Voices of the Diaspora: Meet Croatia Swimmer Ema Rajić From The States!

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Gabriela, Irena, Ema and Hrabri Rajić with Branko Fabijančić
Gabriela, Irena, Ema and Hrabri Rajić with Branko Fabijančić

So how did you end up in the States? 

My parents immigrated here in their 30s, as my dad was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. I was born in Illinois (have an older sister by four years) and have lived there till I was 18. Then we moved to Austin, Texas where we live now when I’m not at school. 

How was it growing up in the States as a Croat? Did you learn Croatian? 

Yes! My parents made sure that I learned Croatian. I’m not the greatest speaker but I can read, write, and understand pretty well. I often get shy I will make a mistake, then not want to speak in front of others. Still working on this every time I go back so that hopefully can keep the language in my life!

What language do you speak at home? 

My parents speak Croatian but my sister and I speak English 90% of the time. There are some phrases my sister and I use a lot in Croatian but it’s mostly English. We speak Croatian in public with our parents if we have anything to say in private (going to the bathroom, not feeling well, this person is rude, etc).

Did your parents ever tell you about where they come from? 

They do however I often have to ask them; they don’t really share much unless they are prompted to. I’ve learned more about my mom’s background during the war especially this past summer living with her in quarantine. It’s really fascinating to me but my parents often don’t go into a lot of detail because their past can be hard to talk about. 

Any Croatian traditions you have at home? 

We make a lot of Croatian food and celebrate big holidays with Croatian staples (palačinke are a must!). We have a lot of traditions during the holidays like Christmas and how we decorate our tree. This isn’t a tradition but we have a lot of Croatian pictures and paintings of Croatia up around our house. 

What place feels like home the most? 

I think as I’ve grown up and have had to move out of Illinois, my home base is honestly wherever the family is. So I feel at home in Texas but also I feel at home a lot when I’m in Croatia. My mom is from Velika Gorica and has a house there where my aunt Sanja lives. My dad is from Imotski and I have a ton of great memories there where it feels like home. We also have an apartment in Makarska and usually eat at the same places too there. Makarska feels like home too.

How often do you come back to Croatia? 

Growing up, we tried to go visit family in Croatia every other summer but when school and swimming got hard, it turned into whenever it was possible. The last time I went was the summer of 2019 but I’ll be going back this summer (in a month!!).

Do you feel like a tourist in Croatia? How does it feel to come back?

I don’t really feel like a tourist but sometimes I feel a little misplaced because I can’t drive over there and I get so shy speaking. I’ve been there enough times to know each place we go to very well, and we’ve been to Split, Dubrovnik, and several other places as well. If someone needed a tour guide, I could definitely do it! 

The biggest difference between Croatia and the States? 

The people and the culture. You can walk more around in Croatia and just see the rich history everywhere which is so cool. The people are nice but also are firm in their own ways, they won’t say something if they don’t mean it which I really respect. People in Croatia are much more honest than people in America. Growing up with Croatian parents has really shown me the difference too and that’s something ingrained in my life now. 

What are your favorite things about Croatia? 

Again, the culture is so rich and beautiful. I love learning about history and just seeing it in cities or the countryside. My favorite thing is to drive or walk around and just sightsee. The food obviously is the best ever and I really really miss eating palačinke by the beach in Makarska, or čevapi, and pizza. The seafood is amazing too and you really can’t replicate that here. 

Are there any Croatian communities in the states that you’ve lived in? 

When I lived in Illinois, we had a Balkan group of different Balkan families where we would always celebrate holidays and birthdays together. We would get together maybe once every two weeks. There wasn’t much in Illinois in terms of Croatian markets or restaurants.

Have you met many Croats abroad? 

I have met a lot! The swimming Croats I met first in Croatia but then obviously see them around here. I’m seeing a Croatian teammate this weekend in Southern California for a swim meet so I’m really excited about that. I’ve met some random people who have Croatian background like at the airport or in class, which is still pretty cool. 

So how did you get into swimming? 

My sister actually started swimming first then my mom threw me in there as well. I didn’t like it much at first but then I made some good friendships and wanted to continue swimming for them. When I was 10 I started getting better and then I got more competitive at it as well.


Cal Swimming: Marija Dodik, Kristina Miletić, Martina Andrašek, Amber Baldani and Ema Rajić

What are some differences when it comes to swimming in Croatia and the States? 

Croatia, or Europe in general, do a lot more yardage than the States or at least the places I have been to. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing but it’s just a little bit of a transition between the two. The amazing coaches I have at Dubrava are always in constant contact with me and making sure I’m getting the best support from them at any time. I’m so grateful. 

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.


Irena Rajić, Sanja and Branko Fabijančić, Ema Rajić, Ana Fabijančić, Josip and Vesna 

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. 

So you’ve been swimming for a while now, what is your biggest achievement? 

Making Worlds as part of Team Croatia in summer 2019! It was an amazing experience where I met so many great people and will always cherish the memories. I didn’t swim too great, but being part of Team Croatia and building those relationships was the best experience.

What is the next step in your swimming career? 

Hopefully the Olympics in Tokyo! First, have to go to Europeans in Budapest then Croatian Nationals. This summer will be a big one and I’m super excited to train in Zagreb with Team Dubrava and Coach Igor Berislavic.


Ema with her coach, Igor Berislavic.

Finally, do you see yourself visiting Croatia more often now that you’re part of the national team? 

Yes. I love Croatia and traveling so will definitely keep coming back. I want to move to Europe so hopefully will at least only be a drive away from Croatia. 


We are excited about Ema’s future and wish her the best at the Olympic trials! 

Are you part of the Croatian diaspora and would like to contribute your voice and experiences to this series? If yes, please contact [email protected] with the subject “Diaspora.”

To learn more about sport in Croatia, CLICK HERE


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