breaststroke has never been a strong area for Cal Women’s Swimming, with former Calympian Jessica Hardy switching to train at USC after her graduation. Nonetheless, Rajic filled the important role as the main breaststroker on relays, especially after the graduation of Marina Garcia, who will be racing in her second Olympic Games in Tokyo for Spain. Her current 100y Breast record was set at the 2021 Pac-12 Championships.

Rajic became one of the team leaders and has also talked about how Cal men’s swimming’s Reece Whitley, who narrowly missed out on being a 2021 Tokyo Calympian for USA, has inspired her both inside and outside of the pool.

Rajic arrived back on campus and got right to work, and it paid off with a school record early in the season, the same week Reece Whitley broke a men’s breaststroke record.

Both are juniors and Rajic said Whitley has been an important bond for her, even if the men’s and women’s teams aren’t together because of the pandemic this year.

But the first time they met was long before they arrived in Berkeley.

“I remember getting his autograph when I was a sophomore in high school at NSCAs,” she said. Now they are both juniors at Cal and school record-holders.

“Seeing how he has grown and the leader he has become has been inspiring,” Rajic said. “I really want to find my voice outside the pool and not just be a swimming person. I want to find another facet in myself and Reece has done an incredible job at that. Having him in the same class is the cherry on top.”

In a newspaper interview while still in high school in 2017, Rajic already geekily talked about the then exciting new biological breakthrough that was CRISPR-Cas9. Of course, Cal is one of the leading institutions in the world in developing CRISPR, for which Jennifer Doudna won the most recent Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

After getting on the Croatian national team in 2019, Ema Rajic quickly claimed the Croatian national record for both 50m Free and 100m Breasts, the two events that she will race in Tokyo.

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Time for a fruit loops tattoo bc I’m going to THE OLYMPIC GAMES IN TOKYO!!! 🙈🤩🇭🇷

Words cannot explain how I feel right now. Utterly grateful for all those who have supported and believed in me, especially @dubravaswimming and @calwswim , throughout this long journey.

Little Ema would be shook rn 🥲

Rajic talked to the Central Illinois TV station about making the Olympics and how that area fostered her love for competitive swimming and started her journey toward the Olympic Games.

Realistically, Rajic does not have the chance to medal in this Olympic Games. Still, the Tokyo experience will likely inspire her to even greater things in her senior year. The Cal most improved swimmer for the 2018-19 season finished 14th and 28th in 100y and 200y Breaststroke at the 2021 NCAA Championships recently. She should be able to improve on those finishes next season.

Ema Rajic will likely also enjoy being back at Memorial Stadium for Cal Football games this fall and have a much more normal school year to close out her undergraduate degree. A quick glance at her social media, it would appear that Ema has embraced her Cal experience, from the swimming and the academics to stuff like food and more.

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Best of luck to Ema in Tokyo!

Olympic Schedule

Swimming events will take place between July 24 and August 1st from the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

Sun July 25

Women’s 100m Breaststroke Heat

Mon July 26

Women’s 100m Breaststroke Semifinals

Tue July 27

Women’s 100m Breaststroke Final

Fri July 30

Women’s 50m Freestyle Heat

Sat July 31

Women’s 50m Freestyle Semifinals

Sun Aug 1

Women’s 50m Freestyle Final