Maya Assaf tried basketball, figure skating and soccer. She played high school tennis for three years, too.
But no sport clicked for her the way swimming did. Not that the Avon Lake senior hasn’t had to work to get where she is.
Though she first started swimming at age 11 for the Ridgewood Y Dolphins, it wasn’t until this year that she really started to excel. A back strain kept her out of the lineup for sectionals her sophomore year but she started to glimpse her potential last season when she finished fourth at the Southwestern Conference meet and was a district qualifier.
This season has brought a complete change — in attitude and results.
That was evident at the SWC meet on Jan. 26 when Assaf won the 100 fly in 1:03.00 and was a member of the winning 200 medley and 400 free relays. She also had a fourth-place finish.
“This senior year has been very memorable because I decided I wanted to challenge myself,” Assaf said. “I wanted to see how far I could take this, what I’m capable of and what I can challenge myself to do. It’s ended up working out really great.”
Assaf teamed with junior Maggie Williams, sophomore Emily Presley and junior Emma Okuma to help Avon Lake edge Avon for the SWC meet title in the 200 medley relay, 1:57.75 to 1:57.78. Later she teamed with Maggie Williams, sophomore Emily Hauck and freshman Katie Williams (Maggie’s sister) to win the 400 free relay (3:52.60).
“I started seeing all these great swimmers around me and I felt like, ‘You know what, I’ve never taken this sport as seriously as a I could have,” Assaf said. “In swimming, it’s very common to do doubles — two workouts a day. I made up my mind to let’s do it, let’s see if I can do 10 workouts a week. I had never challenged myself to that point before, but this year I just had that motivation.”
Behind Assaf’s efforts, the Avon Lake girls were able to win their third SWC title in three years. Avon Lake rallied to tie Avon at 321 in the championship meet, then took the overall title thanks to its 97-89 dual meet win over the Eagles on Dec. 5.
“Maya’s approach totally changed from her freshman year,” Avon Lake coach Dan Smith said. “Her attitude back then was, ‘I really don’t care about swimming. I just want to have fun.’ I respect kids’ opinions on athletics as an outlet for the rest of your life and it should be enjoyed. I always pushed her, though. Something popped her junior year. She started to get a little more excited and a little more determined. It was kind of cool to see coming into that senior year, that she really was starting to feel it and want it.”
“Even though I didn’t train as hard for my first three years of high school, I did have a foundation from the past that did carry me through those years,” Assaf said. “Swimming now feels like a completely different sport than it did my freshman year. There’s a belief in yourself to a certain extent that I kind of didn’t have. In addition to that, I didn’t feel like swimming was mine. I felt like swimming was just something that I always had done and I just figured I would keep doing since I started it when I was 11.”
Thanks in large part to Assaf’s attitude change, the Shoregals are SWC champs once again.
“I knew it’s got to be all or nothing,” Assaf said of her approach to her senior season. “Dealing with things like getting up at 5 a.m. and scraping the snow and ice off the car just to get to practice. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I feel like when you’re going through the worst of that you develop a lot of grit. That’s something our whole team really has is that grit because you just learn so much about yourself and what you’re capable of.”
The cutoff for state meet is tough so Assaf has her sights on Catrionna Bruce’s 2014 school record of 59.41 in the 100 fly. Assaf’s career best is 1:02.9.
Although her varsity swim career will be over in a couple of weeks, Assaf plans to pursue club swimming while attending Ohio State, where she plans to major in nursing.
“I’m just proud that I was just able to challenge myself in that way,” Assaf said. “It can be very satisfying when you take a hold of something and say, ‘I’m going to do everything I can with it, I’m going to get everything I can with it.’ This year has been painful at times with the workouts, but it’s been very satisfying.”