Grace Ariola in pool

Grace Ariola reacts after a swim during the FINA World Junior Championships at Indianapolis. The Normal Community High School senior earned five silver medals and one bronze in the meet.

COURTESY OF TONY ARIOLA

Want to know what drives Grace Ariola when her churning arms and legs are burning and the end of the pool seems forever away?

Wonder where this world-class swimmer — we can call her that now — summons the mental and physical strength to power through?

Here you go:

Easter.

Specifically, the Easter egg hunts in the backyard of Tony and Jill Ariola's Bloomington home. Mom and dad would send Grace and her older siblings, Adam, Renee and Emily, out in search of the hidden colored eggs.

May the best Ariola win.

"There would be injuries," Grace said. "It's kind of helped me develop a killer instinct that no one gets their hands on the wall (of the pool) before me."

Truth is it was not just hunting Easter eggs. It was bags or bocce ball or anything the Ariola offspring decided to play.

Always, says their father, there was "a game inside the game."

Still is.

"They all have very high competitive drive and spirit," said Tony Ariola, a former Northwestern University and minor league pitcher. "That's what we've always done at this house ... compete."

Adam Ariola was an all-conference baseball player at Central College in Iowa. Renee is a senior on the Northwestern softball team. Emily played softball for the BNGSA Angels and for a year or two at Normal Community High School. And 17-year-old Grace, an NCHS senior?

She just won six medals, five silver and one bronze, at the FINA World Junior Championships that concluded Monday at Indianapolis. A Team USA captain, Ariola was so good she got a shout out on Twitter from one of the USA coaches, Bruce Gemmell.

Who is Gemmell? He was the longtime coach of five-time Olympic champion and 14-time world champion Katie Ledecky.

A Swimming World article on Ariola had referred to her as the "unsung hero" for Team USA. Gemmell tweeted: "Unsung by who? She's a stud and a great captain and teammate."

"I respect him a lot, so having him say that was really cool," Ariola said.

But ...

"I think what's really cool about these (international) meets is that swimmers like Katie Ledecky and coaches like him, we're all just people," Ariola said. "It's cool to have someone say that about me and talk with me a lot, but we're all just people."

And it's all just swimming.

That's how Ariola has always approached it. The swim is what matters. It's not where you place or the medals you win.

"I care about the outcome, but it's not the most important thing to me," she said. "Putting a good race together and finishing strong and doing everything right is what I enjoy."

There is a peace that comes with that. Not many folks have it, in or out of a pool. 

Tony Ariola calls it "even keel." He marvels at how his youngest never strays from that. Sometimes she swims terrific. Other times, not as well. She's human.

Yet, despite being an avid reader, Grace Ariola is not an open book. It's tough to get a read on how things went.

"You really can't tell the difference after (the race) when you're talking to her," her father said.

That matter-of-fact reaction is in line with Ariola's pre-race mindset. She isn't looking into the crowd or thinking about the international stage or in awe of the swimmer in the next lane.

None of that matters. 

"I know what I have to do going into each race and if I do that, I'll be fine," she said.

That focus doesn't disappear when Ariola towels off. It stays with her in the classroom or hunting Easter eggs or when she's on the couch reading a book ... one of her favorite things.

"She leads a very orderly life," Tony Ariola said.

She has a planner she refers to regularly. She also has written times that she hopes to attain on her bathroom mirror.

They have been there for several years. At first, it was required by her age group coach, who grew frustrated because Ariola rarely looked to see her time after a race. Only the swim mattered.

Soon, Ariola developed her own system.

"I realized that setting my own goals was more important than having someone else do it," she said. "The goals started to mean something to me. At 4 in the morning when I would get up to swim, I would see them and say, 'This is what I'm looking forward to. This is why I'm doing this.'"

One was 24.88 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle. Ariola posted a 24.82 Monday while earning the silver medal. She got to cross that goal off, or perhaps lower it.

Ariola earned her other four silvers in relays, swimming the anchor leg in each, and took the bronze in the 50 backstroke.

She went to Indianapolis hoping to get a medal. "To come home with six was incredible," she said.

How did Ariola celebrate? She gave herself 48 hours off.

Then, on Thursday morning, the University of Texas recruit awoke early for a practice at NCHS. A longtime swimmer for the Bloomington-Normal YMCA Waves and coach Charlie Yourd, Ariola is swimming on her school team for the first time.

Her body is sore, but she's loving it.

"I'm so ready to have fun on the bus rides and meet with people I don't normally get to hang out with," she said. "I'm ready to just be a part of a team atmosphere ... give my teammates support and support my captains and support everyone.

"With Coach (Heather) Budak, no one is above everyone else. Everybody is equal. I love that."

Ariola's goal is to make Team USA for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Everything she does is "preparing myself to make that team and do well at the Olympics," she said.

If she doesn't make it?

"I'll be devastated, but I'm not prepared to give up if I don't make it," she said. "I'm in this for the long haul."

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports Editor for The Pantagraph.

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