As a sophomore, Ellwood City’s Taylor Petrak did what few other Ellwood athletes ever accomplished: win a PIAA individual championship. Petrak, a swimmer from a school with no team and no pool, claimed the gold in the 50-yard freestyle and the silver in the 100-yard freestyle.
As a junior, she’s returning to the PIAA at Bucknell University as a defending state champion. Two weeks ago, she won the WPIAL 50-yard with a time of 23.33 seconds and placed second in the 100-yard with a time of 50.33 seconds. In both races, she beat her PIAA times from last year.
Between last year and now, Petrak made a decisive decision to change the club she swam with. Although difficult to change location and companions, her new club at the Butler YMCA gave her the competition she needed to improve her times.
High school competition is only a fraction of swimming for Petrak. The YMCA provides provides a much greater diversity of competition. There is no AA and AAA divisions, and there is inter-state competition.
In addition, club swimming is year round. The state championship isn’t even the peak of Petrak’s season- USA Swimming YMCA National Championships follow on April 4 through 8. Following that, she’ll take one week off in the summer before returning to the pool. She swims up to three miles a day.
“I’ve just always swam,” Petrak said. “It can be an escape. You’re focused on yourself. In practice, there isn’t much rest. You don’t talk much, because you can’t while swimming. It’s much more of an individual sport.”
Petrak’s first serious team competition ironically came through track. Last year, under coach Tom Natale, Petrak was on a school-record breaking 4 x 100 meter relay team that qualified for states. Until this record is beaten, her name will appear on the Helling Stadium’s track and field’s record board, which hasn’t yet been updated. Through the YMCA, she now competes in swimming relays.
There are few Class AA swimmers that can match Petrak. However, she will be facing long-time rival Emily Zimcosky, a senior at Geibel Catholic and the winner of the 100-yard in the WPIALS. Zimcosky also set the record last year and this year, as well as placing second in the 50, not far behind Petrak. Last year, Zimcosky didn’t compete in the PIAA to save herself for nationals, but this year she will be at states.
A freshmen prodigy also poses a potential danger. Emma Wilson, of Grove City, won the District 10 freestyle, breaking their record with a time of 23.28, .07 seconds ahead of Petrak.
“I didn’t even know who she was, which is weird since I’m in the club swimming. I looked her up, and she’s gotten a lot faster since December. It seems like too much improvement. Well, she is a freshmen, and she’ll be nervous and inexperienced and she knows Emily and I are coming for her.”
Winning isn’t necessarily Petrak’s priority this weekend. “Winning is always great. Everyone wants to win, but improving times is better.”
Beyond the PIAA and nationals, Petrak’s long term goal is a scholarship for college. “If you have goals and really want to succeed, you’ll stick with it. If you don’t achieve the goals, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
The PIAA is from March 16 to 19, although Wednesday and Thursday is primarily Class AAA. Petrak made the journey with her coach and mother, Patty Petrak.