NORMAL — While Poleena Kovalaske's mother, Anastasia, was growing up in Russia, she always wanted to swim. When her American-born daughter came along, they headed to the pool and never looked back.
Now we find Poleena Kovalaske preparing for her fourth trip to the state swim meet for University High School, which won its 12th sectional in school history on Saturday.
A 6-foot tower of power, Kovalaske did her part by winning the 50-yard freestyle in 23.76 seconds, which makes her the No. 3 performer in Pantagraph area history.
Ahead of her on the all-time list are two former state champions: Normal Community's Grace Ariola (22.52 in 2017) and U High's Suzanne Almeida (23.28 in 1998).
"I've been really working towards the (school) record so I'm hoping state is where I can potentially break that," Kovalaske said. "If not, (23.76) is still an amazing time and I'm proud that I was able to get that far."
Only 10 sectional swimmers statewide were faster than Kovalaske. The top seed for Friday's state preliminaries at Evanston is Oswego East's Grace Cooper at 22.73.
Coach Michelle Meyer believes the U High record could fall.
"It's definitely within reach," Meyer said. "The 50 is kind of tough. Everything has got to go just right, but the potential is there."
Meyer says Kovalaske's height helps.
"When you've got that kind of arm reach, hopefully you can get your hand on the wall before anybody else," Meyer said.
Kovalaske sees the 50 free as a mental challenge.
"It's over so quick," she said. "If you take one split second to look at someone else or do something you usually don't do, it's over. The 50 free is so short that a lot of it is mental more than physical."
Kovalaske envisions better times ahead.
"I touched that wall (in the sectional) and I felt like I hadn't put in as much as I could have," she said. "I always feel like I can put more in. I feel there is something I can work on to make better."
Kovalaske, who also competes for the Redbird Swim Club, says no other meet matches the intensity of state.
"It's my favorite part of swimming," she said. "That's what I work towards every year."
A "team" person at heart, Kovalaske says relays are more enjoyable than individual events. She swims the breaststroke leg for U High's No. 30-seeded 200 medley relay, which has a best of 1:49.05. She anchors the No. 25-seeded 400 freestyle relay, which has gone 3:36.13.
In the past, Kovalaske enjoyed leading off the 400 free relay, but anchoring has been fun, too.
"Anchoring, I like it even more just because you are finishing it off and giving it your all," she said. "It's the very last thing of the entire meet."
Her medley teammates include sophomore Hadley Fudge, senior Lilly Culp and freshman Olivia Haerr. The 400 free relay has Haerr, Culp and junior Caroline Bazan.
"You are not swimming for yourself," Kovalaske said. "You are swimming for them. There is so much more meaning to that ... to me anyway."
Kovalaske almost qualified in the 100 breaststroke, but her career best time of 1:07.95, the No. 9 mark in area history, left her in second place in the sectional, just shy of the 1:06.54 qualifying standard.
Kovalaske, who began swimming at age 2 and was on a team by 5, hopes to compete in Division I collegiately while majoring in pre-medicine.
"I love working with kids so I want to be a pediatrician," said Kovalaske, who credits her father, Gary, for taking her to the top. "He came to every little meet. He drove me to practice."
Kovalaske, who has played piano since age 5, likes being the oldest of four siblings, one of whom is her junior teammate, Anita.
"I love bossing them around," she quipped. "I feel there are benefits to being the middle child and the youngest child, but I will say being the oldest, I was pushed the hardest.
"There is more responsibility on my shoulders. I feel it's what has pushed me to be the person that I am today."
That person, according to Meyer, is positive, encouraging, hard working and, just like her mother, loves swimming.