Strange One-in-a-Million Friendship
Oswego swimming stars share common backgrounds
The similarities between Karolina Wartalowicz and Nicole Ligeza are almost endless.
The two seniors on the Oswego Co-op girls swimming and diving team were both born in Chicago, and they both have parents who were born in Poland. They both attend Oswego East. Both athletes are state qualifiers who are being highly recruited by Division I programs across the country, and they will leave the high school as the fastest swimmers to come out of the program.
Oswego coach Deryl Leubner needed a moment to think if there were any major differences between the two.
"Karolina is taller," he said. "They are two of the hardest working kids on the team. Karolina is more serious -- not that Nicole isn't -- we are splitting hairs here -- but they are both very dedicated athletes and very similar people. You normally don't see one without the other. They are always side by side."
Ligeza also paused to think of any differences between her and her best friend.
"We do a lot of the same things together," she said. "Karolina is technically good in the breaststroke. She focuses on one part of her swimming, and I try to focus on everything."
Wartalowicz focused on similarities away from swimming.
"We deal with the same problems and issues," she said. "We are both bubbly and like the same music."
Their friendship began in the summer before seventh grade in 2004, when the girls discovered they were neighbors while both swimming in the local pool. What were the chances both of them having a love for the water, living in the same neighborhood in the same town and parents born in Poland?
"I'm sure it's more than one in a million," Ligeza said.
Leubner's first time meeting Ligeza was when she introduced herself after a meet when she was in eighth grade. His first time meeting Wartalowicz was the first day of practice freshman year. Wartalowicz and Ligeza both had no problem making the varsity as freshmen.
Right away, the two made a difference. Wartalowicz was a state qualifier on a relay team and Ligeza in the 200 IM.
As sophomores, Wartalowicz placed fifth in the 100-yard breaststroke (1 minute, 5.86 seconds) in front of Ligeza's sixth-place time of 1:07.43. Ligeza also was fifth in the 200 individual medley.
As juniors, the duo made another appearance at the state meet. Wartalowicz placed third in the 100 breaststroke (1:03.87) and Ligeza sixth (1:06.87). Ligeza also finished eighth in the IM. They helped the Oswego squad finish in the top 16 in the state.
"They both have had tremendous success," Leubner said. "I can count on them to win any event in any meet. We need them to be team-first people."
Because of the success Ligeza and Wartalowicz have had, one tends to wonder how competitive they are with each other. Is there any sort of rivalry?
Well, yes and no.
Ligeza said they make sure they keep it at a level that will not hurt their friendship, and Wartalowicz said it depends on the day and who wants it more.
"They definitely have a rivalry," Leubner said. "Neither is going to back down to the other. Both understand the big picture of swimming -- not just high school -- but moving on to the next level. They know there is room at the top for everybody."
In the end, all their similarities may lead them in different directions in college. Both are being recruited by many Division I programs, but they want to make sure they don't attend the same one.
Wartalowicz's list includes Indiana, Penn State, Ohio State, Arizona State and Louisville. Ligeza's includes Illinois as well, along with South Carolina and Utah.
"Nicole is my best friend, but we don't want to end up at the same place," Wartalowicz said. "It's better for us, but we will always remain close."
"We made sure we weren't looking at the same schools," Ligeza said. "We have such a great relationship, but we want to meet new people. We'll always keep the same relationship."